NBC’s "The Sixties": Slandering an Entire Generation of Warriors

Mackubin T. Owens

February 1, 1999

There is plenty to criticize in the recent NBC mini-series “The Sixties.” But for my money, the worst aspect of this dreadful contribution to the popular culture is the fact that it slanders an entire generation of fighting men: those who put their lives on the line in Vietnam.

There is an undeniable orthodoxy associated with the Vietnam veteran. According to the conventional wisdom, those who served in Vietnam were largely young and poor. Minorities were disproportionately represented. They suffered unspeakable trauma. Many, if not most, committed or observed atrocities. The horrors of the war led many to turn to drugs and a life of crime. As many as half of those who served in Vietnam suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). More Vietnam veterans have committed suicide than died in the war. Vietnam veterans are disproportionately represented among the homeless and the incarcerated. The Vietnam veteran was and is a time bomb waiting to go off. Brian, the brother in the mini-series who goes to Vietnam reflects this orthodoxy, returning as the burnt-out, drug-addicted, Traumatized Vet.

Will Rogers once said that “it’s not the things we don’t know that get us into trouble. It’s the things we know that just ain’t so.” This applies in spades to Vietnam veterans. The fact is, most of what people “know” about them “just ain’t so.”

For instance, the war was not fought primarily by reluctant draftees, predominantly composed of the poor, the young, or racial minorities. The poor and the minorities fought and died in Vietnam, but so did the middle class. The record indicates that 86 % of those who died during the war were white and 12.5 % were black, from an age group in which blacks comprised 13.1 % of the population. Two thirds of those who served in Vietnam were volunteers, and volunteers accounted for 77 % of combat deaths.

Statistics indicate that the suicide, homelessness, and drug abuse rates of Vietnam veterans are no higher than for non-vets and non-theater Vietnam era veterans. The incarceration rate is lower. And while PTSD is a real phenomenon, it is not nearly as widespread as the press portrays it. The press regularly claims that PTSD continues to affect 500,000 to 1.5 million Vietnam veterans, i.e. nearly one sixth (18 %) to nearly one half of the 3.3 million men who served in theater.

These numbers, derived from the flawed National Vietnam Veteran Readjustment Study, are implausibly high, especially given that fewer than 15 percent of those who served in country were assigned to combat units. A much better designed study by the Centers for Disease Control reported that 15 % of Vietnam veterans experienced some symptoms of combat-related PTSD at some time during or after military service, but that only 2.2 % exhibited symptoms at the time of the study.

But most tellingly, a comprehensive 1980 survey commissioned by Veterans’ Administration (VA) reported that 91 % of those who had seen combat in Vietnam were “glad they had served their country;” 80 % disagreed with the statement that “the US took advantage of me;” and nearly two out of three would go to Vietnam again, even knowing how the war would end.

For years, many of us who served in Vietnam tried to make the case reflected in these figures: that the popular image of the Vietnam vet as maladjusted loser, dehumanized killer, or ticking “time bomb” was at odds with reality. Indeed, it was our experience that those who had served in Vietnam generally did so with honor, decency, and restraint; that despite often being viewed with distrust or opprobrium at home, most had asked for nothing but to be left alone to make the transition back to civilian life; and that most had in fact made that transition if not always smoothly, at least successfully.

But the press could always find the stereotypical, traumatized vet who could be counted on to tell the most harrowing and gruesome stories of combat in Vietnam, often involving atrocities. Many of the war stories recounted by these individuals were wildly implausible to any one who had been in Vietnam, but credulous journalists, most of whom had no military experience, uncritically passed their reports along to the public.

I always agreed with the observation of Harry Summers, a well-known military commentator who served as an infantryman in Korean and Vietnam, that the story teller’s distance from the battle zone was directly proportional to the gruesomeness of most atrocity stories. But until the publication of a remarkable new book, Stolen Valor: How the Vietnam Generation Was Robbed of Its Heroes and its History by B.G. Burkett and the fine Texas writer, Glenna Whitley (Verity Press, www.stolenvalor.com), neither Harry nor I any idea just how true his observation was.

Mr. Burkett is best known to those of us who live in New England as the man who sent Joe Yandle back to prison. Yandle admitted to being the getaway driver during a 1972 liquor store holdup in Medford, Massachusetts that resulted in the murder of the store manager. Under Massachusetts law, even though Yandle did not pull the trigger, he was equally complicit with the gunman. Convicted of the crime and sentenced to life in prison without parole, Yandle never claimed to be innocent, but contended that the hell of the Vietnam war had driven him to drugs and crime.

The CBS news magazine 60 Minutes did a segment on Yandle in which Mike Wallace told viewers that Yandle did two tours in Vietnam and “came home with a Bronze Star for valor, two Purple Hearts and something else–a heroin habit.” The 60 Minutes report was instrumental in convincing then-Governor William Weld to commute Yandle’s life sentence to time served–23 years.

But Mr. Burkett discovered that although Yandle had indeed served in the Marines and had been honorably discharged, he had never set foot in Vietnam. He had manufactured the claim that he had survived the 77-day siege of Khe Sanh. He certainly did not rate the Bronze Star and two Purple Hearts for wounds received.

What is striking about the Yandle case is the predisposition on the part of journalists uncritically to accept the claim that service in Vietnam was an indicator of, even an explanation for, criminal activity at home. How could hard-nosed, ace investigative reporter Mike Wallace and others like him be so easily taken in? Mr. Burkett’s answer to this question stands as a rebuke to American journalism.

The fact is that the media has peddled the “Vietnam vet goes berserk” angle for a very long time. A milestone of sorts was the 1988 CBS documentary “The Wall Within” which constituted a veritable caricature of Vietnam veterans: they routinely committed war crimes. They came home from an immoral war traumatized, vilified, then pitied. Jobless, homeless, addicted, suicidal, they remain afflicted by inner conflicts, stranded on the fringes of society.

This image had its genesis in the anti-war left of the 1960s and 70s. The war was uniquely brutal and unjust, went the argument, and brutalized those who fought it. At first the anti-war left vilified veterans as war criminals and baby-killers. But this approach evolved into the idea that the Vietnam veteran was a victim: he was victimized first by his country, which made him poor and then sent him off to fight an unjust war. Then he was victimized by a military that dehumanized him and turned him into a killer. All the Vietnam veteran had to do to receive the absolution of the anti-war left was to confess his sins.

Mr. Burkett demonstrates beyond a shadow of a doubt that most of those who “confessed” were frauds. Nonetheless, the public confessions made for great theater: Mark Lane’s absurd Conversations With Americans, Paul Solotaroff’s equally disreputable The House of Purple Hearts, the Vietnam Veterans Against the War and the now-discredited “Winter Soldier” Investigation of 1970 all reinforced the image of the Vietnam veteran as victim.

At about the same time, anti-war psychiatrists such as Robert Jay Lifton claimed that since Vietnam was worse than earlier wars, returning soldiers would suffer severe psychological effects specific to the war. Mr. Lifton was instrumental in the development of PTSD. Finally, to justify its budget as the World War II veteran population declined, the VA came on board. (A National Academy of Sciences study commissioned by the VA had reported that 25 % of the World War II vets suffered from emotional and psychological symptoms similar to those ascribed to PTSD.) Ideology and the self-interest of bureaucrats constitute a powerful combination.

“The Sixties” illustrates that this image of the Vietnam vet prevails even today. But is it true? Mr. Burkett shows that the answer is no. In the course of trying to raise money for a Texas Vietnam Veterans Memorial, Mr. Burkett discovered that reporters were only interested in homeless veterans and drug abuse and that the corporate leaders he approached had bought into the popular image of the Vietnam vet: not honorable men (and women) who took pride in their service, but whining welfare cases, belly-aching about what an immoral government did to them.

Fed up, Mr. Burkett did something that any reporter worth his or her salt could have done: he used the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) to check the actual records of the “image makers” used by reporters to flesh out their stories on homelessness, Agent Orange, suicide, drug abuse, criminality, or alcoholism. What he found was astounding. More often than not, the show case “veteran” who cried on camera about his dead buddies, about committing or witnessing atrocities, or about some heroic action in combat that led him to the current dead end in his life, was an impostor.

Indeed, Mr. Burkett discovered that over the last decade, some 1,700 individuals, including some of the most prominent examples of the Vietnam veteran as dysfunctional loser, had fabricated their war stories. Many had never even been in the service. Many, like Joe Yandle, had been, but had never been in Vietnam.

Stolen Valor makes clear why, intentionally or not, events like “The Sixties” slander all those who served in Vietnam. The fact is that Vietnam veterans have fared as well or better than any other generation of warriors, and it’s about time that the myths that have tainted America’s view of Vietnam veterans are put to rest. By unmasking the despicable phonies who have stolen the honor of the legitimate Vietnam veterans and exposing the complicity of the press in this theft, Mr. Burkett has done an immense service to his fellow veterans, and by extension to his country.

Mackubin Thomas Owens is adjunct fellow at the Ashbrook Center and a professor of strategy and force planning at the Naval War College in Newport and a Marine infantry veteran of Vietnam. He can be reached by e-mail at owensm@nwc.navy.mil.