The Importance of Story

Individual and Cultural Effects of Skewing the Realities of
American Involvement in
Southeast Asia for Social, Political and/or Economic Ends.

by John M. Del Vecchio


Allow me to read to you two short passages from recent bestsellers which, I believe, reflect the most common, current story, or image, or stereotype of American involvement in Southeast Asia, and of American veterans.

The first is from Robert James Waller's 1994-95 bestseller, Border Music. It tells the story of Texas Jack Carmine, who "Took the last plane out of Saigon..." (Waller, 8) in 1975; and who "was a high-strung bow, drawn back, released, pulled back again, day after day in a long life of drill rigs and fence lines... and the recoil of .50 caliber machine guns that could sweep a Saigon rooftop like a giant push broom." (Waller, 143).

Jack's above poetically described PTSD is based on the following fictional scene of April 30, 1975:

	Jack Carmine had pulled him into the chopper. Turning and looking as the gunner opened up:
gunner's body shaking with the recoil of the .50 caliber, ammo belt feeding into the .50 like the
fastest snake you've ever seen, blowing apart a woman and baby as the door came off its hinges
and people surged onto the roof. The .50 had suddenly stopped, and the gunner named Carmine
never fired another round all the way out to where they landed on the Midway. (Waller, 233)

The second passage is from Pat Conroy's 1995 bestseller Beach Music. The protagonist is one Jack McCall of Charleston, South Carolina; the time is 1985; the scene, a meeting of McCall and several 'friends' from his high school class of 1966. In the extract, 'I' is Jack McCall. The first speaker, the wife of a character named Capers, is defending her husband to Jack.

	"He went to Vietnam. You were a draft dodger."
	"That's right, Miss South Carolina. Funny part is, I can still kick his ass. If guys like me had gone
to Vietnam, we would've won the war..." (151)

Two pages later Capers, Mike and Jack snap back and forth:

		Capers continued, "What happened to us in college wouldn't have happened at any other
time except for the Vietnam War. But I was standing up for what I believed in. I thought my
country was in trouble."
		"The tears. They still come. Drivel does that to me," I said.
		"Those were heavy times," Mike said. "Even you have to admit that, Jack. I dodged the
draft then because I thought it was the right thing to do and I didn't want to get my ass shot off in
a country I couldn't even spell."
		Capers added, "All of us made mistakes during the Vietnam War."
		"I didn't," I said. "I didn't make one fucking mistake during that entire war. I honored
myself by being against that silly-ass war."
		"The tides turning if favor of Viet vets,"Capers said.
		"Not with me. I'm tired of hearing Vietnam vets whine. Has there ever been a group of
vets in this country who were such crybabies, who shouted 'poor me' so loud and so often? They
seem to have absolutely no respect for themselves."
		"A lot of us were spit on when we came back to this country," said Capers.
		"Bullshit," I said. "A lie. An urban myth. I've heard it a thousand times and I don't
believe a word of it. And it always happened in the airport."
		"That's where it happened to me," said Capers.
		"... You're lying, Capers, and if it happened you should have rammed the teeth down the
asshole's throat that did it. That's what I can't believe. A million Vietnam vets get spit on and no
one loses a tooth. No wonder you lost the fucking war."

In this paper, I would like to establish a framework for the Importance of Story; then briefly examine how, and in what forms, Viet Nam has entered the American consciousness; where that story is skewed from verifiable reality; and why; and finally look at the ramifications of the distortions, gaps and omissions in ambient cultural story.

I will touch on only a few elements of this cultural self-narrative; on only a few images, and behavior patterns. I will suggest a few changes to our popular memory which I believe are more in line with verifiable reality; and will conclude by suggesting that unskewing our ambient cultural story might be a step in impacting positively change to American macro social behavior.

The Framework

After my first novel, The 13th Valley, was published in 1982, I received approximately 3,000 letters, perhaps sixty percent from American veterans. That letter-base, along with several hundred follow-up interviews and a deep involvement with veterans and veteran's issues, became the source and the impetus for my third novel, Carry Me Home. While writing Carry Me Home, I developed a theory of cultural behavior to explain the complexities of the phenomena I was examining: specifically, Post Traumatic Stress Disorders afflicting American veterans of the war in Viet Nam. Like any good scientific theory I felt it needed to be cohesive, simple, elegant, and capable of broad and accurate application. I did not believe that current sociological theory was adequate. Perhaps it is only one novelist's perspective, but to me story is basic.

The story we tell ourselves of ourselves, individually or culturally, creates our self-image. Behavior, individually and culturally, is consistent with self-image. Story determines behavior.

As story changes, self-image changes; as self-image changes, behavior changes; as behavior changes, so too changes the results of behavior. That is, personal and cultural story have ramifications.

Because story has ramifications, it is necessary to analyze and to understand the current story that we are telling ourselves of ourselves. If one sees oneself as an academic, one behaves in particular patterns. If one sees oneself as a writer, or a builder, as a soldier, patriot or radical, one also behaves in particular patterns. One's behavior in the present is very different if he tells himself, "We Were Wrong. Terribly Wrong." (Newsweek, 17 Apr 95), than if he tells himself, it was a "Noble Cause;" very different if one describes oneself as a victimized, crazy Viet Nam Vet, or if one's self-description is that of a proud conscientious participant; and very different if one's story is of "being against that silly-ass war," versus of "bearing any burden in the defense of freedom."

By the term Cultural Story, or more fully, Ambient Cultural Story, I mean our current common knowledge, or collective national myth, or conventional wisdom, popular memory, and/or political folklore.

The story we tell ourselves of ourselves, individually or culturally, creates our self-image. Self-image consists of internalized, cumulative, and weighted images, which create belief patterns, perceptual formats, understandings, and conceptualizations. At the most fundamental level, self-image determines macro behavior.

Said another way, culture is built upon self-image and beliefs, and self-image and beliefs are based upon ambient story. Thus behavior is consistent with self-image and with story. Behavior includes actions in the present as well as plans and projections for the future.

Ambient cultural story is complex, fluid, and subject to external pressures, yet it also tends to be homeostatic. By ambient I mean general consensus, the bulk of the story, the feeling and flavor we get from the news and from films, the data that becomes boilerplate in news stories, or that is distilled into high school textbooks. I do not mean that denials, variations and/or opposing stories are totally absent.

By fluid I mean that alteration of ambient story is possible, and that such alteration changes self-image, and thereby alters macro behavior. By homeostatic I mean that story tends to revert to prior general consensus. For example, if one has repeatedly heard, and been convinced, that many American soldiers in Viet Nam committed atrocities--were baby killers--then is told that this actually was a tiny percentage, and that the incidents were always against policy, one will tend to be reluctant to dismiss the bulk of the older ambient story--particularly if it is still being reinforced by story generators.

By external pressures, I mean that individually or culturally we are influenced by the stories others tell us about ourselves. One might include here the written word, both fiction and non-fiction--but in America today the greatest external pressure on story comes from television--a medium from which more than half of all Americans derive one hundred percent of their news, a story generator, or information gatekeeper, which the average American watches for more than six hours each day.

Behavior is consistent with self-image. That is a basic tenet. There are individual deviations and group self- image is necessarily more complex than individual self-image; still self-image controls attitudes and actions.

When we, as a nation, believed in Manifest Destiny, our policies and actions reflected that belief. When we viewed ourselves as an altruistic nation willing to go anywhere, to bear any burden in the defense of freedom, our actions and foreign policy tended to be in accord with those principles, with that idealism. In Carry Me Home, one character addressing a mock trial in 1984 expressed an altered cultural story:

Now we exist in a time in America where we believe in looking out for number one, in the me
generation, in getting our piece of the pie no matter whom we screw-over or abandon. Once duty
was considered a virtue. Now it is equated with depravity. The ancient Greeks used to say, Ethos
anthropou daimon. A person's story is his fate. And a nation's myth, the story it tells itself of
itself, is a nation's fate. (628)

What happens to a culture if the people come to believe they are as morally bankrupt as their social commentators tell then they are? Or if the people come to view themselves as prone to violence and greed, racism and bigotry? Is the thresholds for reacting in manners consistent with those images lower than if the view is of a people as accountable and disciplined citizens?

Macro behavior is consistent with self-image and self-image always meshes with ambient story unless acted upon by a significant, outer force. Yet the theory of cultural macro behavior cannot be used to determine specific behaviors of individuals. It is, instead, analogous to quantum physics. One cannot predict the behavior of a particular individual from cultural myth any more than one can predict the path of a specific electron--but overall trends can be predicted, and accurately. And they can be directed by controlling ambient story.

Randolph Hearst's role in the Spanish-American War is an example of story-control altering macro behavior. Another example might be drawn from the billions of dollars spent yearly on advertisements--a form of story telling or image-making. Indeed, today, this is a primary form of cultural image manipulation.

Another example may be inferred from recently expressed fears that America's image makers and information disseminators are becoming too monopolistic. Will Disney/ABC or Westinghouse/CBS control cultural story making via narrow, story info-tainment? Pol Pot's Year Zero policy is an extreme example of an attempt to wipe out existing cultural story and supplant it with an alien ideology in order to alter macro behavior.

Story is not always complete--there are omissions and gaps, both expedient and purposeful. Story is not always accurate--there are extrapolations, embellishments and fabrications. Story is not static--it is always growing, dying, being revised and reinvented. What is consistent is that story forms self-image, and behavior is consistent with self- image.

There are many ways to describe people. For individuals we might include age, gender, ethnicity, nationality, political tendencies, religious affiliations, region, race, height, color of eyes, size of nose, amount of facial hair. These tags represent characteristics. Ethnicity has characteristics; so too, nationality, religion, and political affiliation. For the individual we might call story-based cumulative characteristics, personality. For a group, we might use the term, culture.

Some elements of personality or of culture are shaped by specific, defining moments. For example, I recall one cold winter evening when I was fifteen years old, and I had just left swim team practice at the Orrcutt Boy's Club on Bridgeport's eastside. I was alone, I don't remember why. I think I missed my ride. That night, perhaps 500 or 600 feet from where I stood, in a circle of light in at the far side of Washington Park, I witnessed a group of boys, I think they were younger than I was, stoning (or apple-ing) an old woman. There were perhaps fifteen boys. The woman could not defend herself other than shuffling on, trying to protect her head with an upraised arm. I don't believe the boy's physically damaged her. She and they disappeared. Still, at that time, I did nothing, fearful that I might get myself badly beaten; frozen into inaction, into non-involvement. I have thought about that incident many times. For me, that night was a defining moment; and to me, South Viet Nam was much like that old woman.

Principles of Application

Long term, or cultural, ramifications of public programs, policies or laws, or of media projections, often differ from the intent of those programs, policies, laws or projections--because individual and cultural self-images induced are more determinant to long term, macro behaviors, than are the direct effects of the policies or projections.

For example: If one is working with youths, one must be very cautious in the manner programs are established to prevent unwanted behaviors-- drug abuse, teenage pregnancy, suicide--LEAST the program have the opposite long term effect and actually increase the unwanted behavior by creating elements of self-image that would not otherwise be present. Two very different example might be drawn from the creation of poverty pockets while attempting to provide affordable housing; or the creation of 'loser-status' among Viet Nam veterans while attempting to treat PTSD.

America in Southeast Asia--Atrocities

Some elements of the very complex self-image of America in Southeast Asia smack one in the face; other fragments follow like a shadow on a cloudy day. Viet Nam is always with us, always working on our collective consciousness, blatantly or near subliminally.

Let us look at a few elements of ambient cultural story regarding America's involvement in Southeast Asia. American troops committed atrocities in Viet Nam. This is verifiable and cross-verifiable. This is part of our story- -as a matter of fact, it is a very major part of our ambient cultural story, a part of the immorality of the American effort. Some see every American veteran as Jack Carmine.

At the village of My Lai, Americans murdered 109, or 346, or 500 unarmed civilians. Between 1963 and 1977, the three television networks in the United States broadcast 9447 stories regarding Viet Nam, Laos, and Cambodia on the evening news. (Network Evening News) Of those stories, fully five percent dealt with the atrocity at My Lai. Considering the point of exposure, the percentage of coverage rises to better than ten--approximately five hundred news stories relating to that one event. The ambient story of atrocities in Southeast Asia essentially is the story of My Lai.

I do not want to downplay that incident. It was horrid and the perpetrators were not properly punished. However, the reality of verifiable atrocities, which forms a gap in our ambient cultural story, is much larger than My Lai; and much less ethnocentric. It begins in the mid-1940s when colonial regimes around the world were collapsing and France was attempting to slow the disintegration of its empire. At that time there were perhaps twenty Viet Namese nationalist groups, of which the Communists were but one. All were anti-colonial. Over a period of eight years, Ho Chi Minh and his followers usurped power from all by cajole, coercion, and assassination. Writing of the political fallout of an attack lead by Vo Nguyen Giap against "two tiny French posts" on Christmas Eve 1944, Stanley Karnow, in a 1990 interview of General Giap, writes;

The victory swelled Ho's ranks. [Later,] in September 1945, following Japan's surrender, [Ho]
declared the independence of Vietnam. Named commander of the Vietminh armed forces, Giap
assumed the rank of general. Ho also appointed him Minister of Interior, a position Giap
reportedly used to liquidate a number of non-communist nationalist parties--and, some sources
allege, even his Communist rivals." (Karnow, NYT, 58)

This is not part of our ambient cultural story, yet without this element, one cannot understand American actions of this period; nor of the period just prior to the commitment of the first America advisory teams.

In the North, in the years after the Geneva Accords of 1954, no non-communist group, no matter how much love its members expressed for their homeland, was allowed to form or grow. Deaths from Communist-lead 'reforms' between December 1953 and July 1956, have been placed variously at from 5,000 to one million. Let us look, for a moment, at these variations.

According to Edwin E. Moise, who has attempted to justify Communist behavior of this time, "...'leftist' excesses were most widespread during waves four and five," which effected approximately 9,000,000 people in North Viet Nam, or sixty five percent of the population. Moise continues, "Most accounts published in the West have described the land reform as a bloodbath..." The estimated range is from Richard Nixon's 500,000 executed plus 500,000 deaths in slave labor camps, to Bernard Fall's 50,000 executed. D. Gareth Porter, however claimed the "documentary evidence for the bloodbath theory seems to have been a fabrication." According to Moise:

It was considered a great accomplishment to expose as a reactionary, or as a landlord, someone
who had not previously been known to be one. The result was that many people were denounced
for things they had never done, and probably over 30,000 peasant households were wrongly
classified... Anyone who tried to defend the victims was likely to be denounced in turn as being
'connected with landlords.' (Moise, 83)

Porter, in his own writings, claims the exaggerations were a "...stereotype which belittled the intelligence, the patriotism and the humanity of the Vietnamese Communists movement..." (Porter, 12)

He further notes:

although the land reform program was marred by administrative failures, its aims were to liberate
the poor peasant from the threat of famine... Hitherto powerless elements were encouraged for the
first time to assert themselves, and although the short-term consequences were widespread abuse
and conflict... the experience of other nations suggest... a positive development over the long run.
(Porter, 11)

Paul Harris of the Royal Military Academy at Sandhurst sees land reform from a different angle.

the (Communist) Party itself did not think land redistribution a good policy in the long run.
Agriculture would ultimately be the more inefficient if holdings were sub-divided; and
ideologically the encouragement of peasant individualism would be more likely to produce a
society akin to the French Third Republic... In the long run the party wanted to industrialise, the
proletariat not the peasantry were to be the vanguard of Vietnam's advance, and carrying the
country forward in this way would involve state control on collectivisation of agriculture.
Nevertheless the Party's leaders were realists and were prepared in the short term to give the
peasants some of what they wanted in order to ensure their support. (Harris, 5)

Despite this duplicity, Moise's analysis concludes, "...the total number of people executed during the land reform was probably in the vicinity of 5,000... the slaughter of tens of thousands or innocent victims, often described in anti-Communist propaganda, never took place." (Moise, 78)

Of course, one might suggest that Moise erred by basing much of his work on the Communist Party newspaper, Nhan-Dan; and by ignoring the five issues--September to November 1956-- of North Viet Nam's only independent newspaper--before it was suppressed--Nhan-Van. In addition to information on land reform, criticisms in Nhan-Van were:

"directed, not against wretched living conditions, but against the complete absence of
freedom, the lack of civic rights, of a Constitution, and of any code of laws, and against the high-
handed and dictatorial behaviour of senior officials. Sy-Ngoc writes (Nhan-Van, 15 October
1956): 'If somebody tells me to keep my mouth shut in case the Americans and Diem should
make capital out of what I say, I reply: "Diem has a very good case when he refuses to hold joint
consultations with us on the ground that there is no freedom in North Vietnam."' (Grindrod, 253)

The obscuration caused by the debate on the number of deaths during the '53 to '56 land reform campaign in North Viet Nam has essentially eliminated this causation as an element of our involvement from our ambient cultural story. However, if one accepts even the lowest and most apologetic estimate, by population percentage it would be the equivalent today of having an education reform policy in the United States which executed the top 100,000 American professors and teachers. Some of you may sympathize with that, but it would be ludicrous to deny it was a bloodbath. And it is ludicrous that it is not part of our story. If this is not known, can American reaction to proposed elections of 1956, or anything that followed thereafter, be rationally assessed?

These atrocities are also relevant to the discussion of whether Ho Chi Minh was a nationalist or a Communist. The problem is the discussion is misguided. With certainty one can say Ho was a nationalist--just as were Joseph Stalin, Adolph Hitler, Pol Pot and others of their ilk. The discussion should not center on nationalism, but focus on legitimacy and the atrocities listed above must cause one to question that legitimacy.

This is only the tip of the iceberg of this one element. Atrocities continued. In the 1959, Hanoi's politburo received a series of reports indicating that even though the North had been directing a phase one guerrilla insurgency in the South for two years, the South was socially and economically out-pacing the North. "By Tet of 1959," William Colby writes in his book, Lost Victory, "it was plain that a nationalist and non-Communist Vietnam was firmly established. It was also becoming apparent that its future was, if anything, more promising than the gray and regimented society in the North." (Colby, 52)

It was in response to these reports that the Communists decided, in May of 1959--to establish Trail 559 [later to be expanded and become known as the Ho Chi Minh Trail], and to launch an expanded insurgency, the Second Indochina War. By 1961 northern Communist were assassinating one hundred southern hamlet, village, and/or district officials each month. By 1962 that figure had grown to one thousand per month. If this is not part of our ambient cultural story, can one make sense of Eisenhower's or Kennedy's troop responses?

Still atrocities did not stop, did not slow down. It does seem that the killing of 3,000 to 6,000 civilians, many picked by name, at Hue in 1968, during the Communist occupation of that city, is, despite total denial by D. Gareth Porter, indeed at least tangentially a part of our common knowledge; but what of the city of Baray in Cambodia, reduced to rubble by NVA artillery in 1971 killing perhaps 20,000 civilians; or the shelling of Song Be City; or the slaughter of thousands of civilians in stalled columns fleeing the Central Highlands; or the execution of 70,000 South Viet Namese in the first ninety days after the fall of Saigon (Sagan); or the ethnic cleansing and genocide aimed at the indigenous peoples of the mountains in Cambodia, Laos and Viet Nam? Not part of our ambient cultural story! But then, most of these elements received not one minute of American network news air time. Nor, and feel I must say, 'of course,' did the violent anti-government rioting in Hue, in December 1995--in which some 40,000 people took to the streets, set cars ablaze, and demanded the removal of Communist restrictions on the Buddhist church.

Gary Sherrick, a character in Carry Me Home, said it this way:

There is a politically correct way to think about the Viet Nam War. There is an academically
acceptable perspective from which to write about the war. There is a socially agreeable position;
and there are media-tolerable project-ibles. These manners, perspectives, positions and
projections have fluctuated over the years but have swayed only slightly since 1968 when London
Johnson declined to run for a second full term, and when Walter Cronkite converted and
established an acceptable antiwar posture for nonradicals. That these ossified perspectives are
narrow seems to have bothered few politicians, academics, John and Jane Does, reporters, editors
or film makers. And after nearly a decade and a half most everyone is in agreement--and most
everyone, because of the exact narrowness of the perspective, is half wrong. (Del Vecchio, 619)

In 1983 media mogul Ted Turner charged that ABC, CBS and NBC "have taken the yellow-journalistic route..." He further has stated:

The networks are poisoning our nation... poisoning the whole world against us... The three
networks are failures. We're approaching the 21st century with the most powerful
communications force the world has ever seen. And it's being totally misused by three
organizations that couldn't care less about what happens to the nation. (Turner)

And to what effect? Somehow, amid their barbarity, amid their lengthy purges, the Communist, by controlling story in the name of "the broad masses of the oppressed and exploited throughout the world" (Mao, 135), were able to claim moral superiority; were able to label American soldiers as immoral; were able to alter macro behavior so that returning American fighting men were treated as if they'd started the war; as if, in Charlie Sheen's words in the final scene of the film, 'Platoon', we had gone half way around the world to fight the enemy, only to find "the enemy was us!"

Robert Caldwell, and editorialist from San Diego, quoted in Phan Kim Vinh's 1982 book, Vietnam After 1975: Bamboo Gulags and Subtle Genocide, beseeched the media in these terms:

Because confession is good for the soul, an influential portion of the press corps this country sent
to Vietnam would do well to ponder its contributions to the tragic sequence of events that
delivered millions of Vietnamese, Cambodians and Laotians to a tragic fate. (Vinh, 4)

William Shawcross, author of Sideshow: Nixon, Kissinger and the Destruction of Cambodia, did recently reexamine his role when he stated in the London Times:

Those of us who opposed the American War (sic) in Indochina should be extremely humble in the
face of the appalling aftermath: a form of genocide in Cambodia... Looking back on my own
coverage, I think I concentrated too easily on the corruption and incompetence of the South Viet
Namese and their American allies, and was too ignorant of the inhuman Hanoi regime... (The

Perhaps there were humanitarian reasons for America to intervene on the side of the South. What would American be like today if our ambient cultural story were one of the immorality and inhumanity of non- involvement, of not opposing and therefore allowing the slaughter and enslavement of Viet Namese, Khmer, Lao, Cham and Mountain peoples by Hanoi's Communist regime. What if Hanoi's immorality was not excused because of the absurdity and incompetence of Robert McNamara; or the criminality of William Calley? How would that belief and perspective have changed the reception accorded returning veterans? What would our most popular writers write--talents like Conroy and Waller--if they were reflecting this ambient cultural story versus the cliches they've encompassed in their most recent works? How would an ambient perception that American soldiers, sailors, marines and airmen had engaged in a humanist cause have changed the story of PTSD? Or changed anti-veteran bigotry? What would be the effect on the presidential election of 1996?

Might we come to think that abuses of power in the pursuit of freedom are not justifications for the abandonment of that pursuit?


But, of course, there were other problems. America didn't fight the war properly. Hamburger Hill has become an anchor for that element of our cultural story. Young men thrown against a worthless hill on the outskirts of nowhere, thrown repeatedly into the meat grinder of NVA machine guns and artillery, only to finally defeat the enemy, to finally drive him from Dong Ap Bai, and then, THEN, to abandon the hill and let the NVA have it again! With tactics as idiotic as those, the ambient story stresses, no wonder we got our butts kicked; no wonder the war was unwinnable. As Karnow writes, "...the human cost of the futile engagement further roused criticism of the war at home." (Karnow, 600)

But... there is an unrecognized side to that story, too. Hamburger Hill was part of the western ridge of the A Shau Valley. Without the A Shau, the North Viet Namese Army was not mobile enough to outflank southern forces. Mobility, surprise, flanking movements, won, what in reality, had become a conventional war. The idea that after mid-1965 Viet Nam was primarily a guerrilla war should be thoroughly scrutinized--whether or not it is part of our ambient cultural story.

When the A Shau was abandoned for good in 1973, after all Americans had withdrawn from Viet Nam, the NVA established a 'super highway' down through its center. To supply the 18,000 military trucks, tanks, and artillery pieces the communist army was using, the NVA constructed a four-inch oil, and a twelve-inch gasoline pipeline from north of the DMZ, down through the A Shau, into the Central Highlands, to the vicinity of Loc Ninh. This new logistic ability gave some 400,000 Northern troops in late 1974 and early 1975 the mobility to mass forces against comparatively sparsely defended points. (Betson; Dougan, 11-13) The American operation at Hamburger Hill, and so many like it in the 1960s and '70s, indeed kept the NVA at bay. The feeling or image has been that the war did not make any sense, "that silly-ass war," as Conroy expressed it. This is pervasive in film and fiction, "Don't mean nothin," --almost a mantra--is accurate only if one has no knowledge of the activities of the Communist side. Ignorance exacerbates PTSD. (Hendon/Haas) That includes ignorance on the part of counselors and therapists. (Young)


Still, there is the portrait of an American effort characterized by incompetents. And of the war being unwinnable. We were wrong, we have been told, terrible wrong, for ever having thought we could positively impact the situation. One might politically agree with that ambient attitude, particularly the criticisms aimed at LBJ and his defense secretary. But what is missing from our cultural knowledge is the competence, efficiency, gallantry, and altruism of American AND South Viet Namese fighting forces.

Perhaps you are scratching your head, wondering if I'm really talking about the ARVN. Yes, I am. The process of Viet Namization gradually worked. Stanley Karnow, though he thrashed the South Viet Namese for 650 pages, admitted in a short clip deep in his book, that by 1972 North Viet Namese rifle companies were no match for South Viet Nam's military forces. (Karnow,658-9) This was not only true of the crack 1st ARVN Division, or the Hac Bao, or the ARVN Rangers. He was talking about Regional and Popular Forces. The facts here are verifiable. There are thousands of documents like DIA Intelligence Report No. 6 029 0800 70, of 3 August 1970. in which a Viet Cong sapper of ten years defected and stated that he believed, "Communism was not winning," because "the ARVN was growing too strong;" that each year "over 10 men deserted from his Sapper Subsection...;" and that "the morale of his unit was low because the men were tired of fighting, afraid of death, and felt they were losing the war..." The problem is, few in America, other than ex-members of the Armed Forces of the Republic of Viet Nam and some of their counterparts, seem to know, or care.

Tenacity and True Nationalists

Instead, if Americans read, hear, or know anything about the ARVN, it is usually about their desertion rates, the figures of which are often used to show that the South Viet Namese did not support their own country. Generally omitted from our story is that most desertions from the ARVN were by men who left national units which operated at long distances from their homes, to join Regional or Popular forces within their home districts; and that in 1972 alone, 40,000 North Viet Namese soldiers deserted to the South. As North Viet Namese General Tran Van Tra wrote in a 1982 account of the period following the North's 1972 Nguyen Hue offensive, and the AFRVN's counter offensive:

Our troops were exhausted and their units in disarray... We had not been able to make up our
loses... and coping with the enemy was very difficult.

Certainly not part of our ambient cultural story. Nor is the fact that North Viet Namese General Vo Nguyen Giap, victor of Dien Bien Phu and architect of the North's strategy in the South, was relieved of command in 1972- -for incompetence! (Betson)

How many times has it been repeated that the soldiers of the South would not or did not fight for their country. General Alfred Gray, in Al Santoli's Leading The Way, reminds us of the lasting ARVN commitment:

The last day, as the country was collapsing, I listened to the military radio and could still hear
the South Viet Namese marines fighting up near Da Nang. The North Viet Namese had overrun
Da Nang weeks before...  The marines went into the hills and were fighting back. Forty three of
their company commanders died while fighting in the hills.

One might compare this with Stanley Karnow's much more widely distributed words: "...forty thousand (NVA) troops had overrun Xuan-loc... The battle raged for two weeks--the ONLY [my emphasis] engagement during the government's last phase in which its forces fought well." (Karnow, 68-)

Paul Harris, a British critic of American tactics, treats the unwinnable war theory with contempt. "History," he writes, "is not pre-programmed to fulfill the ambitions of Marxist politicians; and the inevitable is what the fool hasn't the wit to avoid." (20)

An Allied Loss

Let me jump to Viet Nam being the only war America ever lost. It now seems to be partially recognized that America was not defeated on the battlefield. As Harry Summers wrote in an editorial in the June 1995 issue of Vietnam magazine:

Nothing even remotely similar happened to the U.S. military in Vietnam. Beginning in 1969 the
U.S. military withdrew from Vietnam in good military order, with the last U.S. ground combat
unit departing in August 1972, almost three years before South Vietnam fell to the Communists.
And the military withdrew not because of enemy pressure on the battlefield, but because of
domestic political pressure back home.

Rooftop pictures not withstanding (the famous photo is not, as is oft said, the U.S. Embassy roof), the US military was not driven from Viet Nam. America, via congressional actions and responding to a skewed story, decided to no longer fight the war, and to no longer support the South. The American budget for '73-'74, adjusted for inflation, was four percent of the American peak budget of 1969. The budget for '74-'75 was one percent of the '69 figure. The '74 budget for North Viet Nam, as supplied by the Soviet Union and other Communist Bloc nations, has been estimated at 400 percent of it's previous high of 1971. [Perhaps this does not comprise a sellout, but it certainly represents an uncontested repossession!] The battle was lost. Saigon, Vientiane, Phnom Penh fell. Conventional wisdom here is verifiable. But the reasons seem to be lost to our ambient cultural story.


There are many reasons why our ambient cultural story remains askew: vested personal, political, or academic interests are but a few. One of the more subtle is the economic interests that big business and finance has in maintaining the story as currently distorted. Below, self-described 'radical' social economist, Robert Pollin explained in conference our economic ambient cultural story and its staying power in these terms:

a fundamental idea about U.S. economic policy making... emerged from the Vietnam
experience...  large-scale government spending associated with the war engendered an
uncontrollable and debilitating inflation. As such, the Vietnam experience contributed
significantly to the demise of a view... that enlightened capitalist governments could and would
achieve sustained full employment and widespread prosperity... (Baker, et. al., 1)

This, according to Pollin, has lead to economic interventionist policies purportedly concerned with "preventing another Vietnam-like build-up of inflationary momentum..." Pollin continues:

the economic legacy of Vietnam has been molded into a cautionary tale of the failures of large-
scale (economic) interventionist policy and the overriding dangers of inflation. (Baker, 1)

Yet Pollin sees a co-variant reality of the economic element of our ambient cultural story as follows:

to focus on inflation alone ignores the other side of the same experience: that the Vietnam war
spending also contributed to an enormous advance in social and economic progress in the
1960s...  Vietnam war spending created a near full-employment labor market. Full employment
then brought in its train, higher wages, better working conditions, and less (my emphasis)
discrimination against women, African Americans and other minorities... Baker, 1-2)

The unemployment rate for African Americans and other minorities also reached a post World
War II low of 7.2 percent during 1965-69... The dramatic decline (from 10.8%) in black
unemployment was widely recognized as the single most effective means for bringing opportunity
and a modicum of social justice to African Americans; this, despite the much greater amount of
publicity being given to "War on Poverty" programs and civil rights legislation. (Baker, 16)

"Why," Pollin asks, "has this positive economic legacy of the Vietnam war been neglected?" His answer is that although the war economy was good for domestic social gain, it was not good for 'big business and finance,' which suffered losses due to higher wages, and because loans were being repaid with inflated dollars. As Pollin has written: "...those who perceived themselves as faring badly from the war... want to present the economic legacy of Vietnam in strictly negative terms..." (Baker, 3) Said another way, big business and big finance has a vested interest in maintaining many of the myths of American involvement in Southeast Asia.

A Longer View

I would like to suggest a longer, and broader historical view of American involvement in Southeast Asia. Viet Nam was a hot battle of the Cold War. Today, one might realize that the results of that battle, a Communist victory, are less significant than the results of the war. To state that the results of the Cold War--without that long, hot battle--would be identical to what transpired, is speculation. I'm not sure if that discussion has entered our national consciousness, even if it is generally perceived that the West won the Cold War.

Other Elements of The Story

There is more, so much more. The war "ended" in 1975 yet in the following decade an estimated 2.2 million Southeast Asians were killed by "non-warfare".

The story of interracial violence within the American military has repeatedly been portrayed in popular media projections, yet the ambient story we hold is distorted both in number and in emphasis. During the very worst year of inter-American violence, the total number of Serious Incident Reports (SRI) with racist causation was approximately two hundred, for a force, including rotations, that numbered some 700,000. (Brooks) And what was very seldom reported was the millions of close interracial friendships--that is racial harmony within an American military, which had never before been so totally integrated. One might speculate that the skewing of story is to the detriment of race relations in America today; that were our ambient cultural story one of racial harmony, and our self-image one of people getting along without regard to skin tone, that our macro behavior would follow story and image.

I find myself concerned today not only about how story, myth, or popular memory effect veterans of the Second Indochina War, but also how that story is effecting our children. The principles of harmony and tolerance are taught and fostered in our schools--yet our schools continue to emphasize the worst, and disregard the best, with respect to Americans in Southeast Asia. This is self-defeating.

Stated simply, negatively skewed, inaccurate perceptions, like emotional depression, make one vulnerable. Herbert Hendon and Ann Pollinger Haas, in their work, Wounds of War, explain how positive cultural image both insulates veterans from symptoms of PTSD, and, more importantly, prepares or predisposes soldiers before combat for proper action during battle which essentially creates a situation in which PTSD is less likely to develop.

It is important to keep in mind that our cultural story, our mythos, includes not only the misjudgements, errors, crimes, atrocities and scandals of our past, but also the great accomplishments, the altruistic struggles, the valor and sacrifice earned and waged with tremendous effort, that has brought betterment of the human condition to millions. If only the negatives of our story are reinforced, and the positives are denied or dismissed, then our culture will have no positive role models, and our behavior will reflect our negative self-image.

To summarize, this novelist's perspective argues that ambient cultural story--the story we tell ourselves of ourselves--creates cultural self-image; and that cultural self-image determines macro behavior in the present, and plans and strategies for the future; that our cultural story regarding America and Southeast Asia is replete with distorted images and skewed themata--mainly by huge omissions, by active policies of extreme ethnocentric emphasis, and by ideological and economic bias.

Finally, a more accurate cultural story might have insulated veterans, as individuals, from the ravages of PTSD; and this nation, as a culture, against the evolution of unnecessary domestic polarization and violence, and absurd foreign policies.


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Hamburger Hill.

The above reference list does not include the approximate 200 works of fiction which have helped in the development of the theory of story; nor does it include the tens of thousands of new articles, and the additional hundreds of non-fiction works which have also added to theory development.

Copyright for this paper is held by the author(s) unless stated otherwise. Paper should not be reproduced or posted without permission of author(s).

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