Redefining heroism: When I was in Vietnam, I was no hero

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By ARNOLD OLIVER

OtherWords.org

Guest Commentary

More then a few veterans, myself included, are troubled by the way Americans observe Veterans Day.

Originally called Armistice Day, and intended by Congress in 1926 to “perpetuate peace through good will and mutual understanding between nations,” the holiday has devolved into a hyper-nationalistic worship service of militarism. We’re directed to believe that the day’s purpose is to honor the heroes who have sacrificed to defend our peace and freedom.

Criticism, or even discussion, of the merits of the embedded assumption of veteran heroism is dismissed as being beyond the pale.

Well, I have to tell you that when I was in Vietnam, I was no hero and I didn’t witness any heroism during the year I spent there, first as a U.S. Army private and then as a sergeant.

Yes, there was heroism in the Vietnam War. On both sides of the conflict there were notable acts of self-sacrifice and bravery. Troops in my unit wondered how the North Vietnamese troops could persevere for years in the face of daunting U.S. firepower. U.S. medical corpsmen performed incredible acts of valor rescuing the wounded under fire.

But I also witnessed a considerable amount of bad behavior, some of it my own. There were widespread incidents of disrespect and abuse of Vietnamese civilians including more than a few war crimes. Further, all units had, and still have, their share of criminals, sexual predators and thugs. Most unheroic of all were the U.S. military and civilian leaders who planned and orchestrated this avoidable war.

The cold truth is that the U.S. invasion and occupation of Vietnam had next to nothing to do with our own peace and freedom. On the contrary, the Vietnam War bitterly divided the United States. We fought it to forestall Vietnamese independence, not defend it.

Unfortunately, Vietnam wasn’t an isolated example. Many American wars — including the 1846 Mexican-American War, the Spanish-American War in 1898, and the Iraq War (this list is by no means exhaustive) — were waged under false pretexts against countries that didn’t threaten the United States.

It’s hard to see how, if a war is unjust, it can be heroic to wage it. So it’s flat-out preposterous to claim that everyone who has ever been in the U.S. military is a hero.

But if the vast majority were anything but heroic, have there been any actual heroes out there defending peace and freedom? And if so, who are they?

Well, there are many, from Jesus down to the present. I’d put Gandhi, Tolstoy, and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. on the list along with many Quakers and Mennonites. And don’t forget General Smedley Butler, and even Robert McNamara who came around in the end.

In Vietnam, Warrant Officer Hugh Thompson stopped the My Lai massacre from being even worse. The real heroes are those who resist war and militarism, often at great personal cost.

Another candidate is former U.S. Army specialist Josh Stieber who sent this message for the people of Iraq: “Our heavy hearts still hold hope that we can restore inside our country the acknowledgment of your humanity, that we were taught to deny.” Ponder a million Iraqi deaths.

Because militarism has been around for such a long time, at least since Gilgamesh came up with his protection racket in Sumeria going on 5,000 years ago, people argue that it will always be with us. But many also thought that slavery and the subjugation of women would last forever, and they’re being proven wrong.

We understand that while militarism will not disappear overnight, disappear it must if we are to avoid economic as well as moral bankruptcy.

As Civil War General W.T. Sherman said at West Point, “I confess without shame that I am tired and sick of war.” I’m with you, bro.

(Arnold “Skip” Oliver is professor emeritus of political science at Heidelberg University in Tiffin, Ohio. A Vietnam veteran, he belongs to Veterans For Peace, and can be reached at soliver@heidelberg.edu. Distributed via OtherWords. OtherWords.org.)

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