Blacks Law does not require a stamp of validity from somebody with a famous name or an impressive title. It stands on its own as a testable hypothesis by anyone who cares to know the truth. Not everyone does and not everyone can. Thats what this chapter is about.
Black didnt know whether he could take a human life any more than I did and neither of us may have ever been put to the test. We both understood those unstated limits of our knowledge to be the truth, as anyone standing there with us on that warm January night in Cam Ranh Bay would have. It was, within the context of our circumstances, obviously his opinion that he had what it took to kill a man at close quarters because of something he knew about the man, about himself and about other American fighting men. He was illustrating a concept, a vision of truth, a constructwhich most people dont know is a noun in this context, with the accent on the first syllable and a definition that wont be found in every dictionary.
Context is to truth what water is to fish. There are many truths and many kinds of truth, some of which devour others, some of which swim together and others which cant coexist in the same waters. If you want to rip this book apart on the basis of facts or opinions or opinions not clearly labeled as such, you can. Depending on the context you choose to impose or ignore, you can do that with any book on any subject including whatever dictionary you regard as the final authority on the meaning of words. Not even Newtons laws of motion are true out of context.
If you want truth, which defines a probative reality, you must have all of the relevant facts in the relevant context. Suppose, for example, that you were asked to choose between a bucket of diamonds and a bucket of rats. Truthfully, which one would you choose? Dumb question, right? Well, maybe not. All things being equal, youd take the diamonds, but under any circumstance youd pick the one of greatest perceived value at the time. And who said anything about all things being equal?
Swish that around in your grey matter for a minute and youll detect the flavor of a question other than the one that appears on the label. Its not a choice between precious stones and repulsive rodents as much as it is a question of conditions and priorities. Its a question of what we value and what we might rationally value, more or less, under different circumstances. Youd have to have the worlds worst imagination not to come up with a scenario or two in which the rats would be preferable to the diamonds.
Lets take the old sinking ship construct out for a spin and see what happens when it goes down in strange, uncharted waters....
You are the captain. You didnt have time to get off a distress call and you didnt pack emergency rations. As your ill-fated vessel sinks beneath the waves, your lifeboat, loaded with too many people and too much extra stuff, threatens to go down with it. You start tossing everything you can spare overboard until youre down to the diamonds and the rats. Loosing one of the pails will save you from sinking. Hanging on to both is certain death. Which one will you keep? The truth is, you dont know. But thats not the true question and you know it. Its: What is your best rational option for the groups survival?
Now, lets pretend that a different set of circumstances delivers you to a desert island alone, with nothing but the clothes on your back and the two pails. While exploring the island, you step into a quicksand pit. You need a free hand to grab hold of a life-saving vine thats barely within reach. Lets suppose that you decide to let the diamonds go and keep the rats for food because your exploration turned up no eatable flora or fauna. But what if you saw a ship heading your way? Do you honestly believe that you would make the same choice? What if you knew that the rats carried a deadly plague? But what if you had the antidote in your pocket?
With every "what if" you attach to the tale, you get a different rational choice. What if the circumstances for having to pick one of the buckets were entirely different? Lets say you were asked to make the choice by a psychotic billionaire who told you what was in them but wouldnt let you see. What then? But suppose they were marked "RATS" and "DIAMONDS" by someone you trusted or someone you didnt know. What then?
You can attach general or specific conditions as needed for whatever truth you want. Thats why I think we have debates, even with ourselves, and why they are so seldom settled by the carefully balanced weight of available evidence.
"Rats and diamonds" is one game you can play with the truth if your top priority is something other than finding it or communicating it in the full context that applies. Its a game you play in any debate. In the Vietnam debate, it was called "war and peace." But it was the same game. Heres another...
John and Marsha, two foreign correspondents for the Detroit Times daily, investigate a mudslide near their campsite in a remote corner of South America which buries a village of 10,446 inhabitants. 10,000 perish. The Times reporters soon determine that the fatalities must be somewhere in the five-figure range, but their editor insists on a number that can be revised upward on a daily basis. They cant agree on what to do. He sends back a report which says "Over 200"...She says "over 10,000."
Which reporter came the closest to the truth?
Please note that John, who told the literal truth, knew that the actual number was "in the five figure-range" and ignored that fact in favor of a safe estimate that would please his boss. In other words, he used facts to communicate a false impression of the mudslides toll in human life. On the other hand, I would argue that Marsha, whose report was literally false, got the five figures right and gave the truest picture of the disaster. She did all that anyone can ask of a human being in or out of the media. She gave the truest account of what happened that she knew how to give.
Telling the truth can be tricky since much of it is predicated on tacit understandings between the speaker and the listener. If you have more than one listener, its unlikely that they will all hear the same thing.
Though Ive tried to make this book accessible to anyone whos interested in war and the media, war and peace issues in general or "the truth about Vietnam," I wrote it primarily for the NPR news staff and its listeners. In the letters section of my final notes, you can divine the unstated message I expected particular NPR staffers to hear by comparing the language in the preceding pages with the language in the letters they received. A dozen of them also got copies of "The Dummy and The Dove" during the Gulf War, which should have prepared them for the militarily strategic way in which television and the body of an American soldier would be used in Somalia. Ive also left messages here and there for other influential peopleincluding you.
For those of you whove heard the classic "John and Marsha" recording by Don Ameche and Alice Fey, there is a message in "the mudslide report" that those who havent heard it wont get. For you who know the Detroit dailies or the controversy surrounding "joint operating agreements" in newspaper publishing, you know that there is no Detroit Times, a fact that has communication ramifications of its own.
There was a Detroit Times. It went out of business in the `50s. For those who remember that rag, a "John" and a "Marsha" might have worked there as reporters and the mudslide story could have been true. To the best of my knowledge it isnt, but its a possibility that would not occur to people who know that there is no Times and dont know that there once was one. To them, the truth would be as obvious as the temperature at which water turns to icewhich is obviously not true to a boy who puts a cup of water in a freezer set at 32 degrees and pulls it out in 15 minutes to see for himself.
We have all had experiences where something that was obviously true to someone was obviously false to someone else, no matter what information was presented. What mattered in the end was the information that got absorbed, the facts and falsehoods that the people involved were prepared to accept as true. Whatever the question of truth to be decided, we all come to it with different levels of skill, experience and commitment to the task. Sometimes that means being prepared to see things as they are, or were or will inevitably be without regard to how we would prefer to see them, but not as a rule. The amount of truth that goes into or comes out of our thinking depends too much on the situation and the priorities we carry into it.
In the early `70s a TV game show called "To Tell The Truth," featured a guest of unusual accomplishment profiled in a brief introduction who had to tell the truth and two impostors claiming to be that person. The objective of all three was to fool a panel of professional celebrities who had the job of asking them questions calculated to reveal who was lying. The skill with which the real stunt double or champion hog caller or whoever the profiled person was lied with facts had as much to do with the shows appeal as anything the impostors could have done with pure fiction.
No matter how sharp you thought you were at separating truth from falsehood, you were bound to get tripped up sooner or later by something that you thought or felt in your bones was true or false. Just as you were sure that the person you picked fit the profile, the one picked by some goofy panelist that you thought was obviously wrong would turn out to be the right one, leaving you to ponder the process of your selection.
The thing to remember about "To Tell The Truth" was that none of the people claiming to be the real man or woman described in the profile was really telling the truth. They were all there to put on a good show, more than anything, and to get laughs or money or applause or the satisfaction of making people who think theyre smart look foolish. The truth was nothing more nor less than a gimmick for achieving those objectives. All too often, the same can be said of the news medias best.
In every story Ive told so far to illustrate a point, I omitted everything I could, that didnt. Writers have to do that if they want their primary message to be absorbed by their desired audience that has its own priorities about what is most important to extract from your words. People who tell stories that include every important aspect of a point they didnt want to make or one requiring explanations their audience doesnt want to hear are called "bores." Nobody who knows what a bore is wants to be one or to endure the company of one for longer than a tactful exit will allow.
I am no different from anybody else. If I didnt know that the whole truth was my best argument against the peace movements lessons of Vietnam, I cant say that I would insist on it being heard. I can say that I wouldnt be as eager to tell it or for you to hear it.
To tell the truth about some things, without turning your listeners off, you have to come directly to the point. But some points cannot be made with some people without depositing your common experience into a joint account. Otherwise, they will have only their own actual and vicarious experiences to draw on which wont be enough to tell them the truth....
During a break at work, somebody asked me whether I ever had a parachute malfunction in the Army. My answer was, no, but I witnessed several, one of which was a streamer. Actually, it was a cigar roll. The lethal rate of decent in either case is identical, but cigar rolls have to be explained and streamers dont. So I called it a streamer. Anyhow, as I told the story of how I left the C-130, one man removed from the jumper with the floppy chute, I found myself describing in detail something I didnt see him do at all.
I told how the lieutenant pulled the rip cord on his reserve and struggled frantically to toss the material of the smaller chute out in front of him so that it would catch enough air to inflate. That was something I had, in fact, seen a private do in jump school a year or so earlier, following my landing in a Fort Benning, Georgia drop-zone.
What I really saw in the sky over Fort Campbell, Kentucky, was a formless, fluttering green thing below me just before my chute jerked me upright below its broad green canopy. That was all I saw.
The unidentified fluttering object vanished from my thoughts the instant I looked up to check the condition of my chute. Before then, the adrenaline intoxication of my four-second count had me in poor shape to think much about it. Afterward, the tremendous sense of well-being that always followed a clean opening swept over me, followed swiftly by the urging of experience to check the crowded sky for troopers slipping too close. If I saw the lieutenants small reserve amid the full-sized mains below me, I didnt notice. I relaxed in my harness and enjoyed the ride to earth.
Part of what made the parachute ride enjoyable came from watching the billowy top side of many green silken air-domes just like the one over my head collapsing into the drop zone dirt. Then I spied the smaller chute on the ground and realized what Id seen when I made my leap into space. The details, including the identity of the guy with the tangled main, were filled in for me by someone else. He had the same view of the lieutenants cigar roll that I had in jump school of the privates Mae Westwhich looks like a big, lopsided bra and can come down fast enough to cripple or kill. Thats probably where things got mixed up.
So I made a mistake. I reached deep into my memory bag of one potentially catastrophic jump and came out with a composite of two. It was only a story and it did tell the truth about what happened if not about what I saw. Nobody would have objected if Id made up the whole thing, as long as I did it welland made it short; we were running long on our break.
Oh yes, it also would have been necessary for me to keep the truth to myself. I know that because of the impatient looks I got when I saw my mistake and tried to correct it. They were the same looks I got from most of my job leaders when I tried to correct a flaw in a surface I was developing, a flaw that they thought was too trivial to worry about.
I know that I was recalling a clear mental picture as I was bagging my chute and another man was telling me what happened. I put together what I saw outside of my head, with what I knew must have happened for the man to have deployed his reserve and survived. It was a visual exercise of basic logic, noted, filed and forgotten. What brought me up short, as I described that vision sixteen years later, was the logic of what I caught myself saying. From my vantage point when the officer got into trouble, I couldnt have seen him. What if someone had tripped over the same conflict of possibilities that I had and walked away believing that my word on such matters was not to be trusted? I couldnt handle that. What I could handle is what I did.
Im not talking about a situation in which I tried to do the right thing but a pattern of behavior which applies to all of us in similar situations where doing the right thing is incidental to something we value more. We catch ourselves saying something that we know is wrong. Before then, its only an error. But awareness of the error obliges us to tell the truth and pay the inevitable price of saying things that people dont want to hear or to let it ride and wish for the best. Where the truth conflicts with the wish, its a question of integrity vs. ambition, made more or less significant by the story, the storyteller and the listeners. For the professional storytellers, collectively known as the media, the question is: What happens when professional integrity meets professional ambition head-on?
I dont know that the answer always has to be the same. I do know that integrity doesnt win prizes. Ambition does. Even when the highest ambition of journalists is to do a good job, in whose terms will it be defined? Will it be their own terms, or will it be star-making employers like Robert Siegel, beloved colleagues like Susan Stamberg, influential fans like Jane Fonda or key members of prestigious journalism award committees?
Do you honestly believe that Linda Wortheimer, Cokie Roberts or Scott Simon would have gotten anywhere at NPR had their performance on Vietnam-related issues not been compatible with Robert Siegels viewswhich were the same as Susans and Janes and key members of prestigious journalism award committees? If so, I defy you to give the empirical basis of that belief without leaving out anything that would dispute it. I can issue that challenge with no fear of being ruled out of order by a content analysis of NPR news and information from 1972 to 1993. By simply asking myself whether or not Jane Fonda would approve, I was way ahead of them. If the answer was no, I knew that the issue would be ignored or played down as much as it could be. If the answer was yes, I knew that I could expect a prize-winning report. The truth would have only as much to do with it as an honored place for Jane would allow.
By 1979, I knew that my Jane Fonda test was valid because it always worked. The stars and the rising stars of ATC were on record as having fought on her side, the side of peace, as defined by Jane, Ho Chi Minh, the Pulitzer Prize panel and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. How could ATCs stars and stars of the future say that they were all wrong? Journalists are only human. The pressures on them to bend the truth just a tad from time to time couldnt have been any different than they were in any situation where telling it straight might have been unwelcome.
If you understand the governing dynamics of a situation, you dont always have to be there to know whats going on any more than I had to see what that lieutenant did with his reserve to know that he did it. I think I know at least some of the governing dynamics in situations where members of the press have had to deal with the lessons of Vietnam off the cuff or to meet a deadline for a good story. Jane Fondas relationship with the Hanoi government, the image-making industry and the press is one of those governing dynamics. You wont always know what will be said but if you picture Jane listening to the same NPR program you are, youll know what wont be said or, if it must be said, who will be chosen to do it.
The truth is, the more you know about the real lies and blunders and atrocities that can be attributed to Vietnam hawks in the U.S. government, the less I have to say about them to give you a complete picture. The less I have to say about them the more I can say about the facts not mentioned in context or not given enough weight to keep the scales of truth balanced.
Because of their functional alliance with the peace movement throughout the `70s and `80s, few of todays anointed truth-givers are eager to hear the things they left out of their Vietnam stories. When I heard Susan Stamberg call Stanley Karnows "Vietnam: A Television History" "accurate, balanced and complete" in 1982, I knew that something was missing: Since Hanoi had neither achieved its war aims in Indochina nor abandoned them, the war could not have been over. American MIAs known to have been alive and well in enemy hands before our withdrawal in `73 were still unaccounted for. Hanoi was still using them to bargain with as they would if they were prisoners of war. And the bodies from figurative bombs like Karnows "Vietnam" and Janes "Coming Home" that kept the material ones from falling on the enemies of freedom anywhere were still piling up.
Any series that failed to mention things like that was fundamentally flawed. The only truths it could net were those that swam in the waters of evidence against the wisdom and morality of U.S. military involvement in Vietnam. These perspectives on the war were ably served up by people of unusual accomplishment like David Habberstam, Francis Fitzgerald, Jane Fonda and Robert Siegels NPR news team. This book is an essential supplement to their work. It contains the parts they had to leave out to make their point that the peace movement was right. The most important thing they left out was the fact that the peace movement was them, the alumni and friends of Jane Fondas Entertainment Industry for Peace and Justice.
The Invisible Warriors is not a book of essays on every topic under the sun. It is not a comprehensive history of the war. It is not a tell-all autobiography. It is a personal perspective on image warfare, popularly known as the Vietnam debate, which could be told only by a hawkish Vietnam combat veteran who wouldnt change sides. It is an account of how all such vets were stereotyped and excluded, as a group, from that vital contest of ideas. It is a reminder that the Vietnam example of "giving peace a chance" was first applied to ensure a swift transition of power in Cambodia to the Khmer Rouge and then to ignore the killing fields in the rest of Indochina. As of January 1994, when I began this edition of To Tell The Truth, it was last applied to the "ethnic cleansing" in Bosnia. God knows who will be next.
The criminals America has already allowed to take over the streets in "other peoples" neighborhoods around the world by threat and by force of arms have taught us nothing about when and how to fight them. I maintain that they would have taught us all we needed to know if it was also what we wanted to know. What we didnt want to know was the truth. The truth is that acting only for narrow self-interest in international affairs, is the same thing as acting selfishly which is socially irresponsible and ultimately self-destructive. Its how the parasites, the predators and the cowards in a community of any size behave toward their neighbors.
For those who would argue that charity begins at home, I would agree and add that selfishness does, too. I would argue that home is a planet called Earth.
As long as we can incarcerate black, urban American criminals without paying for more prisons, thats fine with the average white, middle-class suburbanite. As long as we can build more prisons instead of better schools for better paying jobs, thats fine with our corporate elite, who prefer slave labor wherever they can get it. As long as our children can quit school at 14 and good paying jobs are unavailable to high school graduates, a vast, cheap labor pool in America is assured for the billion-dollar industries that labor pool supports. Violent crime is a by-product of those conditions with middle-to-upper class career opportunities built into the status quo. As long as crime stays out of their neighborhoods, most Americans are content to debate the issue and reject any solution that might require a personal sacrifice.
If Americans truly wanted to end the urban American holocaust, we could go a long way toward doing so by outlawing the manufacture, distribution and possession of semi-automatic firearms by private citizens. We would make high school education mandatory and corporate executives accountable to the public for the predictable social costs of their business decisions. Wed get serious about stopping organized crime. We would make a practical, coordinated assault on the problems of child abuse, poverty and dangerous drugs, including alcohol. We would identify children at risk of becoming murderous barbarians and give them all the help and encouragement they need to be good neighbors in any good neighborhood. In other words, we would act on principle, rather than narrow self-interest across the board.
Acting on principle means paying a price, whatever price the particular case demands. The peace movements lessons of Vietnam ask us to look at the price and to just say no if it cannot be justified by a narrow self-interest. The Gulf War showed that we would do it for oil at high cost in human lives but not for life and liberty if the potential cost to us would not play well on television and radio. Somalia showed that we would do it for a lame-duck presidents humanitarian image, if the cost was low and the PR value was high on radio and TV. Nowhere, since our retreat from Vietnam have we done it just because it was right. It had to be right according to somebody in the media with impressive war and peace credentials. Had the Gulf War not given us Deborah Amos, I shudder to think what would have happened to the multi-ethnic people of Sarajevo left to the mercy of ethnic cleansers.
After Desert Storm, the United States and the new Russia, eager to become a respected member of the free world, could have ended war on the planet, as we have known it since the invention of partisan politics. It would have cost us dearly in treasure and lives and we might still be paying the price for that commitment. But in a true war to end all wars, given the courage to wage it, the crucial battle would have already been won. With Russia in a peace-making force like NATO should be, and a peace-keeping force like the UN could be if backed by a credible military threat, wed have a mechanism for world peace that could work like Gort. Giving peace a chance would no longer depend on the good will of tyrants.
When I was struggling with the paragraph before last, in early March of `94, and listening to ATC, I was bowled over by a Deborah Amos commentary on the war in Bosnia and the lack of principle in dealing with it. I had no idea before then that she gave commentaries or that anybody at ATC felt the same way I did about principle. A mortar round had killed 60 civilians in a Sarajevo bread line, and the leaders of the free world were looking for a face-saving way to bury their heads in the sand. Ms. Amos took them to task. She was tough and she was pissed.
As I said, I was surprised by what she said and the way she said it but not by the resolute UN and US military threat and military action that followed for the relief of Sarajevo, a city under siege for 22 months. You may argue that there was no cause-and-effect relationship, but you would have to discount the words of General Shalikashvilli, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, to do so. He was interviewed by Martha Radditz within a week of the Amos commentary and a few days after two American warbirds downed four hostile warbirds over a no-fly zone, which had been violated with impunity 500 times before. He told the "All Things Considered" audience that his military decisions were made with an eye on television and an ear to the radio. What do you want to bet that he watches CNN and listens to NPR?
I would wager that the meager relief civilians in Bosnia got from rebel guns originated with NPRs Tom Gjelten, Deborah Wong and Deborah Amos. I dont know what television had to show and tell about it because I wasnt watching. The important thing was that the presidents top military advisor was watching television and listening to NPR.
Ive never heard NPR broadcast anything quite like Deborah Amos excoriating commentary on Bosnia. To my knowledge, Tom Gjelten and Deborah Wong have never done it and I cannot imagine it being done by any of the old guard like Cokie Roberts, Linda Wortheimer or the other Bobs who still preach the lessons of Vietnam. Its their lessons from that war that the Gjeltens, the Wongs and the Amoses have to get around to create a true picture of the choice we make in wars of "ethnic cleansing" when we do nothing.
People who can speak with authority about war and peace are more numerous than you will ever see or hear in the media, but there are two distinct types that most people will listen to. One is the soldier who fought and the other is the civilian who was there to see the fighting or to suffer its effects in the flesh. Both have instant credibility whether they deserve it or not, and most dont deserve it because they have never bothered to find out what war is. They think they already know. And who can argue with them?
People cannot accept the truth because of what it is. It has to be intelligible and seem logical. Moreover, it has to look like the truth, sound like the truth and feel like the truth-which presupposes what it is to begin with. Unfortunately, the truth doesnt always look, sound or feel like what it is. It is sometimes difficult to communicate because it is riddled with apparent contradictions that take too long to explain, and it is often so far removed from common experience that most people cannot relate to it at all
Thats Vietnam all over.
A full tour of duty is part of the common preconception of what constitutes a true Vietnam vet with all of his parts intact. Therefore, it was extremely difficult for me to speak as a Vietnam vet without identifying my inferior status or feeling like an impostor. I was as hooked as the media appeared to be on the idea that only journalists, scholars, "people of conscience" and veterans who had seen their proper share of combat had a right to speak their minds.
It wasnt until I took into account the wide range of combat experience in all of the men who had done their twelve or thirteen-month tours that my self-image began to change. I had less than some and more that others. I had no good reason to be ashamed and, therefore, nothing I had to lie about. Still, when someone surprised me with the question, "How long were you in Vietnam?", I repeatedly surprised myself with the prompt reply, "eight months."
Thank God for skin that doesnt glow red at times like that.
That confession undoubtedly impressed Robert Siegel whose interviews with Vietnam vets included only those who served two or more tours after he received the first edition of this chapter in 1991. Thats how I knew he read it. I knew he read the Dummy And The Dove chapter when he replayed an anti-war tape made by the last American helicopter pilot killed in action in `75. I got the same flip of the bird response from Bill Busenberg and Noah Adams when I wrote to question NPRs reliance on Stanley Karnow and its failure to follow up on cases of POWs, like Dennis Hammon, listed as MIA. Mr. Busenberg promptly found an excuse to interview Mr. Karnow with more reverence than ever. Mr. Adams did two stories on MIAs which would have convinced any reasonable person that they were killed in action.
The contempt they showed for my views on Vietnam was expressed in numerous ways for a generation by NPRs first team, who came across like old friends. We had enough in common that I often forgot we werent. I liked them and trusted them and was repeatedly thrown for a loop by their unacknowledged but unmistakable responses to my letters. It was like what happened with Little Boy Rosy Cheeks and the Seattle Shithead in The Authorities, which was written as much to save my sanity as to sound an alarm. From 1973 to 1987, it happened on the impersonal level to all of us who did not share their high opinion of Jane Fonda and the Viet Cong. Just when you thought it was over-Zap! Somebody you didnt expect, although you should have, would put you solidly in your place at the back of the bus.
It wasnt so much a question of personalities or political preferences as it was of undifferentiated categories, the kind of thing that led to so many wrong guesses on the game show "To Tell The Truth." Jane Fonda and the Viet Cong belonged to a broad category of people consistently identified by our medias best as having been on the right side of the issue in Vietnam: the side of peace and justice. Anyone on the opposite side fell into the opposite category. If you were an unconverted Vietnam vet that made you a war criminal, a bigot, a moron, an Oreo, a moral coward or all of the above and more for ten years running. Furthermore, you had nothing to kick about because your views were given full expression on NPR by lots of assholes.
In the eleventh year (1984), Hollywood finally caught on to the money-making potential of Vietnam vets as action/adventure heroes, which was terrific for action/adventure movie stars. It was also great for the network of friends in the serious news and entertainment business who modeled the mind set of their "real" Vietnam vets after the leading character in "Coming Home," who was modeled after Ron Kovic. The contrast between Jane Fondas "Luke" and Sylvester Stallones "Rambo" made Janes character seem more true to life than ever.
The comparison was irresistible to public radios finest, who merrily added such celluloid heroes to their list of impostors claiming to stand for "the real Vietnam vet." The idea championed by these cartoon characters that the Viet Cong were no match for American fighting men was reduced to a joke. So was the idea that some captured Americans listed as MIA might have actually been prisoners of war.
Media characterizations of credible vets (dovish: thoughtful, repentant) and not so credible vets (hawkish: mindless, unrepentant) can be argued as you please, but why do that when the truth is on audio and video tape?
This is why: For the same reasons it was argued for yearson the rare occasions the subject arosethat the Khmer Rouge may or may not have been committing genocide in Cambodia; that the boat people may or may not have had good cause to get out of Vietnam any way they could, and Hanois tens of thousands of troops may or may not have been in Laos to protect Vietnams borders from foreign invaders. The media would not examine the facts that challenged their conclusion that the peace movement was right. That conclusion has been a constant in their discussions of Vietnam since the "Pentagon Papers" were released in 1971. A constant since `73 when the Watergate revelation of Nixons "enemy list" made everyone on it a national hero was that anyone who disagreed with them on Vietnam was a jerk.
In the following letter I wrote to "All Things Considered," I related my view of the situation and proposed a simple empirical test of its validity. If anything had come of it, you would not be reading about it here, since all I ever wanted as a Vietnam vet was to feel as free as my antiwar brothers to write a letter to the editor.
June 29, 1985
Dear ATC, In my last letter to you (6-24-85) I indicated that your Vietnam related programming for the entire year invited commentary from only those Vietnam vets with a "Coming Home" point of view. That notion may have struck you as absurd, offensive, unfairas evidence, perhaps, of my own bias.
How can I tell you I was being kind? Ill try.
When I first got to Vietnam, I found myself involved in a conversation with a bright and affable young soldier from antebellum Dixie. He thought that black people were a lower form of life. The way he explained things, the sources he quoted, the statistics, the examples, etc., he had reached the only honest conclusion any intelligent human being could, giving "full consideration" to every "important" aspect of the issue and putting it all in its proper place. It was in that spirit that he said, "Some nigras are almost as good as white men"like me for example.
I thanked him politely and he continued, demonstrating the same kind of attention to accuracy, balance and completeness which would, in the following decade, earn "Vietnam: A Television History," all sorts of awards for journalistic excellence. Although the subject was different, the approach was the same; consistent, coherent, authoritative, repetitive, mostly accurate, almost balanced and nearly complete. If you didnt know what "tiny" bits of information were missing from the scale, you couldnt argue with where the weight of evidence fell. In that respect, the kid from antebellum Dixie was way ahead of his time.
The only obvious flaw in his presentation was his increasingly frequent use of the word "nigger," which was attracting a group of ethnically diverse fellow newcomers to Southeast Asia. They listened incredulously as the kid rattled on. You could see the questions on their faces: Is this a joke? How did that clown get through basic alive? Why dont the blood kick his ass?
The young man was on a roll... It took a while for him to notice the strained and oddly contorted faces encircling us. When he asked what was wrong, one of the men I trained with back in the states [Hondo], asked him whether he realized how many times he called me nigger. Dixie looked at him as though he had said something totally off the wall. He was deeply offended and denied having said anything of the kind, knowing damn well that he had talked to me as he would have talked to a friend. It probably did not occur to him that that was where he made his mistake.
It so happened that I was recording everything and when we played back the tape, he was devastated by what he heard himself saying. What happened to him is what I believe happens to all of us when force of habit and the absence of immediate negative feedback come together unexpectedly in an inappropriate social context. I doubt that the kid was prepared to feel comfortable about freely expressing his racial attitudes in front of a black man. When he found himself doing just that, its my guess that habit took overas it would if he had been talking to a friend. The language he used in that context would have seemed perfectly all right. After all, whats a nigger or two among friends?
The Vietnam debate did not produce a name for the stereotypical critics of the medias role in Vietnam. It did, however, create a highly recognizable stereotype... Like the old familiar ______ in the woodpile, all you have to know is the context in which it is invariably found to know for certain that it is there. When you use the words and phrases that supply that context, I doubt that you are aware of having maligned any of your listeners. You would probably be deeply offended and deny having said anything of the kind, knowing full well....
I could go on with this but it would settle nothing. What do you say we play back some tapes?
Copyright © 1994 by Jasper Garrison
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