"By God, we've kicked the Vietnam syndrome once and for all!" exulted President George H. W. Bush after America's swift and smashing victory over Iraq during the Gulf War of 1991. It was a reference to how deeply the debacle that was Vietnam — then some 16 years in the past — had scarred the American psyche.
Vietnam had, by all accounts, also scarred the veterans who served in it. Everyone "knew" that Vietnam veterans were drug-addicted, alcohol-addled losers who killed babies when they weren't burning down villages with Zippo lighters. Back home, they begged for change on the streets when they weren't beating up their wives and kids.
That's what journalists and politicians told us, anyway. What apparently escaped their notice, when they were celebrating the routing of Saddam and the liberation of Kuwait, was that many of the soldiers who brilliantly executed these victories were . . . Vietnam veterans.
Tens of thousands of veterans stayed in the military once the Vietnam War ended, moved up the ranks and, by the time Desert Storm came along, they were serving as senior officers. Among them were Norman Schwarzkopf, Colin Powell, Barry McCaffrey, and Tommy Franks — men who had learned well the lessons of Vietnam: 1. Get the American people behind you; 2. Smash the enemy before he has a chance to finish breakfast.
Which is what our soldiers did, with very few Coalition casualties. Nice work for a bunch of losers, huh?
When I recently stumbled across the fact that Vietnam veterans had fought and won the Gulf War, I wondered if they were also fighting the war on Islamofascism. For answers (albeit completely unscientific), I sent questions to the editors of blog sites popular with soldiers on active duty in Afghanistan and Iraq, and their families (including Blackfire). The editors were kind enough to post my questions. Within hours, e-mails began pouring in from around the world, from teenagers to retirees, from corporals to colonels. It quickly became apparent that Vietnam veterans are not fighting this war: Their sons are.
The Pentagon doesn't ask new recruits if their fathers served in Vietnam, so there is no official tally. But my informal poll reveals that — despite the contempt expressed by so many Americans towards their fathers' service and sacrifice, many of the sons of Vietnam veterans have eagerly stepped up to fight the war on terror. The fathers and sons who contacted me permitted me to quote from their e-mails, which reveal their views of both wars, how they were treated when they came home, and what they thought about media portrayals of each war. Most of all, the letters reveal the deep admiration Vietnam fathers have for their soldier sons — and the degree to which Vietnam veterans inspired their offspring to serve.
Charles Howard, 38, joined the National Guard when he was a 17-year-old high-school student in 1983, and has served as a regular Army infantry officer for 16 years. He arrived in Iraq in September of 2004, and fought in Fallujah, Mosul, and Baghdad. Howard's father was a Naval aviator who remained in the Navy for a time after his Vietnam tour. Despite the way the soldiers of his father's generation were treated, Howard had no qualms about a military career, but he did have misgivings about how he would be treated when he came home from Iraq. "I watched the protests on C-SPAN before I left, and read about the others later," he wrote. When Howard did return home, to Dallas Airport, "There were lines of volunteers clapping and cheering us as we came in for mid-tour leave. Ordinary citizens, all ages, all races, many with no apparent connection to the military, thanking us for our service, handing us goody bags, and offering cell phones for us to use to call home. I have a sneaking suspicion that Dad's generation had a part of ensuring that we would get a better reception than they did."
Regarding his father's Vietnam service, Howard wrote: "I'm proud he was a part of it. The strategic reason for Vietnam was (to steal from Reagan) a noble cause. Our troops were there to bring freedom and prevent the usual excesses of Communism, which we saw, after America abandoned our Vietnamese allies, in the killing fields of Cambodia, and the re-education camps of Vietnam."