Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Monkey Wrench Gang -Vietnam War Vets in context

How often, recently, have you been on a flight, and the captain announces there are members of the military on board, and the entire plane breaks out in applause and cheers? Today we respect and appreciate our soldiers.

It's hard to remember now - that was not the reception that Vietnam War vets received, during or after the war.
Back home, no one wanted to hear what you'd been through. If people saw you in uniform they might spit, call you a murderer, or -- most painfully -- ask why you were stupid enough to go. And if you'd been seriously wounded and were lucky enough to return with only a leg or an arm missing, someone might come up and say, "Serve you right."
The Vietnam Veterans Memorial - To Heal a Nation, page 11
Doug Peacock (on whom the character Hayduke is based) says "As senior medic on the Bato A-team, I pieced together Montagnard children who had been caught in the crossfile until I began to lose my mind. Standing in the monsoon rain, holding a dead, gunshot baby, I cursed God....The day I packed my bags for home, March 16, 1968, American soldiers ruthlessly murdered at least 508 Vietnamese civilians 40 miles north of us, in a place called My Lai.' (Douglas Peacock, Walking it Off, page 26)

Clearly these were not the soldiers we expect to see now. The war they were fighting was despised. The soldiers were damaged in their own eyes. They were suspect in the eyes of the public:
I was doing an interview on an entirely different subject during a press conference and a reporter asked me about my background. I mentioned that I was a military veteran of the Vietnam conflicy and he immediately interrupted - - Did you kill any people or participate in any assassination groups? I replied No, I hadn't. But the distressing thing was I found myself going on the defensive immediately.... It seems a veteran who served in the military in Vietnam is constantly on the defensive. Many of them have told me they simply say they weren't involved in combat.
Quote from freshman Senator Larry Pressler of South Dakota in 1975 (the first Vietnam War vet to serve in the Senate). The Vietnam Veterans Memorial - To Heal a Nation, page 34
The attitude toward Vietnam vets didn't really change until the dedication of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, in November 1982.

To put that in perspective, the Iranian hostages were released in January 1981.
On the television, in the papers, every time one turned the dial on a radio, there was some new piece of thanks to the hostages for having sat out 444 days of their lives," James Webb wrote in the Washington Post. "Free baseball tickets forever - - good seats. Free trips to Florida. Here is a hostage calling home. There is a hostage jogging. Here is a congressman proposing special benefits, gold medallions. Gold medallions? Parades. yes, real motorcar parades.... Honest... none of us [Vietnam vets] really had the audacity to expect we might get free baseball tickets when we got back. But at least you could have noticed that we went."
The Vietnam Veterans Memorial - To Heal a Nation, page 56
Almost two years later, November 1982 when the Vietnam Veterans Memorial was dedicated, it was as if we suddenly remembered all those people who'd fought. And suddenly we appreciated them.
About 15,000 Vietnam vets gathered for an old-fashioned parade down Constitution Avenue to the Memorial. There were color guards, a colonial fife and drum corps, grand marshals, floats, cadets from the military academies, and soldiers, sailors, and Marines in dress uniform. Wind made the flags snap loudly.
At places along the parade route spectators stood three and four deep; many were waving American flags, applauding, reaching out to shake hands, and shouting, "Welcome home," "Thank you" and "We love you." Some wore old antiwar buttons. Others held children up so they could see. "I'm Proud My Daddy's a Vietnam Vet," said one placard.
The Vietnam Veterans Memorial - To Heal a Nation, page 149
But this was ten years after Monkey Wrench Gang was written, and 14 years after "Hayduke" came back from Vietnam. Hayduke was not a happy or respected veteran.

Have you been to The Wall? Found a name? Cried?

The Homecoming: When the soldiers returned from Vietnam
Bob Greene

Offerings at the Wall
Thomas B. Allen

Home to War
Gerald Nicosia

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