Op-Eds by Jim

The Invisible Vietnam Veteran

August 4, 1976
by James H. Webb, The Washington Post

From an address in acceptance of the 1976 Outstanding Veteran award from the Vietnam Veterans Civic Council.

The most important part of an award such as this is its symbolic value as notice to the community. I don’t need to elaborate in front of this assemblage about how incredibly difficult it has been for the Vietnam Veteran. His anonymity and lack of positive feedback about himself and his fellow veterans have intensified all the other difficulties he has faced. Including those shared by non-veterans. With the exception of a few well publicized disaster stories he is invisible.

To my mind, the roots of this problem go back 10 and 11 years when the veteran suffered the irony of having people, who directly opposed both his views and his acts, become accepted as his spokesmen, in the name of the generation gap, since he and they were from the same age group. But it’s obvious that it wasn’t age that separated views on Vietnam, and especially on what to do about it: It was culture. And the cultures that fought Vietnam have traditionally lacked access to the media and power centers of this country. As a result, their views have gone unheard and it has been presumed that, on the whole, “youth” embraced the views of the antiwar faction.

The lack of positive feedback persists. A Vietnam Veteran looks for success stories within his own age group and finds that, by and large, they belong to people from one of two sub groups. Either the person managed to avoid the war altogether, with no stigma for doing so, and was able to devote full time to his field without the interruption of being in the service; or he actively opposed the war and has now converted his anti-war activities into credential – much as the veteran of World War II did with his campaign ribbons.

The anonymity persists. I recall my most frustrating moment as a Vietnam Veteran. The day after Saigon fell and it was finally over, a local newspaper ran what was tantamount to a special edition on, “What Vietnam Did to America.” On the front page were two human-interest stories. One detailed the frustrations of a draft resister. The other was about a person who had quit his civil service job because he had “lost faith” in the American system of government, and then sadly, had to become a lawyer. The center of the front section had two full pages of interviews – at least 50 of them – with people from across the entire spectrum of American cultures.

With one exception. There was not one interview with a Vietnam Veteran.

It was as if he had ceased to exist along with the government of South Vietnam or perhaps was merely considered irrelevant in determining the effect on the rest of society of the very issue that had touched him the most directly and intensely.

And the whole notion of invisibility persists in other forms as well. We read repeated editorials and articles urging amnesty for the ones who fled. I realize that there is much room for differences of opinion on this issue, even among veterans. But no matter what a Vietnam veteran’s position on the amnesty issue, he cannot help but feel the knife twist every time he reads articles that elevates the ones who fled, collectively, to the level of prophets and moral purists. The phrase that sticks in my mind, used quite often, is that they “obeyed a higher law that of their own consciences, and fled.”

The unwritten implication, again and again, is that the Vietnam Veteran, who merely obeyed the “lower law, that of his country, did so out immorality or lack of conscience. Or, to be blunt: We seem to have reached the anomaly where the very institution, and the same newspapers, who only a few years ago called for us to bleed, have now decided that we should be ashamed of our scars.

Well, I’m not ashamed of mine. And I will always believe that the individual who agonized over the incredibly complex moral and political issues of Vietnam, and then went there, displayed an equal level of conscience, and a hell of a lot more maturity than his counterpart who fled. To go required an acceptance, sometimes conscious and sometimes visceral, of the premise that he was living in a nation of laws and not specially privileged people. It also required a sublimation of self to what, at least then, was perceived to be in the public good. The person who fled, no matter how great his agonizings, finally decided the issue in his own self interest. If he had been a true moral purist he would have gone to jail for his beliefs.

The Vietnam veteran has a lot to be proud of. If the anti-war elements in this country had opposed the war with the same maturity and patience that he displayed in fighting it, perhaps 10,000 more of his contemporaries might be alive today. People being what they are and emotions what they are, Vietnam would have been a less volatile issue and the war would have ended sooner.

I earnestly hope that awards such as this will encourage the community to accord the Vietnam veteran with dignity and respect. He has always deserved it.