A Generational Thing

Mackubin T. Owens

June 1, 2005

I usually enjoy reading Victor Davis Hanson’s pieces on National Review Online and elsewhere. He is a first-rate historian whose insights about war and international politics seem right on the money. He is such a great observer of things military that when he errs, it is all the more noticeable.

As usual, I agreed with just about everything I read in his NRO piece of May 14, “Remembering World War II: Revisionists Get It Wrong.” But I was stunned when I read the last three paragraphs of the article:

If there were any justice in the world, we would have the ability to transport our most severe critics across time and space to plop them down on Omaha Beach or put them in an overloaded B-29 taking off from Tinian, with the crew on amphetamines to keep awake for their 15-hour mission over Tokyo.

But alas, we cannot. Instead, the beneficiaries of those who sacrificed now ankle-bite their dead betters. Even more strangely, they have somehow convinced us that in their politically-correct hindsight, they could have done much better in World War II.

Yet from every indication of their own behavior over the last 30 years, we suspect that the generation who came of age in the 1960s would have not just have done far worse but failed entirely (emphasis in the original).

Well, I came of age in the 1960s, turning 23 while serving as a Marine infantry platoon leader in Vietnam. Many of my men turned 19 there. Too many of them did not see 20. If, as it appears, Mr. Hanson is referring in his article to the Vietnam generation, he is making a mistake that I have come to expect in movies, television, and other examples of the popular culture, but one that is unworthy of someone of Mr. Hanson’s intellect and learning.

In the popular culture, the Vietnam “generation” is bifurcated. On the one hand, the “best and brightest” are portrayed in a way that reflects the claim of Sixties radical and present Democratic politician, Tom Hayden, who wrote in his memoir, Reunion, that “We of the Sixties accomplished more than most generations in American history.” In this view, the Sixties were exciting, heroic, and uniquely infused with moral passion, the “Promethean moment,” in the words of one commentator “when the Chosen Ones went through hell to save their souls and ours.” These were the protesters who opposed the war and who now are presumed to speak for the Vietnam “generation.”

On the other hand, those who actually fought the war are, for the most part, portrayed as losers who were victimized by the war. They were drafted and shipped off to fight an immoral war, all too often returning as burned out wrecks. Indeed, the Traumatized Vietnam Vet has become a staple of the popular culture, evidence to the contrary notwithstanding.

According to the conventional wisdom, those who served in Vietnam were mostly young, poor, and non-white. Many, if not most, committed or observed atrocities (Thank you John Kerry). The horrors of the war led many to turn to drugs and a life of crime. Vietnam veterans are disproportionately represented among the homeless and the incarcerated. The Vietnam veteran was and is a time bomb waiting to go off.

The clear sense of Mr. Hanson’s last sentence is that he accepts these caricatures as true, and accepts the judgment of American elites that the former are the legitimate voice of the Vietnam generation. But as Jim Webb, the best-selling novelist who was awarded a Navy Cross for valor in Vietnam as a Marine infantry officer and who served as Secretary of the Navy during the Reagan administration, has observed, the cohort that came of age in the 1960s is not so much a “generation” as an age-group divided along cultural fault lines, none of which was more important than conflicting attitudes toward the war. Writing in The American Enterprise several years ago, Webb observed:

The sizable portion of the Vietnam age group who declined to support the counter-cultural agenda, and especially the men and women who opted to serve in the military during the Vietnam War, are quite different from their peers who for decades have claimed to speak for them. In fact, they are much like the World War II generation itself. For them, Woodstock was a side show, college protestors were spoiled brats who would have benefited from having to work a few jobs in order to pay their tuition, and Vietnam represented not an intellectual exercise in draft avoidance or protest marches but a battlefield that was just as brutal as those their fathers faced in World War II and Korea.

Webb’s point is important. Many of us who went to Vietnam were attempting to emulate our fathers and uncles who had fought World War II. We saw communism in Southeast Asia as they saw fascism in Europe and Japan. The people whom Mr. Hanson apparently had in mind when he wrote about the critics of the World War II generation certainly did not, and do not, speak for us.

Here are some figures on the three million men who served in Vietnam. Two-thirds of them were volunteers; 73 percent of those who died were volunteers. According to a 1980 Harris Poll commissioned by the Veterans’ Administration (VA), acknowledged to be the most accurate survey of Vietnam veteran attitudes, 91 percent of those who saw combat in Vietnam were “glad they’d served their country,” 74 percent enjoyed their time in the service, and 89 percent agreed with the statement that “our troops were asked to fight in a war which our political leaders in Washington would not let them win.” 80% disagreed with the statement that “the US took advantage of me.” And remarkably, nearly two out of three said they would go to Vietnam again, even knowing how the war would end. Most returned from the war and got on with their lives. The “dysfunctional” Vietnam vet is a slander.

When I think of the men with whom I served in Vietnam—Jack Higgins, Tim Rabbitt, Andy O’Sullivan, Carl Marlantes, Vic Reston, Buzz Fry, Calvin Spaight, Larry Boyer, and many others—I would be willing to put them up against any other group of soldiers in history. As Webb writes:

Dropped onto the enemy’s terrain 12,000 miles away from home, America’s citizen-soldiers performed with a tenacity and quality that may never be truly understood. Those who believe the war was fought incompetently on a tactical level should consider Hanoi’s recent admission that 1.4 million of its soldiers died on the battlefield, compared to 58,000 total U.S. dead. Those who believe that it was a “dirty little war” where the bombs did all the work might contemplate that it was the most costly war the U.S. Marine Corps has ever fought—five times as many dead as World War I, three times as many dead as in Korea, and more total killed and wounded than in all of World War II.

Significantly, these sacrifices were being made at a time the United States was deeply divided over our effort in Vietnam.

Did we have our slackers and cowards? Of course, but so did the generation that fought the “good war.”

If Mr. Hanson believes that we would have “failed miserably” had we been called on to fight a war like World War II, perhaps he should read the citations of Medal of Honor recipients from Vietnam. Or he could read Jim Webb’s Navy Cross citation, which in World War II would have earned a Medal of Honor.

The point of course is not to denigrate the unparalleled accomplishments of those who fought and won World War II. My dad was a Marine who took part in two campaigns in the Pacific. Had President Truman not dropped the bomb on Japan, my dad would have been involved in the assault on the Japanese home islands. But to suggest, as Mr. Hanson does, that there is something historically unique about this group of men doing their duty in World War II is unfair to other generations of American fighting men.

Mackubin T. Owens is an associate dean of academics and professor of national security affairs at the Naval War College in Newport, R.I. In 1968 he led a Marine infantry platoon in Vietnam.