The place of the American veteran in 1983

Bobby Muller
SR# Tape 3, Side 1
We had three...
Hello there, that tone’s at minus four, eight db below the peak level on the tape, zero on the [incomprehensible] meter, tape’s record at seven and a half inches per second with sixty hertz crystal [incomprehensible] pilot sync is transferred to sixteen millimeter film at twenty-four frames per second. Day is 7-8-83, I’m John Hampton and this is sound roll number five for Vietnam Project, show number thirteen, Legacies we’re interviewing Bobby Muller. We’re on camera roll number eight and take nine is up. Sound nine.
(Clapstick) Sound nine.
Bobby, you've made reference to the silence, the post war silence, in America about Vietnam. What what was that silence? What stopped it? What brought it to...?
For me, perhaps the most offensive aspect of this entire Vietnam experience has been our failure as a people to own up to the experience, to come to terms with it, after the price that was paid and lives lost and suffering. I think it comments on our morality as a people not to try and learn something and understand why and how it all happened. Everybody seemingly has walked away from the Vietnam experience and said, "Leave it alone. I'm not responsible. I just don't want to talk about it." The political leaders of the past, obviously, have been anxious to leave it lie.
The current political leaders want us to look down road instead of looking back. Until recently, the veterans themselves, and I think are the catalysts that will be the conscience to, ultimately yet some answers out of this Vietnam experience, are only now coming together to play that role of holding our feet to the fire, if you wish, as a people.
The consequences of the failure to talk about it and to learn something have been very profound already. I recently had the chance to go to almost forty colleges as a lecturer about the Vietnam war and to find that the eighteen, nineteen, twenty year old students of today know literally nothing about what the generation that immediately preceded them went through in fighting our war is, to me, unconscionable.
When you do remember that the average age of a combat soldier in Vietnam war was nineteen, for nineteen year olds of today to be asking me questions as basic as what side did we fight on in Vietnam, the North or the South, when they say, "You know, I've heard about napalm, but what actually is napalm?" it just makes an absolute mockery of our sacrifices and what we went through.
What, (coughs, clears throat), excuse me. When the hostages came home from Iran, what did that do, what happened, as you see it?
For me, with the Vietnam veterans movement in this country, we have very few real benchmarks that turn things around for us. Perhaps the most significant was the return of the hostages from Iran.
When the hostages returned to the ticker tape parade, to the overwhelming catharsis, that release of emotion, apparently that just got dumped on them, that was the first time that we as an organization, the Vietnam Veterans of America, received unsolicited support from the public. It was the first time that our phones, literally rang off the hook with people saying, "Look, uhm, not to take away anything what the hostages went through, but you guys never got your day.
And I just want to let you know that I'm remembering you at this time, and I appreciate what you did, and we're behind you. And with the public, finally, saying the contrast is too great between what we did for the hostages and what we never did for you, that now they're coming forward, the veterans themselves, really that was the straw that broke the camel's back for a lot of them said, "Hey, wait a minute. Not for nothing guys, but you know, I want my recognition, I went through a hell of a lot, and where's my ticker tape parade, and where's my acknowledgement, and most importantly, where's a little bit of respect for what I did and what I went through."
And I think with the veterans coming out, again, they play the role of a catalyst to put these issues before the public in all the communities, in the many different forms that are there, and that's really gotten the ball rolling for us.
Uh, there are a number of specific issues that of course are involved and are of concern to veterans or related in the public's mind to veterans' issues, and one of them is the MIA issue. What about that?
I feel pretty strongly about the MIA issue. I think that it is an outrage how the war dead in Vietnam are being used again and exploited for what at this point I can only conclude is political propaganda purposes. In no time in our history, have we gone more than a decade past the end of a war and still be focusing this extraordinary attention on those that died in trying to getting their bones, basically, recovered from jungle sites.
You have to recognize that when you fight a war, that there are some circumstances which will preclude recovery of those that get blown up in pieces and just are killed in ways that make retrieval of their remains impossible.
For our government, for our presidents, not only one, several, for our secretary of state to continually at this late date harangue the Vietnamese over what they say are the likely prospects that they are holding some of our Missing in Action as prisoners, that they're holding remains of US soldiers in warehouses in Hanoi, when they don't come forward with anything to substantiate those allegations is to me unconscionable, it’s exploitive, I think it's tragic, in terms of keeping the hopes alive of those Missing in Action families back here in the States that possibly their husband, or their brother, or their son, you know, might be languishing somewhere in a Vietnamese prison.
You know, the most elementary aspect of this whole debate is to what advantage would there be for the Vietnamese in holding, at this date, any American soldiers. If it was ever found out that an American was held captive in Vietnam, they know, and I think everybody knows that that would be it. Any chances for any future normalization or any aid assistance or any ending of that war mentality that seems to continue between Vietnam and the US would be lost.
So, (chuckles) when you recognize that there's no conceivable advantage to the Vietnamese in holding an American, it's not a bargaining chip any longer, they’ve dropped any preconditions for anything, there is no request for reparations that had been part of discussions earlier. It just doesn't make sense. And for our government to continually beat the Vietnamese over the head, and arouse the emotions in this country against them by using this MIA question, uh, I just think it's unconscionable.
Have you any theory as to why the government or any private group of people would want to do this?
I think the reason why our government is using the MIA question the way they are is answered by what President Reagan did recently when we were at the White House. He used the situation in Vietnam today, citing the exodus of the boat people, the reeducation camps, the fact that they're probably holding American soldiers as prisoners, holding onto remains, as a way of saying, certainly this evidence justifies our having fought the war in Vietnam by being able to portray today the Vietnamese as warmongerers, and as a totalitarian state that is suppressing its people, and just bad in every way, shape and form, lends a little bit of legitimacy as he applies it, at least, in retrospect, to our having fought the war in Vietnam in the first place.
It was to prevent exactly what he is pointing to today as the government that's in control that we fought. And that's exactly the language that he uses, as a matter of fact.

The veterans' delegation to Vietnam

Um, you went back to Vietnam. What, why did you go, and how did that feel?
I was part of the first delegation of Vietnam veterans to go back to Vietnam with the agenda expressly stated to try and advance issues of common concern between the Vietnamese and ourselves that result and linger still from our war. We wanted to get the discussions, regarding the accounting for the Missing in Action, somehow back on line because the talks had broken down completely between our government and the Vietnam government.
We wanted to get some answers to the question as to what consequences can we expect as veterans because of exposure to Agent Orange that included the toxic chemical dioxin more and more people in this country are starting to appreciate in terms of its impact on health conditions and to get access to what is essentially the laboratory which is Vietnam where this stuff was used is what most of the people we worked with as doctors and scientists have said would be very, very helpful in trying to get some scientific data that could help us.
That was the agenda for the trip. We had a lot of success in getting the MIA discussions back on line, we've come to agreements with the Vietnamese regarding research on the Agent Orange issue, but I think that was ultimately overshadowed by the experience that those of us that had the chance to go back went through. And by that I mean, to go back to a place where you have fought a war, believe me, is a profound experience.
I like to think about Vietnam as being, uh, frozen in time, if you wish, in the minds of so many of the men and women that served there during the war. When our people think about Vietnam, they think about it in terms of a country at war with explosions, with killing, with pain and suffering, with just an awful lot of anguish.
To go back and replace, if you wish, those time frozen images with a new look at Vietnam where you don't look upon the Vietnamese as the enemy or as the potential enemy, when you don't see the countryside exploding, when you can relate to the people as human beings and as friends, it allowed me and those of us that went on the trip to let go, if you wish, of a lot of emotional baggage that we'd been carrying for more than a decade. In many ways the war did end for us by going back and meeting the people.
We want to pick it up in many ways.
Camera roll 9 is up... Speed (Clapstick) Sound 10
I think the most...
I'm sorry, let me just, uh, get settled down... Ok.
While we made very substantial progress on the agenda that we had set out to address, clearly for those of us that went, the more significant aspect of the trip was the personal experience that we went through. To go back to where you fought a war, believe me is a very profound experience.
Intellectually, I can understand why the Vietnamese fought the way they did and so on and so forth, but the truth of the matter is is that emotionally I still carried a lot of resentment toward the Vietnamese. Meeting them now, as I did going back to Hanoi and getting down to Saigon and making friends with them and no longer viewing them as the enemy or the potential enemy, went a very long way for me and for all of us, and we got rid of emotional baggage, it you wish, and we came to a certain peace.
To see Vietnam as the country, to smell it, to see the rice paddies and the tree lines and the hooches and the people running down the roads; it just replaced, if you wish, you know, what had been the time frozen images of that country at war with a new set of images that, again, gave us a country that was at peace, people that were friends and that just went a long way.
I think the... what I came out of this trip to Vietnam with was an understanding. The most significant thing, I believe, that we as a nation could do is make a peace with Vietnam in fact.
Effect normal relations. End the war. To go as we did through the streets of Hanoi and we were there on the ninth anniversary of the Christmas Bombings and let's remember something: in the ten days of those Christmas Bombings, we dropped more bombs on Hanoi and Hai Phong than Germany dropped on England in the entire Second World War, alright?
To be there on the anniversary of that kind of a bombardment and it was noted with posters around town and still have the people come up to us, "Who are you?" and we said, "We're Americans" and be friendly and never once encounter a negative glance or any hostility of any sort, of any kind made clear that for the Vietnamese, our war is over and it's history. Their concern now is with China and other issues.
To have the people in Vietnam regard us as friends and say "We're not angry with you the people. It was Johnson, it was Nixon, it was Kissinger, not you."
While that might not necessarily be true, at least that's where their thinking is with it. To then come back to this country on our return from the first visit to Vietnam and run into this buzz saw of just raw emotion and hostility and bitterness expressed toward the Vietnamese and "Why did you deal with those gooks?" and stuff like that was shocking.
And it just, again, made very clear; for the Vietnamese, the war was over; for the American people, the war continues. And I think until we end the war, make friends with Vietnamese as we did with the Germans and as we did with the Japanese, we are going to remain captive in our hearts and minds to that experience and that's why I say, yes it will be beneficial, obviously, for the Vietnamese for normalization of relations to occur, but I assure you it will be more beneficial for the American people to finally get it on and move down the road a little bit.
Um,... can we stop a minute? Let me just slate for a minute.

In the wake of the war

(Clapstick) Sound 11
What concerns me about the Vietnam experience is that people tend to regard it as history. And I labor all the time to impress upon them, what we're talking about here is not history. The issues of the Vietnam War are the issues that we face today. The very mechanism within our system of government that must answer the question, "What do we go to war for? What are the values, and what are the interest that we're prepared to shed American blood in defense of?
Who makes that decision? Who ultimately fights the war?" are the same things today that we had to fight with during the Vietnam War. What is it with the office of the presidency in terms of the war making powers? Is it excessive? Did we have an abdication and do we have an abdication currently by the Congress in what the Constitution requires is they are the one's to declare war?
What about the military, it's ability to understand the situation and implement the strategies that might be effective in reaching certain objectives? What about the role of the intelligence agencies or the media in giving an accurate portrayal of what's going on in a part of the world? What was the role of the peace movement in perhaps giving the enemy the will to fight in showing a divided America?
All of those components, if you wish, are essentially in place today as they were only ten, fifteen years ago and not taking that critical look to understand where the system broke down, where that decision making process fell short, means that we haven't rehabilitated that system. So essentially, not all that much, I believe, has changed.
And why should the American public have any renewed sense of confidence that we can in fact determine what is in our national interest and, again, implement the kinds of strategies that will be effective as getting us to meet those objectives. I have no confidence at all that we've really advanced and we can know that what we've got to do is proper and determine how to do it. I just... We haven’t done it.
Okay, then there's the uh...
Okay. I think for Vietnam veterans what to date stands as the most significant post war experience for us as a movement, if you wish, was the dedication of the Nation's Memorial in Washington. It was the first time that literally tens of thousands of Vietnam veterans were brought together.
And they were brought together, not for a protest or for anything negative, they were brought together for a collective reflection, if you wish, on that experience, on the war and pausing to remember our comrades that died. What happened in the course of that week in Washington DC was extraordinary.
The renewed sense of a brotherhood, of a feeling that we shared something that was extraordinary just rekindled, if you wish, the understanding and the awareness and the need to carry on in our work in getting us together those that fought in making the country recognize us, in making the country come to terms with that experience, and making sure that, again, given the price that we paid, the lives lost, and the suffering that was involved that we do learn something. And that with that understanding, hopefully, prevent another Vietnam or anything like it from happening again.
A decade from now your generation, the generation that fought the war, or fought against the war, or avoided it altogether, that generation will be in power in this country. What's it going to be like?
I am not convinced that the generation that came of age in the '60s is necessarily going to leave its mark in the leadership role that one would normally have expected them to assume. I still believe that we have a very real chance of becoming a lost generation. We have fragmented. We have gone through major disruptions in our lives.
And what I'm seeing is right behind us, if you wish, with the upcoming generations. You've got a group that is perhaps the most conservative group in America today. They're very plugged into the system. They don't have the general questioning of "What's it all about" beyond getting a job and, again, plugging into the system.
And I think there's a real chance that somehow the leadership role might be passed right along to those that are very aggressive and have worked very hard to secure the skills, and a lot of people feel very comfortable with that kind of a person. And, again, that '60s generation, uh, we're doing our own thing in our own way, whether we can come together and collectively put a mark on our society, uh, from the government side and just general leadership role, I think is still an open question. So, we shall see.
Very good. Cut.
Yeah, great. (chuckles)
That's the end of the Bobby Muller interview, and uh, for those of you looking for room tone, the room tone in this location is the same as yesterday's room tone, which was, oh, David Christian. That room tone's in the middle of Sound Tone Four. Our next interview is with Greg Kane. (Tape clicks) Okay, this is the end of the interview with Bobby Muller. It's the last thing on this side of the cassette. [Bottle drops, tape clicks off.]