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.