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  Revisiting Vietnam
     
  The Movie in Our Heads
By John Biewen
Photos by Steve Schapiro
    Listen | How to listen
25 Years From VietnamThe War Against the WarThe Vietnam Tapes of Michael A. Baronowski  
 
Writer and former Marine Jim Northrup reflects on his Vietnam War experience. See our slideshow and hear excerpts from Northrup's story-poems.

The Vietnam veteran is perhaps the most mythologized figure to emerge from the war. Some three million men and women served in Vietnam. Most are in their 50's now. Many veterans object to what they consider myths perpetuated about them by the media, but don't agree on what those myths are.

THE VIETNAM WAR - and the deep divide over its meaning - is seemingly hard-wired into the soul and psyche of America. Duluth, Minnesota, the small Lake Superior port city, is a long way from Saigon. Or, for that matter, from the Pentagon or Berkeley. But Vietnam lives here, too.

"When I walk in here this is like holy ground," says Durbin Keeney, strolling into the Vietnam War Memorial, a prominent feature in a lakeside park. Dedicated in 1992, the memorial consists of a concrete bunker-like structure - a half-dome with its back to the lake. Across from it, as though taking shelter in the bunker, is a black granite wall reminiscent of the much larger one in Washington D.C.

  Vietnam War Memorial, Duluth, Minnesota

"The wall has 136 names on it, [including] 5 POW's...from the 7 counties surrounding this area," says Keeney. "So we're real proud of what we've put together here. To provide healing for the families, for the community. I've come down here in the middle of the night and found guys playing guitars and singing to the wall."

Durbin Keeney is 51. He's a big man with red hair and a graying beard. He served in Vietnam in 1970 and '71 as an Air Force security officer. On this cool spring day, he wears a black jacket and a cap with a visor; both declare him a Vietnam Veteran. So do Durbin's belt buckle and his license plate. He says his fellow Vietnam veterans are his life now. They are his vocation. Keeney runs a small non-profit group that helps homeless veterans find housing, treatment and other help.

Durbin Keeney, Dec. 1970 Durbin Keeney, today

In the basement office of Keeney's agency, Veterans Outreach North, counselor Earl Nett is on the phone with a troubled vet - trying to get the man into treatment, Keeney explains. "Right, but you're working through that," Nett says into the phone. "You're letting go of the past."

The vet on the other end of the line may need to let go of the past, but Durbin Keeney says he couldn't do it. In the 1970's and '80s he worked in insurance and other business ventures, trying to forget the war. Everything changed a few years ago, he says, when he finally confronted his own Vietnam memories.

"There were times that I guarded the Blackbird," Keeney recalls. "And the Blackbird would take off after the Freedom Birds at night; the Freedom Birds took troops home, but the Blackbird was where the soldiers who were killed were taken out." Even thirty years later, the image brings tears; Keeney reaches into his pocket for a handkerchief. "And the hardest thing that I've always dealt with was what we call survivors' guilt. I made it and somebody else didn't. I know now why. I believe very firmly that there's rhymes and reasons why some of us survived and some of us didn't - because that's allowed me to do what I'm doing today."

  Tom Morgan

Now, meet another Duluthian. At 55, Tom Morgan looks the part of the college professor: herringbone jacket and round wire-rim glasses. He teaches Russian language, literature and history - and Peace Studies - at the College of St. Scholastica, a Catholic liberal arts college in Duluth. He's a native; he graduated from the local University of Minnesota campus before enlisting in the Navy and going to Vietnam in 1968.

The walls of Morgan's small office are covered with photos, posters and flyers - almost all of them having to do with Russia, Morgan's academic field. There's no visible reference to Morgan's background as a Vietnam GI. "It was definitely an important and defining moment in my life and it has shaped me," Morgan says, "but I continue to grow and expand and look forward."

In fact, though, Morgan does carry Vietnam with him. In mide-life he's become a peace activist of sorts. A couple of years ago he worked to defeat a plan to park a World War Two-era battleships in the Duluth port as a tourist attraction - a project Durbin Keeney actively supported. Morgan objected that the ship would glorify war. He says his antiwar convictions grew straight out of Vietnam.

"I saw people get blown apart. I mean, that would get anybody to question the value of any war. It is the worst possible solution to problems."

As a young enlistee, Morgan recalls, he "didn't know what to think about this war" but simply went along. "Because we're all against Communism, aren't we? It took awhile for me to understand the futility and hopelessness of that situation. And also what we were doing to Vietnamese society - I mean, we just did violence to that culture."

Tom Morgan and Durbin Keeney are just two veterans with two very different ways of fitting Vietnam into their lives. Unlike the rest of us who struggle over the meaning of that war, veterans have the added experience - or burden - of watching politicians, the news media and the makers of popular culture tell their story.

One recurring image is that of the violently unbalanced Vietnam vet. The movies have churned out many such veterans; Robert De Niro's deranged character in "Taxi Driver" is just one of many in the genre.

To be sure, some Vietnam veterans are mentally ill. Some are chemically-addicted and homeless. In the 1980's the Veterans Administration estimated that 15% of Vietnam theater veterans suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder. That's a significant figure - almost half a million vets. But then 85% of Vietnam vets did not have PTSD. These estimates make perfect sense when you consider that only 15-20% of Vietnam GI's saw serious combat, according to experts.

Veteran B.G. Burkett, a Dallas stockbroker and author of a book on vets called "Stolen Valor," says he looked hard at government statistics. He thinks most people will be surprised by what he found: "We had the lowest unemployment rate of any major category. Had the highest per capita income, had the highest educational rate. We had the lowest criminality rates of any group in America. You know, you don't go through three years of military discipline and then come out and say, boy, I'm gonna go rob a bank or shoot my mother. It didn't happen, but that was what became the theme in Hollywood."

Another stock Hollywood character is the gung ho Vietnam fighter turned veteran-with-a-grudge. Like John Rambo. In the first Rambo film the former Green Beret unleashed his fury on a small town in the Pacific Northwest. "You're goddamn lucky he didn't kill all of you," Rambo's former commanding officer tells the local police chief.

As in Rambo's case, the grudge held by Vietnam vets in the movies is usually directed toward the antiwar movement and a government that didn't wage an all-out attack. "I did what I had to do to win, but somebody wouldn't let us win!" Rambo screams in a climactic speech.

"So the loss of the war is attributed to something that happened on the home-front," says Jerry Lembcke, a Vietnam veteran and a sociologist at Holy Cross College. "We were sold out by liberals in Congress who wouldn't fund the war and who wouldn't approve the military strategy that we needed to win the war, and we were stabbed in the back by the anti-war movement in the streets that demoralized our soldiers in Vietnam and gave aid and comfort to the enemy that we were fighting against."

Lembcke analyzed media and pop-culture portrayals of Vietnam veterans, and of their coming-home experience, for his recent book, "The Spitting Image." He says most vets in the movies loathed the antiwar movement and expressed anger that they weren't allowed to win the war, but that's not Lembcke's view. He insists most vets he knows don't feel that way, either; nor did most of the GI's he knew in Vietnam. He served as an Army Chaplain's Assistant in 1969.

In the unit in which Lembcke served as an Army Chaplain's Assistant, in 1969, "I would say most of the men there couldn't wait to get home to join the anti-war movement. The prevailing opinion was that the people at home who are protesting the war are right, they're on the right side of this issue. And we're on the wrong side."

There are no firm statistics on how many Vietnam GI's actively opposed their own war. Most experts say it was far short of a majority. But a Harris Poll commissioned by the VA in 1971 offers partial support for Lembcke's claim that Vietnam GI's and the antiwar movement were not bitterly at odds with one another; at least, returning soldiers did not see themselves as under attack by peace activists. Asked to respond to the statement, "Those people at home who oppose the Vietnam war often blame veterans for our involvement there," 75% of veterans disagreed.

B.G. Burkett did see the antiwar movement as the enemy, and still does. "They energized the other side," he says today. "I don't know how anyone could be proud of a movement that put 20 million people under communism." In contrast to Lembcke's description of soldiers anxious to go home and protest the war, Burkett says the men in his infantry unit were "gung-ho" - proud and enthusiastic warriors.

One partial reason for such sharp differences in the perceptions of veterans: support for the war back home, and the perceived prospects for victory, declined sharply during the seven years of heavy American involvement in Vietnam. Burkett did his tour one year before Lembcke did, in 1968. "The morale did not really decline until probably mid-'69," Burkett says. "And then of course by '70, '71 it got terrible. Because by that time the peace talks had started, Nixon's talking peace with honor, and so...you know you're not there to win a war and the only thing that's going to happen to you the longer you stay there is you're going to get killed or wounded."

Indeed, military leaders themselves recognized a crisis among Vietnam soldiers in the war's last years. In an article called "The Collapse of the Armed Forces" published in the Armed Forces Journal in June, 1971, Colonel Robert Heinl declared that the army in Vietnam was "dispirited where not near mutinous."

That's an apt description of a group of soldiers at Fire Base Pace in South Vietnam in October, 1971. In a report for Pacifica Radio, journalist Richard Boyle went to the base to interview a dozen "grunts" from the First Cavalry Division. The GI's had been ordered on a nighttime combat mission the previous night. Six of the men had refused to go and several others had objected to the order.

"They'll have to court-martial the whole company," one soldier told Boyle. "I say right away they can start typing up my court-martial."

The GI's told Boyle they objected not only to what they saw as a suicidal mission but to the war effort itself. Their commanding officer wouldn't let them wear t-shirts with peace symbols, they complained. "He calls us hypocrites if we wear a peace sign," one GI said. "[As if] we wanted to come over here and fight. Like we can't believe in peace, man, because we're carrying [an M-16] out there."

Another soldier piped in: "I always did believe in protecting my own country, if it came down to that. But I'm over here fighting a war for a cause that means nothing to me."

Historians say so-called "combat refusals" became increasingly common in Vietnam after 1969. Soldiers also expressed their opposition to the war in underground newspapers and coffee-house rap sessions. Some wore black armbands in the field. Some went further.

"During the years of 1969 down to 1973, we have the rise of fragging - that is, shooting or hand-grenading your NCO or your officer who orders you out into the field," says historian Terry Anderson of Texas A & M University. "The US Army itself does not know exactly how many...officers were murdered. But they know at least 600 were murdered, and then they have another 1400 that died mysteriously. Consequently by early 1970, the army [was] at war not with the enemy but with itself."

Of course, the vast majority of Vietnam GI's carried out their orders and returned home. Some - especially those who served in the early years of American involvement - were even greeted as heroes, just like those from World War Two or some other "good war." A Universal Studios newsreel circulated at the end of 1966 shows a large crowd gathered at Kelly Air Force Base in San Antonio to "give a very special welcome home to some very special people," as the big-voiced narrator put it. President Lyndon Johnson and his wife Ladybird were there. "The President expresses the gratitude of a grateful nation," summed up the narrator.

But by the end of the war there was not much sunny talk of a "grateful nation." The country had lost its first war. Americans were profoundly divided over the conflict and held complicated feelings about its veterans. From the late 1970's on, politicians, the media and moviemakers dwelled increasingly on the troubles of returning vets, says sociologist Lembcke. "What popular culture did was rewrite the history, rewrite the story of the Vietnam war in many ways as being a story about veterans coming home from the war."

In other words, the nation's public soul-searching on Vietnam turned to questions about post-traumatic stress disorder, the lack of welcome-home parades and POW/MIA's. Lembcke and some others who've thought about Vietnam for decades now wish Americans would place more focus on other troubling questions: Why did we send those men and women to Vietnam in the first place? What did we ask them to do on our behalf?

By not thinking too hard about those questions, Americans can preserve a cherished image of their country as one that always stands for liberty and justice in the world, says historian Marilyn Young of New York University: "It's a lot to give up, when you think about it, to reckon rather closely with the actual history of any country and what it's done in the world, and what any government has done abroad and to its own people. That's a lot to come to terms with. And I think people don't want to give up the simple story. 'Cause it's a nicer story. And it always has a happy ending."

There's no sign of consensus among Vietnam vets about the meaning of their war. As one veteran in Duluth says: the conversation is still continuing.