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Jewish World Review May 1, 2000 /26 Nissan, 5760

Mona Charen

Mona Charen
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Vietnam Warriors: Do we really know them? --
THE ANNIVERSARY of the fall of Saigon occasions memories of one of the most cringe-inducing photographs in American history -- that of an American helicopter abandoning our embassy in South Vietnam. The anniversary of that terrible betrayal seems an opportune time to set the record straight on a few things.

Attempting to correct the myths in general circulation about the Vietnam War is like trying to correct the lies told by Bill Clinton in just the past six months -- a Herculean task. A small sample of the myths associated with that war would include the notions that: 1) the Vietcong were an indigenous movement without connections to the North Vietnamese; 2) most young Americans opposed the war; 3) the Tet offensive was a military victory for the communists; and 4) America sent a draftee Army, consisting disproportionately of poor and black men, to fight this unpopular war.

In point of fact, after the war's end the Vietcong were folded into the North Vietnamese Army, to whom they had been linked from the beginning. Most young Americans supported the war, never attended a demonstration or shut down a university, and voted for Nixon (but not the ones who grew up to run television networks, edit newspapers or make "historical" movies). The Tet offensive was a military setback for the communists, but a propaganda victory.

As for the American soldiers who fought that no-win war (no-win because the policy-makers in Washington were not fighting to win), we have information from the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund as well as the book "Stolen Valor" by B.G. Burkett that puts the lie to a great many myths concerning them.

In the first place, if you want to find a mostly draftee army, look at World War II. Sixty-six percent of armed forces members were drafted in the Second World War, compared with 25 percent in Vietnam.

As for ethnic background, 88.4 percent of those who served in Vietnam were Caucasian. A little more than 10 percent were black About 1 percent belonged to other races. Of those who gave their lives, 86.3 percent were Caucasians (including Hispanics), 12.5 percent were blacks and 1.2 percent were other races. Seventy percent of the enlisted men killed were of northwest European descent. Of those killed as a result of hostile action, 86.8 percent were Caucasian; 12.1 percent were black; and 1.1 percent were of other races.

Of those who died in Vietnam, 64.4 percent were Protestants, 28.9 percent were Catholics and 6.7 percent were other religions (or no religion).

Were Vietnam vets drawn disproportionately from the ne'er do well set? Not at all. Seventy-six percent were from lower-middle and working-class backgrounds. Three-quarters had family incomes above the poverty level, and 50 percent were from middle-class families. Nearly a quarter of those who served had fathers in professional, managerial or technical occupations.

Ninety-seven percent of Vietnam-era vets were honorably discharged.

Ninety-one percent of Vietnam War veterans (including those who saw heavy combat) are proud to have served their country, and 66 percent say they would serve again if called upon.

We have created a notion that American soldiers committed greater numbers of atrocities in Vietnam than in other wars. But My Lai appears to have been an aberration, not a commonplace occurrence. On the other hand, the wounds suffered in combat by Americans were worse than those experienced in earlier conflicts. Amputation or crippling wounds to the lower extremities were 300 percent higher in Vietnam than in World War II and 70 percent higher than in Korea.

As Burkett notes in his book, about 10,000 Americans fled to Canada to avoid service in Vietnam. What is less well known is that 30,000 Canadians joined U.S. forces to serve in Vietnam.

Burkett further found that bogus Vietnam veterans appear to be everywhere.

The typical Vietnam vet is not the dysfunctional, bitter, psychological mess immortalized in a dozen movies and television shows. Instead, Burkett estimates that there are thousands of petty thieves and mentally deranged people claiming falsely to have served in Vietnam.

Those who help to mold our national self-image have often used Vietnam to undermine our sense of righteousness. But to do so, they have had to distort the truth.

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© 2000, Creators Syndicate