Paul Fussell, World War II veteran, author of The Great War in Modern Memory.
Bob Healy, Former Executive Editor and Washington Bureau Chief, the Boston Globe.
Greg Schleive, Vietnam War veteran.
Bill Hochman, Professor of American History, Colorado College.
David Harris, anti-Vietnam war activist and author ofOur War: What We Did in Vietnam and What It Did to Us.
Interviewed June 19, 1996.
To me the issue is how these two horrors were formative experiences for
these two guys, and what kind of characters came out of it. I certainly think
that Dole came out of it much more prepared to take risks than Bill Clinton. I
think he's a man who has experience taking risks and making sacrifices, and
understands taking losses which Clinton does not because when the opportunity
arose for him to take that step, he did not take it. That will haunt Clinton I
think forever as a politician because that moxy that you grow by simply going
into a tough situation standing on one side or the other and taking the
consequences is not something that he has experienced.
On the other side, I think that Dole suffers from not having the moral
perspective that Bill Clinton has brought to his war experience. Dole went in
accepting and came out accepting and gained no larger perspective at least that
we can see that he's shared with us about the larger society and the ends of
that larger society. Where Bill Clinton I think was involved in a genuine
process of moral examination and a personal examination that I think has
acquainted him with the larger issues that operate in a society in a way that
Dole has no grasp of. And that Clinton does know what people go through
because he went through it as a person even though he doesn't credit it nearly
enough as far as I'm concerned. I think Dole loses on that question.
It's hard to know with Dole because he is a quiet, lonely person what he
really thinks, but one sense is that he really learned something from his own
injury. He's pretty sympathetic with the disabled, he was author after all of
the Americans for Disabilities Act. Although he calls himself a conservative
Republican, you can find his votes on a lot of liberal measures, including
affirmative action where he was in some way reaching out to people who have
been less successful or hurt in some way. So I think his experience of being
wounded actually softened him and made him if you will more moral and more
caring. He's often seen as more dry and cold, but he does have this streak of
wanting to reach out to the oppressed. It's not always pronounced, but it's
I think also there's a bum rap on Dole for things like the Vietnam War
and things like Hiroshima. I think any of us that served in the Second World
War, appreciate the fact that things might have been done differently. I had
no problems with it at all when the bomb was dropped, because I was probably
like yourselves who would have ended up in Japan and I had no stomach for it at
that time after finishing my missions in Germany. But I do think there has
been a lot of thought about that. I also think that people like Dole have been
troubled greatly by Vietnam. I don't think that anybody who supported the war
initially with half a brain now thinks that it was a great effort.
I would feel better were he to share with us exactly what his thinking
has been. I think the whole country needs to share speaking about this. If
one of the issues of choosing the President is who do you trust with the lives
of your children, which is what I'm talking about in the next one, I want to
find out what they have learned from what they have been through about what it
means to sacrifice troops and/or to be sacrificed. I want to know even if
it's Dole who has the experience of that, the fact that he has not shared it
makes me less willing to trust him with it than with Clinton who at least is
locatable in terms of what his experience and what his perspective is that he
brings out of that.
But would you swap that off for a Clinton who caves into the military as
he did on Bosnia and Somalia?
I think we have no choice but to swap it off if we're going to swap.
If you look at Clinton's views about the Vietnam War, and once again, if
he relates it to the idea of is a moral or a right war to fight, that that's
not so different from his position on Bosnia. That is to say, that there are
certain ideas about when the use of military force is justified. The very same
kind of thinking that lead him to reject the war in Vietnam would lead him
perhaps to think that somebody needs to do something about the dreadful things
that were going on in Bosnia. Or the politics of rescue as it is sometimes
thousands of people are being taken out in batches and shot in the dreadful
civil war. So in my view, the Clinton thinking about Vietnam, which led him to
reject Vietnam as meaningless in terms of why it was fought, and also dreadful
in the way it was fought, are the same kinds of thinking that led him to take a
different position with reference to intervention in other parts of the world.
Because he was so lacking confidence in dealing with the military. The
military because of Vietnam and because Colin Powell is deeply reluctant to get
in any shooting match if he can possibly avoid it, they wanted nothing to do
with Bosnia. And one reason why Clinton waited so long to throw in his stake
on Bosnia, is because the Pentagon was dead set against it.
And inside Somalia, they wanted him stay longer there to clean up the
gangs, and it was the military that just put their foot down and said get out,
and he got out. We're not talking about whether Clinton's careful, I think he
is careful, and I think that's a good product of his Vietnam position. The
problem I have is he going along with the military just for the sake of going
along with the military.
Well look at the facts at how it happened. He was dragged into it
reluctantly, he wanted to have nothing to do with it. There was a prior
agreement that said he would have to rescue all these NATO troops if it went
bad, and finally Tony Lake, his national security advisor, forced the issue.
It's as deep an issue on the other side for Dole about whether this guy
has what it takes to step outside of the standard approach, because his whole
life has been, before the war, after the war, has all been plugged into the
issue of using troops and whether he could, whether there's a point where Bob
Dole can take the issue that won't fly with Kansas patriots and go with it
because it's the right thing to do.
I'm not so sure we really know about that. I want to make a distinction
between Dole and Bush. Bush was a guy who volunteered for WWII, was happy to
be an aviator, he realized the belligerent use of force and he used it in
Panama and he used it in Desert Storm. And the Pentagon was against it, and he
was the guy who said this will not stand and committed our troops. I'm not so
sure that Dole even though he's of the same generation, would be quite so quick
to commit troupes.
The historical place where that issue was raised was Vietnam. And when
the issue of Vietnam was in front of Bob Dole, he never stepped out of traces.
Not once. He followed Richard Nixon's footsteps in the sand.
Because his ambition was such that he wanted to be Richard Nixon.
Which would you rather have as far as a President is concerned --
somebody who is willing without a great deal of difficulty to commit troops, or
somebody who with the agony of soul, hesitates, vacillates, and is cautious,
and then finally proceeds as Clinton did with Bosnia.
I always got the picture that they sent the troops because of the
humanity of the situation. People were dying there and he felt the military
could stop it. I felt that was the overriding sense that he overrode the
military's natural inclination to stay out of it and not shed American blood
over there, and he said no, there's something in one's soul, in one's humanity
that says I think there's a good chance that we can stop this bloodshed. And
that's what struck me, because I was always for sending troops into Bosnia and
it was for the same reasons I thought we should have sent troops into Vietnam.
Stop the bloodshed of Ho Chi Minh, give these people a right to try see if they
could put democracy together, you know. And I just wondered where, if you
looked at the Vietnam war, the one thing at the very end of the war was a thing
called the killing fields. And I don't know, one or two or three million died
in that by the hands of the communists. But I know it was predicted in '54,
I've read about it in about every book, and I remember I just cried because I
said to myself this genocide in Southeast Asia did not have to take place.
And I don't know if Bill Clinton said to himself we probably could have
stopped two or three million people from being killed, maybe this is a time in
my life where I can stop--I don't know how many people were killed in the
Bosnia conflict it's been two, three, four hundred thousand--but I think he saw
a chance to stop that, and I think rightly so. And I think the military is
very cautious to be in there and shed American lives.
Just for the record, remember the people who did stop the killing fields
were the people we fought against. It was the Vietnamese who invaded Cambodia
and threw out the Khmer Rouge and stopped that genocide.
You know my own experience of having served in the military and being
very cautious also, I think everybody in this room right here whether they
served in war or not, is cautious about sending troops into battle. My gut
feeling is that I would think that if Dole would err in any way would be
because he would be too cautious. I think he would not want to send troops
into his own personal experience. And he does identify with soldiers being
wounded probably in all of our society, the victims or others. I think he
would have a tendency, and that's just a gut feeling, that he would probably
keep us out of some conflicts that maybe we could probably do some good in.
The other aspect, is that if we did have to send troops in, and the Commander
in Chief sends them in, would they be more respectful of their Commander if
that person had actually gone where he was sending his men to go. That is
something that I fear for Bill Clinton, is how the troops would respond,
knowing that he is sending them into a place that he would never go himself.
Take Bosnia. Bill Clinton just said I will respond in force to anybody who
fights with our troops. And I just don't believe it. I think that if those
people get in a church and take 300 hostages and fire on one of our tanks and
destroys it, I do not think that Bill Clinton will take out the lives of 300
innocent people. I don't. I think all of a sudden reality will hit him and
he'll say uh oh, I can't do what I'm saying I'm doing, I haven't figured this
out. Maybe I've gotten myself deeper into trouble than I can get myself out
of. I think that the war experience, my gut feeling is I think if we do have
to go into another war like the Gulf, I hope we are served by somebody who has
some combat experience.
Clinton needs on the job training because he didn't have it as a young
man. It's much harder. A President has to decide sometimes whether to send
troops into battle. And if you avoided it, that's a much tougher decision to
make. In Clinton's case, he's had a term to get some on the job training as it
were. He had to make a decision in Haiti. He had the general Joint Chiefs of
Staff in the Oval Office saying Mr. President we have about 15 minutes to
decide whether we're going to send our paratroopers into Haiti. You've gotta
give an order. And Clinton said, pack em. He said load the planes and send
them. He actually put those, this was the 82nd Airborn in the air, to go and
invade Haiti. So he did make a decision. I'm sure that was a very tough
decision and a tougher decision than it probably would have been for a WWII
Veteran who had committed troopss in battle or at least been a part of war.
Having made that decision, I think it's probably going to be a little bit
easier for him in the second term. You do have this sense about Clinton that
he has grown a little bit in office, he seems a little bit more Presidential,
his salute is a little less wobbly, he seems a little more capable of standing
up to military people, or at least talking to them. But he had to learn it
from the Oval Office, he didn't have the experience of being a 21 year old
learning it as a young man.
I think my generation, which is Bill Clinton's generation, is inflicted
with a little bit of self-doubt because we never had to go to war. Or we
avoided war. There is a tentativeness, an uncertainty, a lack of commitment, a
lack of optimism that afflicts the Baby Boom generation, that by and large
avoided the Vietnam war, or went to it and many had pretty bad experiences. As
opposed to our parent's generation, Bob Dole's generation, which fought a good
war and got a sense of certainty and confidence and a belief that the United
States could win. We can win the wars that we enter, we can solve problems
that we can make life better. I don't think that my generation has that
confidence. I don't think Bill Clinton has that confidence. Now there are
some good things about this, a little bit of uncertainty can be a healthy
thing. A little bit of moral ambiguity is real life and so in some ways, I
think we've all profited from it. But it is a murkier, darker, more morally
ambiguous way of looking at the world than say my father who went to WWII, saw
combat, and had this enormous sense of relief and joy that he survived and
optimism once he got out that he could make the world a better place. I wish I
shared that same sense of certainty, I don't. And I don't think Bill Clinton
Bob Dole never had the experience of being wrong. I certainly think that
my own feelings as an American changed enormously when I was suddenly faced
with the prospect of my government being wrong. Of looking at this policy and
examining it in as many ways as I could and deciding that indeed this was
wrong. This was a crime against everything this country was supposed to be.
That experience leaves you much less sanguine, and we would be less than
ourselves if we weren't less sanguine. Ultimately, I think that our discovery
of ambiguity may be a saving grace for the country.
I think that the business of Dole and Clinton, they mirror both sides
of that question of the certainty business. It think that Dole is a product
of the same product I was. I came from a small town, I hadn't been around
much, gets out and sees a bigger world and decides that there's a bigger
mission for him in that world. Clinton I think can celebrate his lack of certainty in
many cases. I think that's a big plus. Certainly there's certain guys in the
presidency that have gotten the country in some large problems.
The war certainly had a life changing impact upon me. When I came home
I was haunted by the experience. And I wanted to make something of my life.
Perhaps to validate the fact that I'd survived for no reason except luck when
so many of my friends had not. And thus I became a teacher. And I also became
something else. I think I came out with a great reverence for life. A feel
that I wanted to be on the side of life and against death for the rest of my
life. And I hope I express that in my teaching. And in that process I came
into contact with a wonderful philosopher and teacher at Colorado College,
who wrote a book, a philosopher's meditation about experience in
battle called The Warriors. And he liked to probe this kind of experience and
we had many conversations about it together. But it's interesting that one
thing we did not experience in war, was having to deal with doubts about the
war. We went our generation of WWII generation of people went with the feeling
that we were fighting for something was worthwhile. The Japanese had attacked
us at Pearl Harbor and the Germans had done unspeakable things in Europe. I
wonder what Bob Dole came out of the war with in terms of an affect on his soul
so to speak. I know he wears a purple heart, and seems to want to let people
know about his war experience, but did it have a profound influence on him as
he looks at other human beings and the questions of life and death. Now on the
other hand, Clinton, did not experience war. On the other hand, Clinton did
not experience war, but he went through the judgmental process. That is, he
had to confront the question that Bob Dole's generation, my generation, did not
have to confront. That is he had to confront the tormented question of whether
to rebel against his country's decision to go to war on the grounds that the
war being fought was unjust. Now that seems to me to be an extraordinarily
important experience. My generation didn't have that experience. His
generation did. And thus, he comes out of that I think, with a profound
feeling of caution about the use of military force. He's not a pacifist. He
is very cautious out of the Vietnam experience about the just uses of force.
And that seems to me to be an important qualification for leadership,
particularly at this time in the post-Cold War world, when we are confronting
all kinds of new times when force should be used in order to achieve ends. And
I think that his experience of judgement, of doubt, of uncertainty, of caution
within a framework of moral thinking about the uses of force, may be a very
useful one for a leader to have.
[Re: Clinton's letter concerning his draft status] The thing that got me
about the letter, is that he didn't like the military. He didn't want to serve
in the military. He didn't want to serve his nation. I also got from the
letter that he was really plotting this thing out as how he would stay out of
the draft. You know, and I think he was saying he knew he had a political
career that he wanted to go into, and he was plotting this out with strategy.
I thought it was really interesting that right during the fall of the election,
I can't remember if it was before the elections or after, they had gotten a
bunch of his buddies together that he went to college with and they were asking
you know, gee what was going on with Bill. And they said he was panicking.
And that kind of struck me because you know, I don't know what it is, it's ten
or fifteen percent of all the people who get drafted they have a real fear of
going to war and dying and if they have a high anxiety, they are released from
service, you know, aren't fit for military service. And it struck me that I
thought to myself Bill probably could have just went and showed up for the
draft and failed the physical and never had to serve. Maybe he had even
plotted that out, but that would be a negative on his political career so--
You know the real issue in that letter is whether Bill Clinton was a
coward. It's that simple. And I think, you know, I think he had a great of
ambiguity about the war and it shows. But was he a coward because of the
positions that he took or because he couldn't take a position, I don't think he
was. I don't think he any more a coward than you and I were. You know I think
we had different missions in life. We saw it differently. And I think that's
the real issue. The real issue in the re-election of Bill Clinton is whether
all these things he did show that he's a coward and I don't think he was.
Bill Clinton was above all a survivor. He learned at a very early age
watching his step-father knock his mother around to be a survivor and how to
manipulate situations to work to his advantage. And you can see him scrambling
to manipulate a situation. And I don't mean it's totally cynical. I don't
think so. I think he was having sincere moral doubts and uncertainties. But
you can see him shucking and jiving and bobbing and weaving to try to square a
circle, to try to make a very difficult situation work out.
And how not to sacrifice his dream. I mean it's important to remember
that at the time he wrote this letter that it was a given in American politics
that if you were going to be a politician and a successful one that you at
least had to have some kind of military record that passed off as honorable.
So for him to put himself on paper saying that he disagreed with that
assumption in essence was for him a big act to take.
He says so. I mean he sure as heck couldn't go to Canada and be a
politician in Arkansas.
I find him in that letter enjoyably forthcoming, I mean that letter
could be the script to the life of 12 million Americans of that particular era,
I mean lots of people went through all those kinds of maneuvers. More people
went through those maneuvers than went through anything else. Certainly never
went to the war or didn't go to the war. I mean most American's experience,
draft-age American experience of the war was that letter's experience. How do
I keep ahead of my draft board? How do I maneuver so that I'm not the one to
go? And that was what most American's experience was. My issue with the
letter is that he denied it existed. That to me is much more telling about
Bill Clinton that 20 years after the fact that he was then unable to stand up
for that letter and say, yes, that was me, that's who I was. I thought the war
was wrong, I didn't want to be part of it, and I did whatever I could to stay
out of it. If he would simply have said that, I would be much more comfortable
with Bill Clinton. But instead, you know, it's like, was there a war going on
then? You know, what was I doing? Where was I? Let's see, no no, that
couldn't be it. And I think that has prolonged the nation's agony over
Vietnam. The ironic thing, that when finally someone from the Vietnam
generation gets to the highest post in the land that he uses his post to make
it all the more difficult for us to grapple with that experience, by his own
refusal to front up his own experience. I mean that's what bothers me about
the letter, not the origin.
Clinton has a chronic inability to come clean. Now, who knows the roots
of that. They probably start early. But I think that one thing that
contributed to it was having gone through this morally ambiguous position that
you could never quite resolve, never quite had to face up and squarely resolve
it. And it reinforced an instinct he has shown to fudge and to hedge.
I gather he was very challenged by this friend of his who was a draft
resistor, to take that further step beyond that sort of academic position that
he was taking, and I think didn't summon himself to that challenge. For our
generation there was indeed a moral challenge, which was what are you going to
do about this war? And there are lots of ways to answer that challenge. You
could go partake in it, you could refuse to partake in it. Or you could not do
something about it. And he fell ultimately in to the not do category. And I
think that's bound have very different consequences than either of the
available do's, I mean either the soldiers or the non-soldiers were in much
better position than ultimately the great mass of non-doers were. It's I think
much easier for us to be clean with that experience,than it is for someone who
never had resolution to it. The decision is what brings resolution and he
didn't make it.
You know, among a lot of Veterans, particularly of the second World War,
the notion of someone who writes a letter like that is a coward. That's all
I'm saying. I don't think that's true.
I think the word coward, you have to be very careful about using that
phrase. When we went to WWII, we went because it was the thing that society
expected us to do, we thought the cause was right. And off we went. And we
new nothing about war whatsoever until we got there which is a common
experience. Now if you are confronted with a war, where the country is
committed to that war, and you stand aside and say this is wrong, I'm not going
to go, that takes a great deal of courage. The kind of courage that David
experienced. He went to prison for his views. There's a good book about this
by Tim O'Brien about the Vietnam war, the The Things They Carried he calls it.
And he speaks about contemplating going to Canada. And he goes out on the very
body of water that will carry him away from the war. Then he turns back and
looks at the shore. And he sees America there, and he sees cheerleaders, he
sees the high-school, he sees George Washington, he sees the Supreme Court, he
sees marching bands, he sees his home and he can't go. And he goes back. And
he finishes that by saying I was a coward. I went to war. And what did that
mean? Because he didn't believe in it. He didn't think the war was right, but
he went and fought it. Now who are the courageous people and who are the
cowards under those circumstances? We weren't heroes, we went to war without
any challenge whatsoever in the Second World War. And the Vietnamese
generation suffered the agonies of hell about that war.
People of our generation, the issue is whether the reason he wrote that
letter was that he was a coward. With a lot of them. And if you don't see
that, I'm sorry, I see that a lot. I'm not saying it's true.
I'm saying that that is the problem for him that is out there, politically.
This is this ancient rite of passage for young males that you gotta be
shot at in some way. This has been going on for millennia. In every
civilization. And it is so basic, it is so deep, it is so profound, that I
agree you could be truly brave and not go, you could be a complete coward and
go to WWII, but still there is this basic dividing line young boys have, young
boys that become men, where they wonder will they ever have the ultimate test
of their courage. And the ultimate test of courage has been defined for
thousands of years as courage in battle.
It's also got to be can I rebel against my country? And I got credit
for being a courageous--
But there is this archetype over all this, that is this ancient notion
of showing courage in combat.
At least for me, there is also a generational issue if we are talking
about Vietnam. I think we should understand that you don't just divide, well
there is the Vietnam generation and the WWII generation, they are somehow
separate entities. I think it should be remembered that the WWII generation
made the war that the Vietnam generation that the Vietnam generation had to
fight in. That Dole plays not just a role in Vietnam, I mean, not just a role
in WWII, but also the issue of Vietnam here. It was the experience of WWII,
and the surety that so many people carried out of that that made it so easy to
send troupes so blithely into Southeast Asia.
.....that heightens the drama, because by defying the war in Vietnam,
you are defying your father. You are defying your father's generation.
Those among college campuses, who opposed the war, and that was
universal, I don't think you could get up and make very many speeches on the
college campuses in the '60s of being in favor of the war without anybody just
booing you off the stand.
[But] the point is this, people like Mike Thomas, and myself and others,
when we came back, and we went through all the sacrifices that we thought were
right and noble for our country, nobody wanted to accept our feeling, our
integrity, our sacrifice. And they just didn't want to say that we had any
value as human beings. The people who wanted peace on the planet earth, used
psychological warfare on us, they criticized us, they called us baby killers.
The cruelty that they caused on the Vietnam veteran is just immense and it has
never healed. And I think anybody that sees those Veterans go to that wall on
Memorial Day or Veteran's Day, they can't see the intense pain in these
people's faces and not feel any sense of wanting to right that wrong of what
they did to those Veterans. And all they can see is that Bill Clinton was this
noble courageous person who took the brunt. It seems to me that people have to
grow up at some point and say you know there is a little bit of truth in
everybody's point of view. There's a little bit of truth in your point of
view, yours, yours, yours and mine, and I think the Vietnam Veteran, I think
that what he asks for is to be recognized for what he did, for his courage, and
how tough it was, and for his sacrifices. And to be acknowledged for that by
his own peers who 90% of them have criticized him. I think it takes a lot
more courage for somebody, because we know what peer pressure is, we know how
easy it is to follow the mob and go with the flow, I think it takes a lot more
courage to say I think my fellow peers may be wrong on this, and for my own
self, I think I'd better go serve my nation because I have a faith in my
leaders. I don't know whether it's right or wrong, but I have a faith and
There's a confusion. I think there's a lot of shame in my generation
that we did spit on people coming back from Vietnam. There's a lot of shame.
We made a basic confusion. We confused the military with the war. And if we
were against the war, we were against the military. That was a stupid mistake
of youth, and we should not have been abusive as many of us were. Not me
personally, but many of us were abusive to the servicemen coming back. It was
because of this confusion, you could see in Bill Clinton's letter, he talks
about loathing the military. He shouldn't have loathed the military. It's one
thing to loathe the war, but you shouldn't loathe soldiers who were coming
back. It was a mistake that our generation made, I think that we've defended
it today, and I think why there has been an attempt to reach out to Vietnam
Veterans, is because we are sorry, and because we owe them a debt of gratitude
that they were willing to serve, but more than that we owe them an apology that
we didn't treat them better when they came home.
I want to beg to differ on some of this stuff, first, I was anti-war,
marched in my first march in 1964 marched in my last march against the war in
1975. In my entire duration I never saw anybody spit on a soldier.... I
smuggled soldiers into Canada, I got legal assistance for people who wanted to
refuse their orders. We always dealt with people in the military a potential
resistors just like ourselves. I don't know who it was that made all these
attacks, I'm sure there attacks that were made on people, but I think to label
that the anti-war movement is absolutely, totally 100% wrong, because the
anti-war movement didn't have that attitude about soldiers whatsoever. Our
attitude about soldiers was trying to get them to join us.
Let me say also I think everyone has the right to have their experience
respected. And I think it's especially true of the Vietnam veterans, and I
think unwillingness of this society to recognize what experience was for so
many years was a great crime. That crime is not on the anti-war movement's
doorstep. That crime is on the larger social apparatus and much more on the
Veteran's administration than it is on any anti-war organization that ever
existed. And I think I could find you 100,000 Veterans off the street today
who would, if you ask them whether they loathe the military would say yes. If
you ask them do you loathe soldiers, they would say of course not. The
Department of Defense is not you in your book. The Department of Defense is
something than that, and if you want your experience respected, one of the
things you have to do then is separate it from the policy in which you served.
If you are going to say that my sacrifice needs to be respected because of the
war that it was connected with, I'm not going to respect your sacrifice. I
will respect your sacrifice under other terms. If you ask me not to respect
the war, but to respect what you went through, great. I have no problem with
that. I do sit on the board of Veterans organizations. I've been organized
with Veterans for a long time. They are one of the key elements of the
anti-war movement. It was Veterans that came back from Vietnam and carried the
anti-war movement from 1970 on. It was the Veterans who were the lead edge
from that point on.
I went through Yakima Valley College....the people who criticized me,
were the people criticizing the invasion of Cambodia, and all the protesting
and all. It wasn't the professors, it was the people downtown, it wasn't people
back home, it was just protestors, the students protesting the war. That was
Later on, this did happen. There was a blur, there was a very bad
blurring. By 1970-71, when I was in college, there was a tendency to just be
against all of it. To be against the Pentagon, against soldiers coming home,
against the President, everybody. We swept it much too broadly.
There's one other thing I'd like to add to this discussion about
Vietnam and WWII. Strangely enough, WWII is in some ways a unique war because
in terms of national unanimity. If you go back to all the American wars, there
has been strong protest. The American Revolution for example, probably a third
of the people were loyalists. Benjamin Franklin's son William was loyal
Governor of New Jersey. In the War of 1812, [New England] almost broke away
from the rest of the Union and seceded because they were opposed to the war.
Everybody knows about the Mexican war, 1846, Thoreau's famous essay on civil
disobedience about the war. In the Civil War, there were Copperheads as they
were called in the north who were opposed to the war. In WWI, such opposition
that Congress passed legislation the espionage [exidition] acts to stamp out
dissent and criticism of the war effort. In some ways, the unanimity of
purpose which we experienced in WWII is a rather unique war experience for
Americans. The experience in most wars has been of dissent.
I think that going through the looking glass into battle, into a bizarre
and different war, nobody who hasn't experienced it can possibly imagine.
They find out some things about themselves what people are capable of doing.
Ordinary people, are capable of doing dreadful things. Killing is the general
terms. But war reveals the mixed nature of human nature. That we are both
homo sapiens, thinking people, and we are also homo [fumens] down under there,
fighting and killing people. Phil [Caputo] had a good statement in this
marvelous book about Vietnam called A Rumor of War, and it says, you'd
be surprised what a nineteen year old American boy is capable of doing. And
that realization I think, when people come home from war, they are very
cautious about the nature of human nature and what we, not the Nazis, not the
Japanese, not the North Vietnamese can do--what we ourselves are capable of
doing when we are exposed in this bizarre world of war.
What we all find in war certain rewarding experiences which surprise us.
My teacher in college used to talk about the ecstasy of the eye, the delight of
seeing terrible things. The delight of destruction. Hard to speak about that.
We stand spellbound before terrible scenes, ships exploding, the air filled
with anti-aircraft fire and falling planes, and we stand open mouthed, and gape
at those things. It's one of the things, the reasons why the war experience
for some people is a rather rewarding experience. You are exposed to death
which is all so often hidden. To sights of these terrible experiences,
terrible sights. They have a profound impression on you. Peace time does not
offer those possibilities so to speak. And it would be wrong to forget that
that's what war does to people as well. They don't all react, people don't
react to horror and death with repugnance. They react with fascination which
has a kind of dreadful appeal. (pause) Our judgement about dropping the bombs
is a totally different thing.
At least for me, I find that such a luxurious position. To be able to
separate the understanding and later we'll make a judgement about it. I don't
feel like we were allowed to do that.
You do when you make that judgement. You may forget the emotions
involved, you know, you might forget the times you know. Like right now we're
talking about the 1960s, us three right here are, and we're trying to remember
the emotions that went through all of us, the emotions of the times, and what
was pulling us. And different things pull us. I still believe that behind all
of our battle cries, all of us, myself, you know, it's very true, are hiding
behind things. This idea, I used to tell people this when I was on the college
campus when I first got back. I said, I'm very patriotic, I'm very loyal. But
I didn't want to look at the things that we first started this discussion out
with. I didn't want to look at what was in it for me personally to go to
Vietnam, you know. That my dad was a World War II Veteran, and I wanted to get his
approval. I wanted to get, I wanted to do what I thought was my duty, just for
myself personally, I didn't think I could live with myself if I would have went
to Canada. I probably could have lived with myself going to prison, but I
couldn't have lived with myself going to Canada. And so I think all of us were
fighting with these values like that. My thing is that I think we forget what
was the underlying psychological thing that was driving us. I keep going back
to that fellow that became a medic. He wasn't being rebellious against his
country. He didn't mind serving and he didn't mind being put in danger. He
just didn't want to be a participant for warfare, he didn't want to kill
anybody. And he didn't even want to be a part of that. But he didn't mind
helping those that were wounded, helping them get home. He was kind to us.
And I think--
You take your own experience. I got a particular story. I went to
Vietnam in 1964. I was in a little town/village.... the Ninth
Airborn Division. I was jealous, a CIA guy was going up to [Kanto] which was
the base of the Ho Chi Mihn trail. He asked me to carry a piece. I said I
couldn't. He said put it under your jacket, I put it under my jacket. We go
up there it's shelled every single minute, ok? The night we go up there they
have lights strung in the village, we all drink beer all night, I take my
jacket off at the Province Chief's house, he sees the piece under my jacket,
and he says, you have nothing to worry about. And I said what do you mean?
And he said we told the VC we're having a party for you. And I said what are
you talking about? This was 1964. I said what are you talking about. He said
we do it all the time, how do you think we get the rubber out of the [Michelin]
plantations here? We make a deal with the VC. I go back to Saigon, and I tell
Rog that story and he said "my boy that couldn't have happened."
So what I'm seeing--and I don't want to be confused with someone who
puts down the soldiers, with the guy who puts down the policy--the policy was
wrong. It was wrong. I mean, that story illustrates it's wrong. If they were
doing deals with the VC in 1964, why do we need 500,000 troops to straighten
Because Ho Chi Minh sent all his divisions north, or south I should say
in '65. He sent how many divisions south? Nine divisions south in '65 and
decided the VC effort was not working, we're getting nowhere.
After the United States had landed marines at [Dnang], and made it
.....but we announced that we were going to fight a ground war and they
respond by sending their troupes, I don't blame them. What would you do in the
There's one country, it's called Vietnam. They finally won their independence,
they cut a deal, the deal was that they would divide into two countries, they
would have an election to unify the country and there would be one country,
Why didn't the elections take place?
Because the Americans wouldn't allow it.
Because they were going to lose!
There was never a fair election in any part of Vietnam, that was not the issue.
The issue was-- do you the deal with the people who fought the --
I'm most struck by the passion that this can arouse 30 years
All of you, in a different way, but all of you had this immediate
experience. From our generation, for me, there is sort of a funny delayed
reaction. It wasn't quite as immediate. If you didn't actually go get shot
at, or go to prison, it wasn't as immediate. Often these thoughts came up
later. And there is a feeling, gee I wish I had confronted this more directly
at the time. I wish I'd known more, I wish I'd been able to have thought it
out, I wish I wasn't just an undergrad blur mixed in with the fumes of
marijuana smoke, and whether I flunked my exams or not. I think a lot of the
self doubt and uncertainty of my generation is because they really didn't have
a clear historical view of it. Of either the moral choices or the stakes
involved. It was just something that was just sort of vaguely out there,
something to be avoided at the time. And it kind of caught up with us later,
not the way post-traumatic stress disorder catches up with a combat veteran,
but enough to make us wonder, gee, what exactly were we doing.
What would you do, now. How would you explain that, you know, what you
I think that one thing he [Clinton] should have done, a couple of years
ago was be more forthright about that damn letter. Clinton really owed it to
everybody to be honest, because there was no loss in being honest about your
ambivalence. The only loss was in concealing it.