Monday, August 9, 2010

* My Lie or Mi Lai?

Mr. James Wright, President Emeritus
Dartmouth College

Dear Mr. Wright:

      I just viewed on our  local public access Channel 10 your interview on Conversations with History by a Berkeley announcer the day after you delivered your Jefferson Lecture (which I have not read) .
      I was struck by your puzzlement over why Viet Nam veterans were treated poorly on their return to America. Shunned might be a better word, or, more accurately, ignored.
     They were simply absorbed back into society invisibly, with no fanfare, given no preferential treatment, no honorable mentions.
     I was struck too in your interview by several common threads in our backgrounds: I am 65, grew up ten miles from Yale, was the first to finish college in my family. My grandmother lived two blocks from Yale in a New Haven ghetto apartment, a third floor walk-up with no hot water.
     Unlike you, I did not enter the service. I went to school - - -and then the Draft ended.
     This summer I received a copy of a paper from my home town, Hamden, Connecticut, The Hamden Almanac. Inside was a close-up photo of Hamden's Veteran's Memorial, a huge bronzed wall of names in an outdoor setting.
     The close-up photograph showed six names in alphabetical order: Two of them were brothers who grew up five houses from me and were the my age and my brother's age. They both had been killed, apparently in Viet Nam. They had been dead for decades and I only discovered it , accidentally, when that close-up photograph randomly focused on their names on that plaque.
     My first reaction was survivor's guilt: that could have been my brother and myself.
     My second reaction was cultural guilt: Those kids weren't raised to see college as affordable or as an option, and so the service was their fate.
     My third reaction was disgust at the elitism of my high school which divided kids into college-bound and non-college bound, a fateful division for Eddie and Bobby H--------- (You can read my post on this on my blog at )
     And so I am mystified at your puzzlement over the invisibility of veterans when they returned from the war.
     You suggested that it went further than invisibility, that "we blamed the soldiers for the war."

     I think it's slightly different.

     We blamed the soldiers for shattering our fantasy, fed by propaganda, that America is right, that war is noble, that THIS particular war was necessary, and that our soldiers behaved properly. That shattering forced us to THINK about war, and about atrocities, and about minor matters (which I thought you trivialized) such as the Tonkin Gulf Resolution, a pretext for war, and the absence of any declaration of war since WW II.
     Those returning veterans were a mirror of our own denial about the true nature of American politics, egalitarianism, patriotism, and warrior nobility.       
     How could we do anything but look away from them when they returned, lest we have to confront our true selves?
     On yesterday's ABC This Week, a clip of an American soldier fighting in our current war was shown . In the clip the soldier said "the high you get from killing is better than any drug."


Paul D. Keane
M.A., M.Div., M. Ed.

On May 4, 1970 I was a graduate student at Kent State University and witnessed the shootings. I was struck by how no one --including my own parents --wanted to talk about the shootings after they occurred. It was the same "invisibility phenomenon", the same denial, which greeted Viet Nam veterans returning home. In fact, Kent State was the first homeland massacre of the Viet Nam War, a battle transported home 7,000 miles to Ohio for us to see firsthand, never acknowledged as such.



Thank you Mr. Wright for your kind reply.

I thought what was trivialized was the fact that no wars had been officially declared since WW II.

It seemed the way you expressed this was a bit euphemistic, almost to suggest it was a minor matter. In my opinion it is a crime to send soldiers to their deaths without an Official Declaration of War.

Yes you seemed puzzled that we "blamed" the soldiers for the war, but my point was that "blame" was simply a mask for our denial. We couldn't face our own complicity-by-silence in the atrocities of the Vietnamese and the slaughter of our own soldiers, just as we had to deny that we killed our own
children at Kent State at the hands of uniformed soldiers who were acting out society's (my parents' generation's) anger at long haired anti-establishment protestors.

I enjoyed your interview and especially enjoyed learning about your humble origins.


Paul Keane

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