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Soldiers of all seasons

As the war in Iraq passes another milestone, it's up to veterans of this war and others to open a discussion on when and why and whether we should fight, and what it means to come home.

By KATHLEEN OCHSHORN
Published December 3, 2006


The war in Iraq has now lasted longer than U.S. engagement in World War II, but the comparison heard most often these days is to an even longer war - the one in Vietnam.

When the United States invaded Iraq, many Americans called for unqualified support not only of the troops but of the war itself, with some implying that criticizing the war was morally equivalent to criticizing the service men and women in the middle of it. After all, we didn't want another Vietnam, where troops were demonized for fighting an unpopular war. But wait.

It's not that simple. More than 90 percent of returning Vietnam veterans themselves said they received a warm homecoming, according to a 1971 Gallup poll. That statistic is cited in The Spitting Image: Myth, Memory and the Legacy of Vietnam by Jerry Lembcke, a Holy Cross professor and Vietnam veteran who challenges the collective memory that the troops were blamed for Vietnam. And, of course, many Vietnam veterans became the backbone of the Vietnam antiwar movement.

So what lessons are there to learn?

When President Bush landed in Vietnam last month, he made a mind-boggling comparison between the wars, suggesting our long haul in Vietnam had somehow contributed to that county's eventual success and stability. He claimed the lesson he drew from Vietnam was "we'll succeed unless we quit." The success Bush so strangely evoked included 58,193 U.S. troops killed and hundreds of thousands wounded.

While the casualties in Iraq are nowhere near that, the shattering of each country is eerily parallel. Both wars were depicted by the United States as rescue missions to free people and to promote democracy and our own national security.

They became wars of insurgency where U.S. troops were increasingly perceived as invaders. Both wars have been marked by scandals of abuse, rape, torture and murder of innocent civilians. And in both, as in all wars "good" and "bad," the foot soldiers are the ones fighting and dying.

Two films about war were shown on Veterans Day at Studio@620 in St. Petersburg, sponsored by WMNF Community Radio and Veterans for Peace. Both films present the disturbing views of returning veterans. The first was the rereleased 1972 documentary Winter Soldier about the 1971 gathering of Vietnam veterans in Detroit. Gainesville antiwar activist and Vietnam veteran Scott Camil, who is prominently featured in the film, was on hand to lead a discussion with the audience, which included veterans of Vietnam and Korea and longtime peace activists. The second film, The Ground Truth, dealt with resistance to the war in Iraq among more recent veterans.

Camil was once a gung-ho Marine who served two tours in Vietnam and earned two Purple Hearts. He now spends time counseling veterans on a GI rights hotline and going into schools to educate students about the consequences of war.

Veterans loyal to each other

The films evoke the loyalty veterans felt toward each other but also their pain and confusion about their service in the wars they have come to reject.

Winter Soldier is a famous though seldom screened film about a public inquiry into U.S. official conduct in Vietnam. It took place one month after revelations of the My Lai massacre. More than 125 soldiers took part, testifying about standard operating procedures in their units, including atrocities against civilians and routine destruction of whole villages.

The title of the film and the inquiry takes its name from a quote by Thomas Paine: "These are the times that try men's souls. The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country; but he that stands it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman." Paine was urging commitment to the American Revolution and the glorious triumph he envisioned. But these winter soldiers define their patriotism by their courage to question their war.

Pain, guilt and outrage characterize the testimony of the soldiers who stood up in 1971 to relate their Vietnam experience. In a landscape where the enemy is seldom identified, soon loyalty is only to close buddies. Many of these winter soldiers went on to form Vietnam Veterans Against the War.

In the second film, Patricia Foulkrod's The Ground Truth, released this year, veterans of the Iraq war are interviewed about their experiences. The parallels between the conflicts, the agony and horror experienced, were especially evident when we watched these two films back to back.

Like The Ground Truth, a new book Mission Rejected: U.S Soldiers Who Say No to Iraq by Peter Laufer, profiles a recent crop of winter soldiers who are speaking out. But some Vietnam vets have been making these connections all along. In the winter of 2004, I spoke to a small band of Vietnam veterans who were waving flags on Tampa's Bayshore Boulevard, a few blocks south of the Bayshore Patriots at Bay to Bay.

These vets also supported the troops but some opposed the war. As Scott Camil said at the film viewing, "To see my country doing the same thing to my children's generation shows we didn't learn anything. It's like kicking dirt on the Wall."

Kathleen Ochshorn is a professor of English and writing at the University of Tampa, where she also edits fiction for Tampa Review.