There is a bridge that links World War II Veterans with those that served in the Gulf War and the recent conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. In the abyss, are those that served in both the Korean and Vietnam War. All served our country, but Americans view the two groups very differently.
Those that served in World War II are called the “Greatest Generation” and have always been adored by Americans. When they arrived home, they were the toast of their communities and were given a Hero’s Welcome. So many of us can recall the pictures and films we have seen of veterans marching in homecoming parades filled with loud cheering approval and confetti blanketing the sky. These men and women rightly deserved this show of affection by a grateful country, for they did indeed save both America and the world at large, from utter destruction.
For those who fought in Korea and Vietnam, there was no homecoming, and their service to our country was ignored and at times, dehumanized. In contrast, at the end of the 1991 Gulf War, Americans celebrated jubilantly and the cheers, parades and confetti rained down again. This time our soldiers, sailors and airmen were called heroes. What a contrast compared to the way returning servicemen were treated after returning from Vietnam. Some were called “baby killers” and some people even had the audacity to spit at them. Why the two different responses?
Coming right after the heels of World War II, the Korean War was unpopular and misunderstood on the home front. Americans had lost so many young men that they were sick of war. In addition, it became unclear why the United States should involve themselves in a political war between North and South Korea.
When the armistice was ultimately reached in 1953, we could neither claim victory nor defeat. The war “ended” with a Korea exactly geographically divided as when the war began. Since nothing changed, both the conflict and the valor of those that served in it, receded from the American memory. It will be forever known as the “Forgotten War.”
Vietnam, on the contrary, was a war that became seared into the nation’s memory. Our intervention in Southeast Asia had haunted the military, political leaders and our foreign policy since the fall of Saigon. For example, at the conclusion of the Gulf War, the media often asked Senior Military leaders if the ghosts of Vietnam were gone. With the passage of time, even one of its main architects and strongest supporters, then Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, has anguished over his role in it.
Our involvement in Vietnam, both then and now, has been hotly debated. Many years later, the majority of Americans believe we never should have intervened in another political war. However, no one can deny that the troops returning from that conflict were never given the proper thanks and respect that serving in our armed forces unquestionably deserves.
Most of the venom stemmed from the misconception that our soldiers killed more innocent civilians than Viet Cong, as if Lieutenant Calley’s cold, brutal massacre at My Lai was the norm, rather than the exception. Lest we never want to believe or admit, that even in World War II, civilians were raped and killed by American Servicemen.
In addition, Vietnam Veterans, for far too long, have been unfavorably stigmatized as drug addicted, mentally ill, and a danger to the public. Their reputations smeared as they have been portrayed in both books and films as psychotic killers who are unemployable and end up homeless. An unpopular war produced, at least in the imagination, crazed veterans who should be despised, rather than held in high esteem for their willingness to die for their country.
In the 21st Century, America has decided it is now honorable to serve in the military and we call our veterans heroes again, as we should. However, the fact that we are actively preventing another 9/11 definitely places men and women returning from service in Afghanistan in a positive light. As I look back over the last sixty years, I regrettably conclude that America’s opinions of Veterans have been reached on whether or not the battles they fight are honorable and just.
This Veterans Day, I would like to say a heartfelt “Thank You” to all men and women who have ever served this great nation but especially those who fought in Korea and Vietnam.