The Wounded Generation: America After Vietnam. Edited by A.D. Horns. A ‘Washington Post’ Book/Prentice-Hall, $12.95, $5.95 paper.
April 6, 1981        

In 1975 a fledgling journalist wrote a remarkable and widely discussed essay on the unequal burdens of the Vietnam war. “What Did You do in the Class War, Daddy?” recounted a day of Selective Service examinations several years earlier, in which the author, James Fallows, and most of his Harvard undergraduate friends successfully wangled deferments, some times with bizarre and carefully rehearsed tantrums. As their bus pulled out of the examination center, the students in high spirits, a bus full of youths arrived from Chelsea, a working-class town near Cambridge. Lacking similar access to expert advice, and also the rosy career prospects that might have made them equally determined to avoid the army, these young proles would mostly be drafted. They would, Fallows suddenly realized, die in place of him and his friends.

There followed a meditation on why so many of the best and brightest of his (and my) generation “willingly took advantage of this most brutal form of class discrimination—what it signifies that we let the boys from Chelsea be sent off to die.” The piece came to no conclusion, perhaps because it implicitly posed an intractable question: what becomes of individual obligation in politically stochastic conditions, that is, in a mass society, where individual actions often have essentially infinitesimal effects? But as a former Harvard boy from Chelsea who took a deferment with fewer scruples than Fallows, I pondered uncomfortably and learned a great deal.

Now, however, James Fallows has come to a conclusion, one which is, regrettably, shared by most of the contributors to “The Wounded Generation.” It is not that military service must be abolished, but that it must be universalized. “In the long run,” he writes, “a nation cannot sustain a policy whose consequences the public is not willing to bear. If it decides not to pay the price to defend itself, it will be defenseless. That is the risk of democracy.” As if America’s war on Vietnam had anything to do with self-defense. As if its high “price” to us were what was chiefly wrong with that criminal “policy.” With contributions from Fallows, Philip Caputo, Tim O’Brien, Lucian Truscott, Sam Brown, Susan Jacoby, and others, “The Wounded Generation” held out some promise of offering not the usual bogus “ lessons of Vietnam” but the genuine article. The opportunity is largely missed.

In an attempt to supply historical context, the editor’s introduction instructs us that the Vietnam war was fought “to stop what seemed a clear case of communist aggression,” and that the ensuing “endless debates and deep moral anguish” were about “the way we fought it”—napalm, defoliants, search-and-destroy, etc. This is an inauspicious beginning. It is now more than 20 years since there baa been any good excuse for believing that “communist aggression,” rather than an internal rebellion, was the cause of American intervention. And at least some of the “endless debates” debated not whether the United States was sufficiently powerful, or fastidious, to determine the future of Indochina without excessive gore, but whether we had any right to try. A D. Home is an editor at “The Washington Post,” which has always been oblivious to these distinctions.

“The Wounded Generation” contains a number of essays, studies of demographics and public opinion, and excerpts from classics like “Dispatches,” “Going After Cacciato,” and “A Rumor of War.” But the heart of the book is a long symposium called “Voices of a Wounded Generation,” including Fallows, Caputo, Truscott, James Webb (“Fields of Fire”), Robert Muller (founder of Vietnam Veterans Against the War), and several others. Most are veterans, and the symposium is full of recollections of harrowing experiences and obviously justified rage at past and present official treatment of Vietnam veterans. Philip Caputo tells of sitting in a fancy restaurant after his return and experiencing an inexplicable, barely controllable urge to break every wagging jaw in the room. (When he wrote of this in “A Rumor of War,” he received some 600 letters from combat veterans acknowledging similar feelings.) Robert Muller was hospitalized with a spinal-cord injury; eight friends from the same hospital ward have since committed suicide. And so on. By and large, such things didn’t happen after World War II, which was clearly an easier war to fight in and come home from.

But suffering doesn’t always teach wisdom. The lessons these brave men have drawn from their experiences are mostly wrong, or at least inadequate. Some of them feel betrayed by officers and politicians who paid too much attention to public opinion or the Geneva Convention, and should instead have fought to win. Many feel that Vietnam vets have been scapegoated both by the military brass, who for public relations purposes “needed Clean-for-Gene types and started grooming them,” and by the public, so that “the only way a Vietnam veteran can become a leader in the political sense of the term is that he does the self-flagellation number: ‘Oh, I was there and it was so terrible and so awful and I’m so sorry for burning the villages and please forgive me.’” All seem to agree that the vilest aspect of the war was the blatant classism and racism of the draft, and that its sorriest legacy is the absence of patriotism among the postwar generation.

There’s of course some truth in these complaints. But surely it’s incomparably more important to prevent another Vietnam than to insure that, if there is one, its burdens will be distributed fairly. And if that’s true, then incomparably more significant than the indefensible scapegoating of veterans is the fact that McNamara and Bundy, Rostow and Taylor, Kissinger and Laird, Vance and Brown have never been called to account. As for the deplorable apathy and cynicism of the young, one must nonetheless admit that disillusion is better than illusion.

It’s awkward to raise these objections, especially for an admirer and erstwhile comrade of Tom Hayden, Elizabeth McAllister, and Philip Berrigan, each of whom comes in for some unfriendly words. Nearly all the symposiasts are rightly aggrieved at the condescension of their generational peers, most of whom they far surpassed in courage and idealism. Still, the important question is not why more privileged youth didn’t go to war, but why more of us didn’t actively resist.

I am full of respect for the anger and resentment, as well as the reflectiveness and reconciliation, that produced this book. And never having served in Vietnam, I do not presume to cavil at the book’s dedication “to the Americans who gave their lives in the Vietnam War.” But it’s disappointing that no mention whatever is made in “The Wounded Generation” of any other massacred generation: of Vietnam after America. The first chapter reminds us that 55,000 inestimably precious American lives were lost in Indochina. Surely a book such as this is a proper occasion to recall, however briefly, that 2.65 million inestimably precious Indochinese lives, military and civilian, were lost before the American withdrawal in 1973, and that hundreds of thousands have since died of wounds, disease, and starvation in a small region ravaged by 15 million tons of American munitions, while the United States has withheld reparations and hoarded the world’s largest rice surplus.

And I wish the symposiasts had said a little more pointedly what they can say with unequaled authority: that amid such ineffable official barbarity, it is neither sweet nor seemly to die—or kill—for one’s country. I