Tina Brown stated the obvious when she observed on Bill Maher’s show that had George W. Bush used drone attacks in the same manner as Barack Obama has done he would have been impeached a long time ago. As Pete Wehner wrote last week in a post that both Max Boot and I agreed with, a thick stench of hypocrisy hangs over the Obama administration. The president who came into office decrying Bush’s actions against terrorists as a disgrace not only later carried out many of the same policies but also doubled down on them in many respects. The large number of drone attacks in which the United States has carried out targeted assassinations of terrorists, including at least one American citizen, as well as many of their family members and bystanders, makes the enhanced interrogations and the prison at Guantanamo that so outraged liberals look like child’s play. Yet most Democrats are not rushing to the barricades the way they did when Bush and Vice President Cheney were widely said to have subverted our constitutional liberties. To the extent that any have articulated a rationale for this turnaround, the best they seem capable of doing is to assert that while Obama can be trusted to use this power, Republicans like Bush and Cheney could not.
This has conservatives fuming and rightly so. But that has not caused most of them to play the same game. Though some of the libertarian wing of the Republican Party led by Rand Paul have attacked Obama for exceeding his power, most in the GOP are backing up the president on his right to carry out the drone attacks even while grousing about his hypocrisy. But after we acknowledge the unfairness of this situation, this is hardly the first time this double standard has raised its head. It is a pattern that has held true for the past half century. Though it is a bitter pill for conservatives to swallow, perhaps its time for them to acknowledge that during prolonged wars the country is always better off if a Democrat is in the White House.
The death of George McGovern has set off an avalanche of praise for the former senator and presidential candidate. As someone whose time on the political stage is long past and whose memory is unclouded by personal scandal, this treatment is entirely appropriate. McGovern was a distinguished war veteran and, by all accounts, conducted his long political career in an honest and honorable manner. Though such persons are by no means unknown in contemporary politics, for one reason or another they seem rare enough for a lot of people to think we would be better off if we had more McGoverns in Washington.
But however much respect the individual deserves, we also ought to acknowledge how McGovern helped transform the Democratic Party from the institution that effectively defended the West against Communism in the aftermath of World War II into one that stood for appeasement of the Soviet empire. Though the fall of the Berlin Wall has allowed many who opposed the policies that helped bring about that outcome to pretend as if there was always a wall-to-wall national coalition opposing the advance of Communism, McGovern’s passing is a reminder of how that that consensus was destroyed.
David notes that American fiction has done little with the wars of Iraq and Afghanistan — but that, given the way literature and movies have treated Vietnam veterans and the fact that, even after four decades “Vietnam continues to supply the literary frame of reference for American wars,” the absence of veterans from post-9/11 fiction “is probably a very good thing.”
Agreed. But in passing, David asks where the image of the “crazed vet” came from. That question cannot be answered without reference to B. G. Burkett and Glenna Whitely’s Stolen Valor, one of the most remarkable and surprising books I have ever read. Like Whitely herself, I came to the subject with the belief, inspired by years of media coverage, that the “crazed vet” (always a Vietnam vet) was a reality. The virtue of Stolen Valor is the way that it methodically and systemically uses documents obtained by Freedom of Information Act requests, reveals fraud after fraud, fake after fake, and lie after lie from supposedly traumatized veterans who in reality rarely even served in the military or saw combat at all.
And these lies started well before the 1978 release The Deer Hunter and, indeed, even before 1971 — the publication date of the earliest book David cites. Burkett and Whitely point out that Robert Jay Lifton, a former Yale psychiatry professor, propagandized against the Vietnam War in 1969 on the grounds that ending the war was (as the American Psychiatric Association put it in a 1971 statement) imperative “to build a mentally healthier nation.” The irony is obvious: the works David cites were fictional in that they advanced the narrative that Burkett and Whitely explode. But they were not even inventive works of fiction: they merely elaborated (sometimes skillfully, sometimes less so) a preexisting trope that was invented for political reasons.
Perhaps the reason why today’s writers have little to say about combat and veterans is they are uneasily aware that, while they can’t get away from Vietnam in their own minds, the device of the crazed vet has — thirty years after Rambo — become a cliché best avoided. Or perhaps the answer is a bit more optimistic: the “crazed veteran” was a product of the anti-war movement, and the anti-war movement (including its literary vanguard) has by and large recognized that going after veterans, no matter how good it may make them feel, is bad politics.
Mark down the president’s Memorial Day speech as another solemn occasion this administration has gratingly managed to politicize. The blockquote is from an email the White House Updates account is sending around, suggesting Vietnam vets “never received the hero’s welcome they deserved” until “Obama told their story as it should have been told all along”:
In his speech at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington D.C., President Obama did more than just mark Memorial Day; he began the 50th commemoration of that conflict and those who served in one of America’s longest wars.
Fifty years ago, American forces stepped up operations in Vietnam. During the conflict, more than three million Americans served in the Vietnam war, and more than 58,000 American patriots gave their lives. And when U.S. forces returned home, too many never received the hero’s welcome they deserved.
Yesterday, President Obama told their story as it should have been told all along — a story of patriotism, honor, and courage. Here’s a short video to mark this important moment that you can share to help set the record straight and honor the service of Americans who fought in Vietnam.
That Vietnam Vets had to wait until this week for a president to properly honor them will be news to, among others, Ronald Reagan.