Introductory Note: The most controversial term amongst the veteran community might be the word “hero”. The Ithaca Voice has been working on its veterans series, Hope on the Homefront, since February. “Hero” is the word that comes up again and again in interviews: criticized for its muddled meaning, its overuse, its glib delivery.  

Many of the veterans we have interviewed feel uncomfortable being called a hero – some even despise it. For them, it is a word used to make those in the civilian world feel better about themselves. Once the term is used the person can, as quickly as possible, move on. This exempts them, some veterans feel, from sharing the burden of war.

So the Ithaca Voice asked Fred A. Wilcox to write an essay on the concept of the American hero. Wilcox has spent 30 years advocating for veterans.  He is the editor of two books and the author of six, including Waiting for an Army to Die: The Tragedy of Agent Orange, which broke the story of the use of chemical warfare in Vietnam and Scorched Earth: Legacies of Chemical Warfare, which chronicles the lasting effects of chemical warfare on the Vietnamese people. He recently retired from teaching in the Writing Department at Ithaca College.

Melissa Whitworth

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Click on the Ithaca Voice Story Database to learn more. Stories on this topic are filed under “Hope on the Homefront.”
Click on the Ithaca Voice Story Database to learn more. Stories on this topic are filed under “Hope on the Homefront.”

“Vietnam shattered our sense of the indefatigable American hero.”

By Fred A. Wilcox

I kneel upon a little stool in the kitchen, ear pressed against the radio. In my imagination, the Lone Ranger is chasing outlaws. He rides Silver, the fastest and most amazing horse in the world. Tonto, the Ranger’s Indian sidekick, waves to me as they ride off into a glorious sunset.

Boys play cowboys and Indians. We wear boots with spurs and carry six shooters loaded with caps that snap and smoke like real guns. Saturday afternoons we crowd into the Uptown Theatre to watch Roy Rogers, Gene Autry, and Hop-along Cassidy lasso bad guys, yanking them right off their saddles. Afterward, we shoot it out with bank robbers, rescue maidens from the clutches of wild Indians, unsaddle our horses and head home for dinner.

“Some day, we’ll march proudly down the streets of our hometown.”

My father disembarks from a troop train. He’s wearing his uniform, with a captured Japanese rifle slung over one shoulder. He’s been gone three years. I carry his lumpy field pack, huge helmet wobbling on my head, leading friends (members of my platoon) into battle. We crawl through muddy water, ambush the enemy, and fight hand to hand. We are preparing ourselves to go to war. Some day, we’ll march proudly down the streets of our hometown, waving to cheering crowds. We cannot wait to fight for our country.

Fred Wilcox

During the Korean War, I plaster my bedroom walls with pictures of Medal of Honor winners. The Des Moines Register and Tribune prints maps showing the progress our military is making, and then later how far our troops have been pushed back behind the 38th parallel. I want desperately to join the army, to slay thousands of communists, and be awarded the Medal of Honor.

“Promise me you won’t go, Freddy.”

In 1965, when the Marines first land at Da Nang, Vietnam, I am living on the streets of New York’s Lower East Side, struggling to survive in a violent, drug-ridden, neighborhood. Vietnam is an abstraction, like a planet about which I know nothing, a place I will never visit. Then, I learn that my first cousin is in St. Alban’s military hospital in Queens. Doug grew up in a shack, and joined the Air Force to escape poverty. He’s been in the service for twenty years.

My cousin is surrounded by young men lashed to their beds, screaming, crying; one soldier threatens to kill me. “Poor guys went crazy over there,” says Doug, pulling me close. “I don’t go for this Vietnam thing,” he whispers. “Promise me you won’t go, Freddy.”

From that moment, 1967, I watch the news, read books and articles, and drink with veterans who say that the government is lying, the media are lying, the President is lying. The war, they say, is utter madness, a hopeless cause, a total waste.

See related: Incarcerated Tompkins veterans: the crisis seen through one woman’s eyes

The Vietnam generation was raised on stories about Honest Abe and George Washington. We respected the President. We believed our elected representatives were highly intelligent, good-hearted, honest individuals. Our teachers taught us that our ancestors were exceptional people, willing to sacrifice their lives for the good of humankind.

What Vietnam shattered

My cousin died of neglect, and for a time the military refused to honor his wish to be buried in Arlington cemetery. The war continued for eight more years. Veterans came home to a bitterly divided, hateful, nation. We wanted them to tell John Wayne tales of guts and glory. Vietnam shattered our sense of the indefatigable American hero. We needed to blame someone for this terrible debacle. So we turned on veterans, vilifying them for telling us the truth, not just about the war in Vietnam, but about all war.

Now, the government is planning to revise history, determined to turn Vietnam into a noble crusade. In order to do this, Americans will be encouraged to ignore the way we’ve treated victims of Agent Orange, forget our neglect of traumatized soldiers, and declare our undying gratitude for our newly discovered heroes.

It’s not too late to apologize to the men our government treated as a throwaway army, but lying about why the United States attacked Vietnam, how we waged that war, and the terrible legacies for millions of Vietnamese people, will do nothing to heal veterans’ wounds or resolve the remaining divisions between supporters and opponents of what the Vietnamese call the American War.

But yes, I still believe in heroes

Every day, throughout the world, in countless ways, ordinary people are trying to save the rainforests; protect animals from poachers; feed starving children. First responders are risking their lives to save people from disasters, opponents of dictatorships are risking their lives bring about change.

So yes, I still believe in heroes, but turning the Vietnam tragedy into another epic story of heroism and virtue is not the way to honor the 58,000 names on the black granite wall in Washington, D.C. Most of the politicians who orchestrated the war have left this world. Unfortunately, some people are determined to use Vietnam veterans to recruit a new generation of soldiers. I hope that men who were sent off to kill and die in an unnecessary, unwinnable, war will never allow this to happen.