Different wars, different reactions

Despite unpopularity of Iraq conflict, Americans respect our soldiers - & now even Vietnam vets


NEIL GUSSMAN served in the Army National Guard at the tail end of the Vietnam era. He still vividly remembers the open hostility that many Americans felt towards men in a uniform, even if they hadn't fought in Southeast Asia.

In 1973, Gussman - who today works in Center City for the Chemical Heritage Foundation - was injured during a missile test on a base in Utah, and, still bandaged up, he was walking through an airport on the way home when a passerby muttered "baby-killer."

A generation later, the United States is waging new wars, in Afghanistan and Iraq, and Gussman decided just this summer to re-enlist in the Guard. On his way home from a drill, still in uniform, he walked into a Starbucks, and this time a man ahead of him in line thanked him for his military service, and even bought him a cup of coffee.

"It's a different world being a soldier in 2007 than it was in 1972," Gussman said in an e-mail interview.

Looking back on America's experience in Vietnam nearly four decades later, it seems clear that the bloody conflict, which claimed more than 58,000 U.S. lives over there and split society in two at home, caused multiple wounds to the American psyche.

Those deep scars have not healed evenly. The shift in the nation's perception of both Vietnam veterans and today's military men and women has been nothing short of remarkable - a turnaround that has been widely celebrated in popular culture and yet again this past weekend, at the 20th anniversary of the Philadelphia Vietnam Veterans Memorial.

But most of the other wounds still fester - a dramatic reminder of how Vietnam led to deep and ongoing divisions about America's role in the world, and how the deeper societal rift would flow from the Vietnam War into a so-called "culture war" and the increasingly contentious divide between a conservative "Red America" and a liberal "Blue America."

Even in 2007, Vietnam, and the tumult of the 1960s, has a knack for injecting itself into the presidential race. Republican candidate and Arizona Sen. John McCain, a downed pilot and Vietnam POW for seven years, is running an ad attacking Democratic Sen. Hillary Clinton for urging $1 million for a Woodstock Museum, on the site of the legendary 1969 music festival laced with antiwar rhetoric. At a recent debate, McCain joked that he wasn't able to attend Woodstock because "I was tied up at the time."

Indeed, instead of fading into the past, Vietnam has gained new prominence as a reference point in the American political debate. Some of that is generational - as the aging baby boomers who fought in, avoided service in, or protested against the war in the 1960s and '70s have now taken center stage in national politics.

But the main driver is clearly the increasingly bogged-down war in Iraq, triggering a whole host of arguments about not only whether we've learned "the lessons of Vietnam," but also over what that lesson actually was. Did Vietnam teach America not to get involved in a war like Iraq in the first place, or to stay until the mission is completed? Some of the most deeply conflicted about this are Vietnam veterans themselves.

"The danger with all of this," said Vietnam veteran Terry Williamson, who worked with former Philiadelphia District Attorney Ron Castille to create the memorial here and who remains its chief fundraiser, "is that the rest if the world recognizes that America has a soft spot for any sort of sustained conflict."

But like many who served in Vietnam, Williamson's views on that war, on Iraq, and on the ongoing divisions aren't easy to pigeonhole. In 2004, Williamson - long active in Republican politics - wrote an op-ed piece defending Democratic presidential candidate Sen. John Kerry against the attacks on his Vietnam record from the Swift Boat Veterans for the Truth.

Many other Vietnam veterans were dismayed at the rush to war in Iraq, especially since most of the architects of the war strategy - including President Bush - were baby boomers who avoided combat during the Vietnam era.

"I think our real name ought to be the 'Amnesia Nation,' " said Vietnam veteran Philip D. Beidler, a University of Alabama English professor who has written extensively about his own experiences and Vietnam's lasting legacy, most recently in the book "American Wars, American Peace: Notes from a Son of the Empire."

Beidler said that in an earlier book, he predicted many of the problems with the Iraq war, including the lack of a clear-cut objective - similar to the Vietnam war - compounded by the failure to find any weapons of mass destruction, the reason for going to war in the first place.

What's so ironic is that while the debate over Iraq is every bit as contentious as the nation's division over Vietnam, the one area that sparks no disagreement is the public's view of the soldiers fighting the war. Even the most vehemently antiwar Web sites, for example, typically contain messages of support for the men and women who are serving in it. Criticism of rank-and-file troops - despite scandals like the alleged mistreatment of Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib - is almost unheard of.

The reasons for that turnaround in perception are complicated. Certainly, the seeds for change were planted during the 1980s, up to and including the October 1987 dedication of the Philadelphia Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Penn's Landing where the 20th anniversary was marked this weekend.

Philadelphia - true, perhaps, to its blue-collar roots during the 1960s and '70s - lost a disproportionately large number of men in Vietnam, 646 of them. The city boasts the dubious distinction of both the public and parochial high schools that lost the most alumni in the war - North Philadelphia's Edison High, with 66, and Father Judge and Cardinal Dougherty, with 27 each.

One Edison alum, class of '61, who made it home - in spite of some brutal frontline combat action at Trung Luong in Vietnam's Central Highlands in June 1966 that earned him a Bronze Star and claimed 31 of his comrades - was Tony Burgee.

Now 64, the father of three and a successful bookstore owner in North Philadelphia, Burgee's initial reaction upon returning home was a desire to forget everything that happened.

"It was a funny feeling, but once you had survived that . . . I had more important issues," said Burgee, who goes by his nickname of "Kofie."

Still, as his children grew, Burgee eventually found himself drawn back to Vietnam-veteran causes, and he led a push for a memorial to the war casualties at Edison. His greatest monument to the school, however, is a living one: He works with students there to keep them away from street violence and drugs.

Burgee is just one of a number of Vietnam veterans who have done work in the community since returning home. Another is James McClafferty, who lives today in Havertown but who in 1966 was depicted in an iconic Associated Press photo of the war, operating his heavy machine gun (see Page V-5).

A week after the photo, McClafferty was shot in the shoulder during combat in the Mekong Delta. He returned home to work here as a postman, but he has also volunteered with Philadelphia's Vietnam Multi-Service and Education Center, which aids troubled vets on problems that include homelessness, drug abuse and post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD.

"A lot of people are messed up, and these people are helping them out," McClafferty said of the center.

The work of many Vietnam veterans in the community and better public understanding of the problems that their military comrades faced were just two of the reasons that a sea change in the perception of the returned troops took place over the course of the 1980s. That shift was reflected both in the popular culture - from the popular "Rambo" movies to Bruce Springsteen's more understated anthem "Born in the U.S.A." - and in political recognition, including the war memorials in D.C., here and elsewhere.

Michael Flamm, a history professor who teaches on Vietnam and American society at Ohio Wesleyan University, said that in the late 1970s the image of the Vietnam veteran was that of a deranged character like the would-be assassin in the movie "Taxi Driver," but that was largely reversed during the Reagan years.

"In the 1980s presidential campaign, [Ronald] Reagan made it a point to describe the Vietnam War as a noble cause and stress that its veterans had performed nobly, and been mistreated by the media and the political system," Flamm said.

That point of view took hold - and while even today there is still fierce disagreement about what happened in Vietnam, about why America was even fighting there in the first place, as well as whether the war, which ended with the fall of Saigon in 1975, could have somehow been won - there is widespread support for the veterans.

Still, former soldiers and academics alike are slightly bemused when they listen to the current debate over our lingering presence in Iraq and the ways that the most passionate proponents of the war and antiwar activists seem to seek to outdo each other in supporting the current troops.

Why? Many sense that the differing perceptions of the military has something to do with the evolution from a military in the 1960s composed heavily of draftees to today's all-volunteer army. That system has created what many see as an inherent inequity - relying heavily on immigrant and working-class communities, while some affluent suburbs have few sons or daughters in Iraq. For those who've volunteered, there is gratitude, and perhaps some guilt as well.

"We have a small group of men - and now women - who are serving in harm's way and bearing the load," said Philadelphian Williamson. He noted that compared with the 646 city residents who were killed in Vietnam, only 13 Philadelphians so far have died in Iraq. The lower casualty counts and the lack of a military draft has made the conflict less personal for many, and that in turn may make an abstract sympathy for the troops easier to express.

Still, the gut feeling among most veterans is that today's positive feelings about soldiers in Iraq flows directly from the bad vibes of the 1970s.

"I honestly feel that most people - at least those that have memory back to Vietnam - do agree the way the veterans were treated when they came home was shoddy," said Ronald Naples, a Vietnam veteran who has been a leading supporter of the memorial here and is also the chief executive officer of Quaker Chemicals in Montgomery County.

In that sense, the dedication of the Philadelphia Vietnam Veterans Memorial 20 years ago this week was indeed a turning point - a turning point in a story whose final chapter still seems far from being written. *