Military Heroism Denied

By Gibbon, Peter | VFW Magazine, January 2003 | Go to article overview

Military Heroism Denied


Gibbon, Peter, VFW Magazine


"Students rarely mention soldiers as heroes ... Even after Sept. 11, many students remain skeptical about the notion of soldiers as heroes," writes author

Peter Gibbon in his new book, A Call to Heroism. Much of this sad state of affairs is due directly to American society's stereotyping of those who honorably served in Vietnam.

Since WWII, a constellation of factors, primary among them the Vietnam War, has given rise to a skepticism about warrior heroes that persists even today, especially among young Americans.

Following the carnage of the two world wars came the conflicts in Korea and Vietnam. Korea ended in a draw, Vietnam in withdrawal. Vietnam was our longest war, our first televised war and our most bitterly contested war.

During the Vietnam era, large sections of the American population, particularly college students threatened with the draft, turned against the war. Nightly television news coverage of violence in Vietnam and protests at home steadily eroded America's confidence in the military.

Negative Images

In 1968, at My Lai in South Vietnam, an estimated 500 Vietnamese civilians, among them women and children, were slaughtered under the command of Lt. William Calley. When news of this atrocity was reported back home, the image of the American soldier-already seriously damaged by participation in a widely unpopular war-took on a sinister cast.

Two years later, in 1970, Ohio National Guardsmen opened fire on students at Kent State University who were protesting American involvement in Cambodia. Four students died and several others were seriously injured.

Film of the tragedy played over and over on television, imprinting an image in the minds of Americans that our soldiers were killing our college students. Time magazine published an article on Kent State and called it "At War with War." The concept of the American soldier as hero reached an alltime low.

Some 58,229 Americans and more than 1 million Vietnamese died in the Vietnam War for a cause nobody could explain. For the soldiers who returned home, there were no ticker tape parades, no heroes' welcome. No Alvin York or Audie Murphy, no Douglas MacArthur or Dwight.D. Eisenhower emerged out of Vietnam.

The media depicted the returning Vietnam veteran as angry, depressed and homeless, unlike veterans of WWII. They were celebrated by their countrymen and settled down and got on with their lives.

The few heralded heroes to emerge in time from Vietnam were prisoners of war, like John McCain, who endured captivity with courage. Also, conscientious objectors like Muhammad Ali, who was punished for his opposition to the war but is now considered by some a seer. And soldiers who tried to protect civilians, like Hugh Thompson, the helicopter pilot later profiled in U.S. News & World Report for his effort to stop the massacre at My Lai.

Hollywood Stereotypes

After Vietnam, Hollywood produced a series of anti-war movies, like Full Metal Jacket, Platoon and Born on the Fourth of July. In Full Metal Jacket, Marines smoke marijuana and rape Vietnamese women. In Platoon, soldiers burn peasant villages and kill each other. The protagonist of Born on the Fourth of July becomes a hero not by having his legs blown off, but by recanting his "misguided" patriotism and joining the war protest movement.

Born on the Fourth of July was based on the true story of Ron Kovic, who grew up in an idealistic working class family in the suburbs of Long Island, N.Y. Before the Vietnam War, he saluted the flag, prayed to God, looked up to the President, honored his father and mother, and believed that communism threatened America.

In his 1976 autobiography, Kovic described how he made heroes out of Audie Murphy and John Wayne, watched Sands of Iwo Jima over and over, and dreamed of becoming a Marine. Then he went to Vietnam and lost his idealism.

In post-Vietnam war movies, violence is depicted more graphically than ever before.

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