Gary Kulik

'War Stories'

False Atrocity Tales, Swift Boaters, and Winter Soldiers--What Really Happened in Vietnam

Potomac Books 2009

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One often hears stories of World War II and Korean War veterans who came back from the war and refused to talk about what...

One often hears stories of World War II and Korean War veterans who came back from the war and refused to talk about what they had experienced in combat. They neither wanted folks at home to know what had happened nor did they want to relive it themselves. It was just too horrible to relate. The truth about combat in those conflicts, so we are told, was therefore suppressed.

In Vietnam, the truth was also suppressed, but in a different way and for altogether different reasons. As Gary Kulik demonstrates in his remarkable book ‘War Stories’: False Atrocity Tales, Swift Boaters, and Winter Soldiers–What Really Happened in Vietnam (Potomac Books, 2009), some Vietnam veterans came back from the war and, far from hesitating to tell their “war stories,” exaggerated and even invented them. This was particularly true of atrocity tales, which were both numerous and well broadcast. As Kulik explains, the point of these false atrocity stories was not to portray the “grunts” in a bad light. On the contrary, the tellers of the tales portrayed themselves–with the aid of the anti-war media and what might be called the anti-war psychological establishment–as victims. Victims of what? The ‘American War Machine’ (my phrase, not Kulik’s)– a monstrous, immoral creation that ground vast quantities of men and material–American and Vietnamese–into dust for no good purpose. The ‘American War Machine,’ so Americans were told in the Winter Soldiers’ testimony, in a huge memoir literature, and in blockbuster films, produced atrocities that then in turn produced the broken, lost, and possibly insane Vietnam vet of popular folk memory. Think John Rambo or Travis Bickle.

Kulik’s point is not that American soldiers committed no atrocities in Vietnam. They did, and they were too many of them. Nor is it to claim that American soldiers were not, in some cases, badly traumatized by their Vietnam experience. Some were, and too many of them. His argument is that the truth about Vietnam–that it was basically a war like others Americans have fought in the twentieth century, not one that produced a flood of atrocities and psychologically wounded soldiers–has been suppressed by those who wanted to tell politically-charged “war stories.”

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