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Gail S. Williams
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Gail S. Williams

Gail S. Williams directs the Leadership Alchemy Program at the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center.

Shameful memories

I attribute the high level of trust in military leaders to two major factors. The first being that it would be less than fully patriotic to distrust our military leadership. I believe many baby boomers remember, hopefully with a certain degree of shame, our inability to separate our distrust in our elected leaders and our distaste for the Vietnam conflict with our distrust in military personnel and their leaders.

After initially supporting the Vietnam war, in good measure because my parents did, I came to dislike the conflict. Over time, I aligned with demonstrators who were peaceful and non-violent. I think back in horror as I remember the dreadful treatment our returning soldiers -- the names they were called and the fact that some were spat upon. Our soldiers, in that conflict and in today's conflicts, demonstrate their love for our country and the democratic principles we hold so dear, that they risk their lives.

I, for one, tire of both the Iraq and Afghanistan wars and the long term detrimental effect they will have on our country and economy, and the many people who fight on our behalf. But I can easily separate those feelings from my unwavering respect for our men and women in uniform. This may appear to be optimism to some. To me it is an entirely different intellectual and emotional response.

The second reason I postulate for the higher trust in military leadership is that many more families are directly impacted by the wars than they are by their elected officials because they have family members or friends in service. What is at stake for them is so much more personal and significant. Of course we want to trust our military leadership because the lives of so many Americans under their command are on the line.

As I ponder the last part of this week's question, I am challenged to offer any answer other than the following: Elected officials must stop squabbling and posturing and work together for a common goal -- a goal that our citizens consider to be in the best interest of our country and themselves.

Business leaders lack credibility for so many reasons, including exorbitant salaries and bonuses, even when their firms sought bailout funds from the federal government.

Where to start with the media? Yes, there are responsible media personnel, yet in my opinion they are rare. I imagine doing thorough research and avoiding inappropriate sensationalism is harder to avoid during these belt-tightening times. Still, too many do what sells and that erodes my trust. I demonstrate my lack of trust by carefully choosing who I read and listen to and will continue to do so.

By Gail S. Williams

 |  November 3, 2009; 9:36 AM ET
Category:  Military Leadership Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
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Like so many Vietnam veterans, talking about the experience comes not easily. Lost in this dialog is the age factor of those who chose to serve or were drafted. Enlisted personnel were in their late teens, early twenties with even the noncommissioned officer corps populated with "instant sergeants." Junior officer promotions were so accelerated that in less than two years from commissioning, one could find himself a Captain commanding a rifle company in combat with a field strength of 175 personnel.

And thus, I found myself in that position at 22 years of age. I knew nothing of self-sacrifice or the true meaning of of "mission." Twelve months later, after service in Dak To, I returned to the "world." I did not expect a parade or the "thanks of a grateful nation." I was honored to serve my country and thankful that our losses were not more than they were. War at the junior officer/enlisted level is very personal, not political.

I was never spit upon or verbally assaulted in any airport but I was well aware of the deep divisions in my country over the war. Posted to Seton Hall University in 1969 for an ROTC assignment, I was more disappointed than apprehensive when the ROTC building was burned to the ground by protestors. I was more concerned when the police tactical squads arrived in armored personnel carriers and police emerged wearing all black, without name tags, bearing body shields. They moved through the crowds with grim efficiency. This was the democracy for which I fought in Vietnam?

Rather than leave the Army, I stayed for a 30-year career. Why? So that we can have the kind of discourse we have today that is so admired outside of our own country.

Posted by: FreedomNotFree | November 4, 2009 2:25 PM
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The stories about spit must meet the same burden of proof as any other popular legends, and they can't. There have been exhaustive searches for police reports and such to prove the spitting happened, with no result. We can't just accept it as something everyone "knows" happened. I do not believe someone would allow someone to throw chicken blood on a dress uniform without reacting in some way, either reporting it to police or fighting or something. What was the date and where's the police report of the incident? Apparently spit was flying in airports in the late 1960s and early '70s without one single report being filed. Instead, all these reports surfaced years later. It doesn't meet the most basic standards of proof.

Posted by: DennisCMyers | November 4, 2009 2:12 PM
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The irony in the reputation of the military has been - still - the frequency in which non-veterans (and even some who served but in cushy jobs far from danger) claim to have been not only in the military, but in combat, and received everything from Purple Hearts, Silver Stars and even higher awards. Claiming falsly these things when filling out resumes and while being interviewed for jobs.

After both the Korean and Vietnam Wars, trying to capitalize on the anti-war sentiment in the US and tales of how ugly that insurgent form of war was, many such fraudulent types tried to make claims and get compensation from the Veterans Administation for non-existant Post Traumatic Stress. There are many celebrated, finally exposed, cases. The 'feel sorry for the poor vet who had to do those terrible things' syndrome.

Its called 'Stolen Valor' and it took Congress until very recently to pass a law making false claims for military awards and decorations federal misdemeanor with jail and a fine.

We will see more coming out of Iraq and Afghanistan.

Posted by: dave19 | November 4, 2009 1:49 PM
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Pure revisionsism in many of the postings above 30 years after the Vietnam war. Amazed at all those posters who can't remember, or are in utter denial, that soldiers in uniform were denigrated, given the finger, cursed, yelled at from a distance, or from passing cars, when the occupants saw I was in uniform, or my car tags showed I was from an Army base. And yes - spat on.

I wasn't spat on. Instead I had chicken blood or something intentionally resembling it thrown on my officers dress uniform while walking down the street in 'pro military' Colorado Springs.

Posted by: dave19 | November 4, 2009 1:13 PM
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Re: a previous poster.

The "liberal" who "gave up" and withdrew American troops from Vietnam was Richard M, Nixon. I guess this is because he was "rooting" for the "communist/socialist/slave-masters".

Posted by: twm1 | November 4, 2009 4:18 AM
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Again? Again someone repeats this urban legend about Vietnam veterans being spit on after they returned to the states? That's BS. In my time in the Army, 1967-70, while coming and going in uniform from various airports and bus stations in NJ, NY, IN, KS, CA and WA, I never encountered one bit of hostility--including when I "deros'd" from Vietnam wearing the 101st Airborne's Screaming Eagle patch. Mostly what I encountered was friendly curiousity. Gail Williams should refresh her history by talking to more people who were actually in uniform during Vietnam, and not rely on hearsay and patriotic myths perpetuated by blowhards waving the flag.

Posted by: almagary | November 4, 2009 2:45 AM
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Thank god the generations that followed have not been as stupidly self-centered as the Boomers were. Thankfully their time to lead is nearly over, hopefully they'll take up gardening and shut up finally.

The truth is no matter where they've fallen on the political spectrum, they're a generation that's one giant pain in the butt for everyone else. Everyone else is also quite more than sick of them too.

Viet Nam is over, and you can't compare that floundering bit of military witlessness with another country attacking the US & starting a war. I realize that's your only basis for comparison, but just because that's all you can see doesn't make the comparison valid.

There's a narrow-minded aspect to this generation that's completely annoying. It's on display in this inaccurate article that perpetuates myths that treat outliers of bad behavior by a very few as the common activities of the many.

Posted by: Nymous | November 4, 2009 1:43 AM
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Soldiers during the Vietnam war were not disrespected by opponents of the war. Very much to the contrary. The slogan at the time was "Support our troops, bring them home now". By 1969 Vietnam veterans were at the leadership of much of the antiwar movement, for example John Kerry, who began his political career as a leader of Vietnam Veterans Against the War. The premise of this strange column is historically false.

Posted by: gwailoh2007 | November 4, 2009 1:29 AM
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I think most of the posters here are either naive or just stupid. When we were fighting the war, the N. Vietnamese were fleeing the communists. The Chinese, N. Koreans and Russians were financing the N. Vietnamese and even providing troops. At one time there were more than 50,000 N. Korean troops and 150,000 Chinese troops helping the N. Vietnamese. It is also easy for you to forget how many people died after we left. Also, it is a blatant lie to say most who served in Vietnam were drafted. If you are going to call the treatment of the returning Vietnam soldiers and urban myth, how about doing a little research there. The fact is, a totalitarian regime can't live with a free regime. All the people want to come to the free regime and the totalitarian wants to expand his. So you can root for the communist/socialist/slave masters all you want. You live here and are free to take a side others don't like. But Vietnam was lost by the liberals giving up. They gave up the lives of over a million Vietnamese when they did quit. Be proud of that. Be proud of the re-education camps and the executions that occured when we left. You own them. Tell people how proud you are of them. Tell people that you are glad we left and that you support the mass executions as well. You couldn't have one without the other. You knew it then, you know it now, you knew thousands would die. Own it and be proud of it. If we quit in Afghanistan, you will own that too.

Posted by: Quek | November 4, 2009 1:27 AM
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DennisCMyers wrote:

"enough time has passed for enlistments to expire and for people to enlist or reenlist with full knowledge that they might well be going to these wars, so that being there is a consequence of choice. That implies their support for the two wars. Certainly some have refused to go or did not re-up because of their disagreement with the wars. In supporting the troops, then, are we supporting their view of these wars?"

I think you assume that military members decide to join or continue their careers in their respective services based on current events alone. While I'm sure that many in the military support the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, I bet that if you ask, most of those who serve will cite reasons a bit more broad than specific actions in support of US foreign policy. If the president decides to suddenly pull the plug on both wars, I don't think there will be a mass exodus of service members who decide not to re-enlist in protest. I suspect they will continue to serve for the same reasons they do now - at least I will.

Posted by: bobbyt1 | November 4, 2009 1:20 AM
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It seems to me that in a discussion of the differences between Vietnam and the Iraq and Afghanistan wars it is important to keep in mind the circumstances that put servicepeople in the war zones. Most of those who served in Vietnam were forced by the draft law to go there. Those serving in Iraq and Afghanistan are there more or less by their own decisions. That may not have been true at the start of those two wars, but enough time has passed for enlistments to expire and for people to enlist or reenlist with full knowledge that they might well be going to these wars, so that being there is a consequence of choice. That implies their support for the two wars. Certainly some have refused to go or did not re-up because of their disagreement with the wars. In supporting the troops, then, are we supporting their view of these wars? Some have suggested here that we should distinguish between supporting the government's war policy and supporting the troops. Is it possible to distinguish between supporting the troops and supporting the war embraced by those troops?

Posted by: DennisCMyers | November 4, 2009 12:37 AM
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I served from 73 to 79. The draft was over. I volunteered. I had no college ambitions. In airports like Ohare in Chicago, where I changed planes, some were less than polite. I don't think any would have dared to spit. I think they were too "pacifist" to dare spitting. I think they knew my reaction would have been swift and very forceful. I do vividly remember harikrishnas doing their dances/chanting and such. I did not object to their dancing. It gave me something to look at while I waited for my flight to be boarded. Some young people would look at your uniform and then turn away. I did not take them to be anything more than mildly curious as to what kind of person joins the military. I guess they are still that way today. In Sanfrancisco, most are pacifists. I guess street criminals have a very low chance of getting harmed by the fine citizens of sanFrancisco. I know they hate the cops, but they sure do call the cops alot when they get mugged. It is the same with the military. It is easy to hate the military, until you need them.

Posted by: -PBL- | November 4, 2009 12:21 AM
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Our military leaders have earned our distrust.

From General McChrystal's shameful handling of Pat Tillman's death to corrupt defense contracting practices such as falsified weapon system test results (eg Osprey, Stryker, and F-22) we have learned that merely wearing a uniform does not immune one from immoral behavior.

Sadly it's the enlisted personnel who suffer most when we civilians insist on turning a blind eye towards the misconduct of officers and their civilian bosses in the executive branch.

But given the amount of advertising dollars defense contractors spend with publications such as the WaPo I suppose one should expect cheerleading from WaPo staff.

Posted by: tmoc | November 4, 2009 12:14 AM
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The most shameful treatment of American soldiers in the Vietnam era came from the Johnson and Nixon Administrations. Both manipulated the military shamelessly as a trick to discredit critics of their wrong policies. The claim was that if you didn't support the war policies of Johnson and or Nixon you were guilty of failing to "support our boys in Vietnam". How is it that this seems to be forgotten?

Posted by: twm1 | November 3, 2009 11:53 PM
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The Washington Post should do a better job of fact checking these articles. She cites the "fact" that Vietnam era vets were spat upon, which is not a "fact," but Jerry Lembecke's book, The Spitting Image, completely demolishes that urban legend. Check it out.

Posted by: osullivanc1 | November 3, 2009 11:40 PM
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Distrust of military leaders is a good thing. A little cynicism is healthy in a democracy. I always wondered about those who during the Vietnam era said, "love America or leave it". Contrary to the implication of that statement, loving America, sometimes means questioning government and military motives and actions. Those who truly love America are willing to make their voices heard in order to make it a better place in which to live. And that's the whole point, isn't it?

Posted by: collinsbs | November 3, 2009 11:36 PM
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But having too much trust in the military is also a danger. A healthy skepticism might be the best approach. Military leaders are wrong about as often as civilian leaders. Don't believe me? Consider the advice military officials gave leading up to recent wars. Military leaders are often hostages to mindsets and institutional imperatives, just like everyone else.

Posted by: osullivanc1 | November 3, 2009 11:34 PM
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Our foreign policy is nothing more than an extension of the military. The existing military and former and retired military think our country is invincible. We should put our military in the barracks where they belong and start practicing diplomacy, perhaps practice more of what we preach on human rights.
I agree, this lady is full of crap

Posted by: bznvic | November 3, 2009 11:13 PM
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Let's understand what's going on.

1. In WWII, it was a war to defend America, not a war to expand commerce for our companies.

2. Will those who support the present wars support an excess profits tax on corporations that benefit from these wars, as we had in WWII? I'm sure the answer is NO.

3. Will those who support the present wars support the tax brackets for the wealthy that were in effect during WWII?

I'm sure the answer is NO.

4. I hate these articles that analyze these wars without mentioning the cost. At the end of the day, our children have to pay for these no win wars without end, profits without end for the corporations, and ultimately, just you wait, we'll have a Value Added Tax on the American people.

Posted by: santafe2 | November 3, 2009 11:10 PM
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As far as Vietnam is concerned, my personal resolution on that (while still continuing to oppose our intervention) came mostly from watching Tom Selleck and his fellow actors who played Vietnam vets in "Magnum PI." The Vietnam theme was an undercurrent in the show--but it put a face to the troops and helped me separate those who honorably obeyed their commander-in-chief from that idiot commander.

As for this commentary--blah, blah, blah.

Posted by: dotellen | November 3, 2009 11:04 PM
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Yes, Ms. Williams is perpetuating a myth. I lived in Berkeley during the height of the Vietnam war, a hotbed of anti-war protest. I opposed the war, hated it in fact, demonstrated against it. But several of my best friends there were Vietnam vets. They didn't talk much about their service, but they made no secret of it, and they wore their Army camouflage openly. No one spat at them. The rest of us felt sorry for them. They were war victims too.

Posted by: donnolo | November 3, 2009 11:02 PM
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the military industrial complex is a bloated corpse infecting our democracy with what maybe it's lethal blow. one artificial war at a time. instead of using our most capable leaders in preserving our place in the world we kill them for profit. how many semis stuffed with $100s and cargo planes filled with dead youngsters will it take for you to notice. so is it a global empire constructed of corruption, greed and death or the united states of america?

there's an american army discharge in my exact name for every major war we've fought since the american civil war so i have been paying attention.

Posted by: samuraitinkertoy | November 3, 2009 10:24 PM
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She's full of crap.

Posted by: dlkimura | November 3, 2009 10:23 PM
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I've been interested in the comments posted here in response to Ms. Williams' comments. There seems to be a good deal of emotion generated over her statements concerning the reception of veterans returning from Vietnam. As someone who had that experience twice, I would like to say that the loud, obscenity-laden comments of the saliva-spraying young woman who accosted me in the San Francisco airport in 1970 actually bothered me less than the absence of any interest in what I had been doing for the past year among my friends when I was at home in Virginia on leave after returning.

Posted by: RetiredSoldier | November 3, 2009 10:08 PM
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I appreciate the resolution the discussion is reaching: that the urban myths of spitting or shouts of "baby-killers" were rare, but such false memories have become symbolic of the pain soldiers felt when they returned from demanding service to a less than warm reception.

Born 1951 and college-tracked, I was a few years behind the largest wave of drafts and enlistments by boomers. By the time I was 18, the disaster of Vietnam was obvious, but its demands for patriotic sacrifice continued. The class divide brought by the end of the draft increased the bewildering sense that only our society's losers would serve in a losing war.

On the rare occasions I encountered Vietnam veterans, it was easier to avoid the subject. It never occurred to non-veterans to question or criticize those who gave and suffered so much. The veterans reinforced such reactions by acting like anyone who hadn't been to Vietnam could never understand the experience and later by their painful symbolic obsessions with Jane Fonda.

Thanks to the veterans who've posted honestly about the spitting myth, which will continue to be spoken but do not need to be restarted by a professional journalist.

Posted by: whitecatuhcl | November 3, 2009 9:59 PM
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I think this is nonsense, perhaps because the author never felt the potential for involvement in a stupid war. We reviled the war and those committed to it because we, ourselves were threatened with becoming one of its victims.
Not so in these present follies. Bushie and Chenie knew they could not conduct a war if the populace was threatened, and so they did not. They encouraged us to go shopping and some others to find super wealth. The poor went to war, some with hopes of bettering themselves if they survived with perhaps a bit of education.
The governing rulers did what they wanted, and we went happily along

Posted by: charlesalaska | November 3, 2009 9:50 PM
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How sad to think that Washington Post commentators consider Viet Nam shameful compared to Iraq and Afghanistan. Yes, U.S. troops committed atrocities in Viet Nam.. we'll never forget My Lai... but far more atrocities were committed in both of GWBush's unnecessary wars. What was worse, the Bush administration recommended, authorized and approved the policies of torture and assassination that led our troops in Iraq to run riot. Happily, their crimes at Abu Ghraib were documented on film, those who were really responsible passed the guilt down to a few dumb grunts at the prison. As long ignorant mindsets like Gail William's prevail, our armed forces will remain in disgrace.

Posted by: dsrobins | November 3, 2009 9:47 PM
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Gail,you filthy ,arrogant,obese pig!...(borrowing from S.N.L point and counterpoint)...you are talking straight from the right wing playbook that continually and successfully brainwashes a great percentage of this country's population and keeps them in the stoneage.

Posted by: kiler616 | November 3, 2009 9:44 PM
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I was a young teenager when these guys were returning. We all felt sorry for them because we were scared we would eventually be forced to go over there when our time came. We were fortunate the war ended as we were coming of age, and we knew it.

Posted by: johng1 | November 3, 2009 9:38 PM
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Doesn't Leadership Alchemy (whatever that may be) also require facts?

This mythic history is about as real as its counterpart, the tale of the women's movement "bra burners." It is good that there is currently more verbal support and thanks for vets from the public, and we could analyze why variously; far more important would be support and concern for serving troops, vets and families from the government that sent them and sends them again and again into ill-conceived wars.

Posted by: esthermiriam | November 3, 2009 9:19 PM
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Gail, give me a break. You live in a country where we can question our government, our religious institutions, our commerce and our military. I lived through Viet Nam and the lies, misrepresentations, and murderous acts (remember the massacres of villagers) help to end this unjust war. As an earlier objector to the wars that Bush started, I think, again, my views are what the majority are moving towards...Remember GBS words: "patriotism is the last refuge cowards" We have the right to critcize our military in this country, even in spite of views like yours...

Posted by: TNbybirth | November 3, 2009 8:01 PM
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"unwavering respect" needs to be a two way street---it is peace activists and those who knew before the Iraq war was launched that there was NO evidence that a threat was posed to the USA.

WE were called cowards, traitors, terrorist sympathizers and the like.

i reserve the highest respect for a service member, who though obligated on paper under contract, refuses to participate in immoral conduct; internationally illegal conduct.

if Christian soldiers were to follow their faith, they'd never kill in the pre-emptive manner of conquest now in effect and also instigated in Vietnam: non-aggressor states whose civilians are killed to enrich a few internationalists.

Posted by: forestbloggod | November 3, 2009 7:53 PM
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Viet Nam was a noble effort to thwart the communist in Vietnam; yet it failed miserably due to the Commanders not being given broad mission statement needed to fight the war and the daily involvement of politicians fighting the war from their arm chairs, a hard lesson learned. Todays military is made up of well trained professionals under the best leadership ever. The American public needs to decide if we need continued involvement in Iran and Afganistan and vote their conscience
I was in the USMC in Vietnam and was treated badly by the public on my return which hurt badly for doing what I was trained to do. I understand protests and support them; however people like Jane Fonda are traitors and should be jailed !!! The best picture of Jane is at the bottom of the men's urninal at my local American Legion.

Posted by: TomW3 | November 3, 2009 6:58 PM
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I went to Vietnam a young 2LT and came home after an extended tour as a "mature" Captain. After arriving at Travis AFB, I took the bus to San Francisco Airport still in uniform and I guess I had been gone too long because I hadn't realized the anger of many of my age cohorts towards solders. The verbal abuse didn’t bother me that much but I wasn’t prepared for some of the other abuse

What did surprise me was passing through SF several other times since then, even as a Full Colonel, my reception by the good citizens of San Francisco never got any warmer. In my youth I passed if off as anti-war. As I grew older I recognized it as San Franciscans just don’t like soldiers.

Posted by: A-COL | November 3, 2009 6:58 PM
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Completely bogus. Every time the spitting myth comes up, it has to be refuted. It's just an urban legend that won't die, and a whole generation of people who don't remember Nam have bought into it.

Soldiers were treated like dogs by the US government, not by the peace movement.

Posted by: angelcortazar | November 3, 2009 6:54 PM
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Returning Vietnam soldiers were not spat upon nor treated poorly. That myth has been debunked repeatedly. Aee NYRB articcle by the late Lars-Erik neson on the subject.

Why was this clearly false article allowed to be published? amazing lies

Posted by: JohnAdams1 | November 3, 2009 6:45 PM
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gail -- you owe us a confirmed citation of antiwar protesters spitting on returning soldiers.

you can't. because curiously those reports didn't surface until years AFTER the u.s. left. and do you really think there wouldn't have been any reports of some dirty smelly hippie getting the $h!t beat out of him/her for spitting on a freakin soldier.

you'd think someone associated with the nasa flight center would have a bit more skepticism about something so obviously unlikely.

but a good smear is always preferable ... right, gail?

Posted by: mycomment | November 3, 2009 6:38 PM
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Been a long time since I saw that photo of Hanoi Jane Fonda manning a North Vietnamese anti-aircraft gun. About time she apologized to the men who sufferred abuse thanks to her visit...and for passing the notes POW's handed her over to the North Viets. What a pig.

Posted by: JCM-51 | November 3, 2009 6:38 PM
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There were a few radicals who called the troops 'baby killers'. It was never very widespread.

I went to college with many veterans, chugged beer with them, fought for the girls' attentions with them. They were simply part of the community. Most didn't want to talk about their experience a lot; they were trying to get on with the rest of their lives.

One of my teachers, however, a veteran, wrote a book reflecting his experience in the war. It's written as science fiction, and as a response to Heinlein's 'Starship Troopers', which takes an officer's view (Heinlein was a Navy officer until sidelined by health problems.) Joe Haldeman's 'Forever War' takes a grunt's point of view. While the troops are away fighting, the society changes until the returning soldier is completely alienated - not by any overt ostracism but by the distance between veteran and civilian cultures. I think this reflects something real that happened, affecting more the career military personnel than the draftees.

We go into the Middle East with less cultural difference between the military and civilians, it seems to me. Both regard these wars as suspect, morally complicated, and very challenging. The military is the organization taking up the challenge and the responsibility for us and trying to cope with the moral ambiguities. How, under the circumstances, could we not be grateful?

Posted by: j2hess | November 3, 2009 6:30 PM
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On the spitting myth.

I am a Vietnam combat veteran. No body spit on me when I came home either time from Vietnam. The Seattle airport was full of men in uniform and I doubt anyone in the antiwar movement would have the nerve. But that doesn’t mean it did not happen. I was attacked by a fraternity brother for using the word gook at a party when I was at home on emergency leave. Not a term I use today, but then it was what most G.I. use for the South Vietnamese. (In my own defense I must add that many of the 600–700 patients I evacuated often a great personnel peril were Vietnamese.) I can say for the man that attacked me that at least he was honest.

The spitting myth, whether reality or not, is a metaphor for some of the very negative treatment we received. We have been often been portrayed as villains in movies and novels. I remember a news story around 1980 that talked about our poor performance at universities compared to World War II veterans as if there was something wrong with us. I went to a welfare rights meeting and listened to Jane Fonda rant about how the American military was turning Vietnamese women into prostitutes. I heard a story about my friends from high school supporting a measure proposed at a political meeting to try all Vietnam veterans as war criminals. We had to organize our won homecoming parade and built our own monument to our fallen brothers.

I could go on, but it is the death of a thousand cuts. Coming home was hard and I don’t think I have made it yet. Some who read this post will not believe me. I wrote Jack Shafer about his spitting article in Slate telling him my story about being attacked and how afterward everyone pulled away from me. He was sympathetic, but wanted me to prove I was a veteran. Something I do not care to do.

Posted by: davidferraro | November 3, 2009 6:29 PM
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I was in college at the height of the war.I turned against the war during my 2nd year. I eventually avoided the draft by losing weight and falling below the military standards for height & weight.

I do not recall anyone disrespecting those in service or veterans, with the exception of the recruiters. Colleges were filled with veterans who opposed the war.

People who are disrespected are the war protestors. Some things never change.

Posted by: sonofbill | November 3, 2009 6:10 PM
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In a democracy, military is controlled by civilians. Thus, no military action can take place without an order from a civilian (President, Defense Secretary, etc.). As it was in the 70's, the people responsible for the present wars are civilians and not the military including the generals/admirals with stars. Thus, military should be respected for doing what they are 'ordered' to do. If civilians do not like the results, military leaders can be removed as President Obama did in Afghanistan a few months ago
Civilians do not have to take the advice from the generals and indeed, civilians can decide to end the war today if they wish. If the war is wrong, civilians should pay a price. Such a price in a democracy takes place in elections. That happened last year. Leaders who supported the war lost the election. Democracy works! Do not blame the military.

Posted by: philly3 | November 3, 2009 6:10 PM
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Some folks have obviously put their rose colred glasses on.
Please don't rewrite history.
"Rare" for troops to be reviled? It was in many songs of the day and who among us returning vets will ever forget the constant demonstrations at Edwards AFB and Treasure Island where we were called Babykillers and YES, spat upon?
rare? The demonstrations were every day and went on for years. I suppose no one thinks the current troops are being screamed at? Perhaps You would like to be a recruiter and have Pink screaming at you and setting fire to the office? Rare?

Please just accept the article in the spirit in which it was written.

Ex-Air Force.

Posted by: hfelknor | November 3, 2009 6:07 PM
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I cannot believe I am reading this glop in the year 2009. This blather is so 1950's (and I was there) when everyone was still high on WWII regardless of the millions of lives wasted. As far as I am concerned, we need to REDUCE our military budget and take care of our own citizens at home, including the thousands of veterans and their families whose lives we have shattered needlessly.

Posted by: sfmarv | November 3, 2009 6:02 PM
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Spat upon? Well, I don't recall being spat upon during the time, (1968 - 1970), I was in the Army. but there was a definite feeling one was invisible; subject to those "thousand yard stares" people exhibit when they are ignoring something they would rather not be thinking about. The civilian population didn't look down on us, as much as they looked around or through those in uniform. The supporters of the war thought we ought to be winning it. The dissenters thought we ought to be resisting it. I suspect most of us in it simply wanted to be somewhere else. No, nobody spat on me, but nobody bought me a beer, gave me a smile or thanked me for my service during my enlistment. And I think when we returned to civilian life, nobody thought much about us either; witness the lack of support or services for veterans in the '70's. People wanted to forget, so they forgot about my generation's service, whether good or not, honorable or not. People simply didn't want the war to be there, and when it was over, or at least our presence was no more in Vietnam, there was a collective forgetfulness about those who fought it. It's natural, understandable, and thoroughly reprehensible. I had friends who died in combat, and friends who served time in prison for resisting the draft. Both were doing what they thought was right, necessary, or merely convenient by their own lights. I do worry that a generation of public figures is approaching their maturity preceeding the passing of the power to lead this country, yet have had little or no personal experience of the military. Ours was the last generation of a military composed primarily of "citizen soldiers", with all the advantages and complications that entails for those charged with the task of training us to be warriors. Our nation's leadership is poorer for the lack of a widespread, personal experience of military life. Our nation's military is poorer for the advantages and challenges presented by having to mold reluctant, but faithful citizens into soldiers for at least a brief period in their lives, and we are all poorer in not having a more substantial number of citizens who experienced the rewards and frustrations of service to others at a formative period in their lives.

Posted by: chicsdad | November 3, 2009 5:47 PM
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I'd much rather live in a society where those who choose to fight in illegal and unjust wars are spat upon (which rarely happened during the Vietnam War by the way), than one where those who choose to fight in such wars are automatically and uncritically hailed as irreproachable heroes, or as "brave" when they, say, operate computer-controlled weapons from the safety of Colorado.

Posted by: dane1 | November 3, 2009 5:46 PM
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I can remember when to be opposed to the Vietnam War was considered unpatriotic. I can remember when soldiers and their families would scream epithets at War protestors. Many soldiers enlisted; not all were conscripts. How does one counter the war machine when the rest of society has not caught up to the fraud? It does a disservice to otherwise loyal Americans to rewrite history in the name of leadership. Or is, "You're either for us or against us.", the operative phrase.

Posted by: rgraham505 | November 3, 2009 5:45 PM
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gail, you can hate them when they come back and run for office as conservatives in 2010 and 2012.

Posted by: 12thgenamerican | November 3, 2009 5:30 PM
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It is interesting what we remember and what we forget. Ms. Williams and many others seem to forget not only that it was rare for Vietnam troops and veterans to be reviled. They also seem to forget the high degree of antiwar sentiment among the troops -- while they were on active duty, not only when they became veterans. In no previous war, did military personnel actively resist orders as much as they did in Vietnam. Just as the country was divided, so were the troops. The divisions were not between us and them. The divisions were within all of us.

Posted by: BettyMedsger | November 3, 2009 5:12 PM
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So today military officials are more respected . . . only a year or two ago it was business leaders. Humans, including Americans (no exceptionalism on this one) want desperately to believe someone can be trusted, even if it has to be an imaginary messiah. At some point, the masses might convey respect on athletes, entertainers, politicians, clergy, or academics. Maybe even journalists!

So what? It's all cut from the same cloth. The man or woman thinks--Gee, somebody must know what the #### is going on.

Posted by: guitar1 | November 3, 2009 5:10 PM
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This article reveals a major part of the problem: that military (or any other) leadership is viewed by some to be sacred. Such dangerous thinking leads to unquestioning approval of virtually any decision, no matter how insane, and closes the door to critical analysis. Rev. Bookburn - Radio Volta

Posted by: revbookburn | November 3, 2009 5:08 PM
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Viet Nam was wrong, as were the murders who went there. Afghanistan and Iraq are the same, the u. s. and its military are murdering. All of the u. s. military should refuse to go, and go to jail if necessary.

Posted by: linda_521 | November 3, 2009 5:06 PM
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Vietnam was a crime and as far as I am concerned the Iraq war and The Afghan war are also crimes. Not only against the innocent civilians, but against our own people as well. No one profits from war except the wealthy.

Posted by: jrnberrycharternet | November 3, 2009 5:04 PM
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Generals and Privates are both soldiers, but Privates deserve automatic respect for the risk they willingly place themselves at while Generals must constantly be evaluated for the risk they place others at. A less than compentant Private still deserves respect for just being there, an incompentant General wastes lives.

Posted by: rtompkins1 | November 3, 2009 5:02 PM
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I was on active duty in the Air Force from 1956 until 1981 and I was never insulted by anyone at any time. And yes I did wear my uniform in public while on duty and traveling. Frankly I am tired of hearing these supposed stories about the bad treatment of military personnel during the Vietnam era, most being told by people who themselves never actually were in the military. However during that same time when stationed at Keesler AFB, MS I was told how I would have to move to the front of the city bus when it left base and the blacks would have to move to the back! Now that was a "real" insult and that was in the mid 60's!

Posted by: danceblade | November 3, 2009 4:51 PM
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Gail Williams lies.
Either she doesn't know what she's talking about, or she is a product of the same, shameless system that created the war.

"I imagine doing thorough research and avoiding inappropriate sensationalism is harder to avoid during these belt-tightening times."

WTF? At the very least, she desperately needs an editor. Perhaps a shrink, too.

Posted by: jerseycityjohnny | November 3, 2009 4:41 PM
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"Your memory must really suck, Gail, because no soldiers returning from Vietnam were spat upon."

It is mostly an urban legend, but there may be some kernels of truth to it. Check out this Slate article from two years ago--

In short, the article looks at a 1971 CBS News segment in which a recently-discharged army medic claims he was spat upon by two (or four) people in the Seattle airport.

Given the national atmosphere that many military personnel felt themselves returning to--that no one cared--stories like this spread into a sort of self-reinforcing legend. The media, being what it is, swallowed it without question.

Posted by: Claudius2 | November 3, 2009 4:39 PM
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Having been a (draft-age) teenager and an army brat in the Vietnam era, I was then, and am now acutely aware of how our soldiers were regarded. Among those who opposed the war, the top brass were considered complicit in the lies and blunders that drove the war; those under them were considered among its vicims. Nobody spat on returning GIs, and nobody confronted them as baby killers. Either would have been very hazardous to your health. The urban legend that GIs were reviled is a revival of the Dolchstosslegende so dear to the German fascists; that is, the legend of how the leftists and intellectuals (read "Jews") stabbed the Real Patriots in the back. Count Gail Williams and her view of "patriotism" as a recrudescence of same.

Posted by: djessex | November 3, 2009 4:39 PM
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Posted by: willallison_2000 | November 3, 2009 4:33 PM
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Less than patriotic? While I want to state up front that the treatment of Nam vets at the time was just simply wrong. It would be less than patriotic not to note that military leaders like Colonel David H Hachworth in his book "About Face" brilliantly documented how our military and political leaders in effect betrayed our country, and destroyed the lives of thousands of young men through poor leadership and selfish motives.

Ms Williams do some research.

monty keeling

Posted by: cstation | November 3, 2009 4:30 PM
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This is total baloney. The "spat upon Viet Nam veterans" is an urban myth. Actual efforts to trace down ANY actual incidents of that occurring have been failures. It's a myth concocted by veterans themselves to prove how much of a "martyr" they are. When is the last time you saw public demonstrators allowed on a military base? And during Viet Nam, soldiers were told NOT to fly civilian flights in uniform.

There is no higher trust in the military today. There is just a greater realization that the world is complex, and criticizing the men and women on the lowest part of the military does nothing to change the policies of those on top. But nobody is spitting on soldiers today, and they didn't during Viet Nam either. That's just an urban myth. And Gail Williams should be put on the spot to document ANY incidents of that occurring. Frankly, she's reckless to continue this lie.

Posted by: gasmonkey | November 3, 2009 4:30 PM
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Gail Williams: I support the USA's wars, as long as we win them quickly. When they become too divisive or disruptive to my cocktail conversations among my yuppie DC friends, well that's where I draw the line!!!

Posted by: pgr88 | November 3, 2009 4:27 PM
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I don't recall anyone spitting on returning vets in the '60s or '70s, but except for those vets who openly opposed the Vietnam War, returning vets weren't treated as heroes. I've certainly talked to Vietnam vets who felt they were shunned or look down upon once they returned home. And among at least some of those who wanted U.S. troops out of Vietnam there was a sense that draft resistence and avoidance, even moving to Canada, were morally superior alternatives to induction into the U.S. armed forces. There was definitely a vibe afoot at the time that, if one didn't actively resist participation in the war, one became an enabler of the war effort. That being said, the current level of deference to military leadership borders on the excessive.

Posted by: jdnathan | November 3, 2009 4:27 PM
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Trust our military leaders? Last I checked we lived in a Republic, which means civilian control over the military. This woman's appeal to take the military's opinions with the same gravitas as a civilian leader's is proto-fascist nonsense. We, the people, control them, the military. Full stop. If you don't like it move to Russia. You'll get along fine with Putin.

Not to mention that the U.S. hasn't actually won a war since 1945, unless you count Grenada and the first Iraq war which would be ludicrous. So trust our military leaders to do exactly what? Lose a war they shouldn't be fighting? Yes, I trust them to do that.

Too bad she is so "tired" of the wars in Afghanistan/Iraq. I bet Iraqis are a bit...ahem...exhausted as well.

Posted by: moleverde | November 3, 2009 4:26 PM
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Posted by: toubibcal | November 3, 2009 4:18 PM
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"...it would be less than fully patriotic to distrust our military leadership."

Wow. Have these bureaucratic idiots learned nothing from the folly of the Bush regime? Have they not learned the lesson that disagreeing with the national leadership and/or the military is not unpatriotic?

In a democracy, it's mandatory to be skeptical of leadership -- be it civilian or military -- simply to insure that citizens' rights are being protected and adversaries' rights are not being abused.

The notion that distrusting "our military leadership" is anything less than fully patriotic is tantamount to advocating a totalitarian form of government.

Yikes! Get this woman some education.

Posted by: kjohnson3 | November 3, 2009 4:06 PM
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Ms. Williams doesn't know what she's talking about. Protesters did not spit on soldiers during the anti-war movement, in fact they sought to and did organize them into that struggle. Witness the massive Vietnam Veterans Against the War (VVAW) protests of April 1971. So what's "shameful" in this analysis is the resurrection of this right-wing slander and caricature of the anti-war movement.

Posted by: tcquinn | November 3, 2009 3:59 PM
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It is appalling that yet again, the WAPO allows unsubstantiated rumor to go published unfiltered and unbalanced. There has never been A SINGLE documented case of returning soldiers being spat upon. Oh well! That's not stoppin Gail S Williams from publishing this time-honored smear of the American Left in the Washington Post.

And the newspaper industry continues its collective suicide.

Posted by: willallison_2000 | November 3, 2009 3:54 PM
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We trust our military leaders today because of their high level of competence and professionalism and our "team spirit" or patriotism. I am suspicious of the author's reference to distrust as "less than fully patriotic;" it is our duty to question and our privilege to think for ourselves because we are members of a free and open society. That is why are military fights for us and there is no shame about it. As for our politicians; they are supposed to do a certain amount of squabbling and they should exhaust all possibilities before sending us to war. If we had a little more squabbling after 9/11, we might have had time to realize that Iraq had no WMD or terrorist strongholds.

Posted by: sbaker1 | November 3, 2009 3:51 PM
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I'm 62 and protested, as a college student, the war in Vietnam for the crime that it was. But I never saw anyone spit on a uniformed US soldier; never heard any acquaintance claim to have done so; never heard any of my friends who were in service in the 60s or 70s refer to such an act.
I've always felt this claim to be part urban legend, part disingenuousness.

Posted by: Davidd1 | November 3, 2009 3:42 PM
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Gail Williams is probably lying. Google the name Jerry Lembcke and look it up for yourself if you don't believe me. Her whole freakin' post follows from her untrue belief about how anti-war protestors viewed soldiers, and the whole freakin' post is thus worthless.

Posted by: carolinadave616 | November 3, 2009 3:42 PM
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This article is nonsense - revisionist propaganda.

Protestors were never opposed to the individual military soldiers - these were often our good friends from high school, and were certainly not stupid enough to blame them. (most were drafted against their will!)

Blame was always directed toward the politicians and pentagon, as were all the protests.

It's just another attempt to smear people who stood up for their friends and their values. The accuracy is at the same level as the absurd claim that protestors spit on returning soldiers, something which has never been documented except for a 1985 Rambo movie

Posted by: dougd1 | November 3, 2009 3:41 PM
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" I think back in horror as I remember the dreadful treatment our returning soldiers -- the names they were called and the fact that some were spat upon."

Your memory must really suck, Gail, because no soldiers returning from Viet Nam were spat upon. It's a grotesque urban legend repreated by rightwing ideologues to vilify anyone who doesn't support their war mongering.

Posted by: irratical | November 3, 2009 3:38 PM
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So ... when does Harvard allow the ROTC back on campus?

Posted by: doustoi | November 3, 2009 3:32 PM
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Being a contemporary of Ms. Williams, I offer a slightly different perspective on trust in the military circa Vietnam as compared to now.

Then, there was enormous lack of trust in military leadership, who were reviled by a large number of anti-war Americans for misleading the public about the war. However, many of us felt no mistrust of or revulstion at the fighting grunts, who were often friends and neighbors, who we saw as involuntarily caught up in the war. I would never confuse the two as Ms. Williams does.

In today's wars, military leadership at times seems out of touch with the situation on the ground and often appears to be floudering. Frankly, I wouldn't call that trustworthy military leadership. Again, I wouldn't confuse respect and support for friends and neighbors at the front with a high level of trust in the military.

Posted by: PurrlGurrl | November 3, 2009 3:23 PM
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Did you actually see people in the 60's spit on soldiers? I also lived through the 60's, went to U.C. Berkeley, and never saw or heard or saw anything disprectful towards the soldiers. Many of us had friends who fought in Viet Nam, one was killed three weeks after we were together when he was on leave. My son in currently serving in the U.S. Marines. Our distrust was not only with the political leaders, but also the military leaders who led this country into one fraudulent national security crisis after another, beginning with View Nam and continuing through Granada, Panama, and Iraq. What was the military's policy on pre-emptive attack at the time of Iraq? Given this record it is hard to understand the source of your apparent blind trust in the military leaders (because it would be unpatriotic to be otherwise) and your belated shame.

Posted by: nhelfman28 | November 3, 2009 3:22 PM
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so let me get this straight....you think Afghanistan and Iraq are neccessary...you don't think we can attain victory by using our very advanced intelligence technology to intercept attacks?...9/11 was planned in a Hamburg apartment,not on camelback in the desert.....occupations are never won unless the natives want to be annexed as a state.....occupying means you won the war,and whatever victory got you and it's time to leave.

Posted by: kiler616 | November 3, 2009 3:11 PM
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