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Stolen Valor - Stolen Legacy
By Dave Curry (Reviewer)
Stolen Valor: How the Vietnam Generation Was Robbed of Its Heroes and Its History
B.G. Burkett & Glenna Whitley
(Verity Press, 1998)
B.G. Burkett's stated goal is to steal back the valor of the Vietnam veterans who really served in Vietnam. To do so, he seeks to destroy the "myth" perpetuated by Vietnam veteran "liars and wannabes" with the assistance of the media, the Department of Veterans Affairs, veterans' advocates, and the mental health care industry. In order to accomplish his goal, Burkett and his coauthor set out to steal the legacy of being Vietnam veterans from all Vietnam veterans who opposed the Vietnam War and all Vietnam veterans who suffer or have suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder, homelessness, suicide, service-connected substance abuse problems, or health problems related to Agent Orange.
Burkett does not claim to be a social scientist, nor should he be mistaken for one. His "research" might be passed off for poor journalism, but no more. His central research technique is leafing through the military records of other veterans that are made available through the federal Freedom of Information Act. There are a number of problems with this approach — chief among them the notorious inaccuracy and incompleteness of military records. For Burkett, if there's no military record available through Freedom of Information, there's no veteran. There is no evidence that Burkett ever attempts to expand his research by soliciting interview information from the victims of his attacks. He does cite opinions of "successful" veterans and authors who agree with his particular prejudices, but even that is done selectively.
The errors in research methodology in "Stolen Valor" could fill a volume as large as Burkett's. I will draw attention to only some of the more glaring tendencies in his work. In his chapter entitled "The Minority Myth: Blacks in Vietnam," Burkett denigrates the service and sacrifice of African-American soldiers in Vietnam. There is empirical research on variations in casualties and service between African-Americans and whites in Vietnam, but Burkett doesn't address it. Instead, Burkett's main target is Wallace Terry's Bloods. In this chapter as in others, Burkett eschews direct attacks on his target, instead concentrating on a TV documentary and a movie, both of which were loosely based on Terry's book. Burkett finishes the chapter with some interviews of successful African-American Vietnam veterans and concludes that Vietnam provided African-Americans an opportunity to display "leadership skills."
Burkett's attack on the Winter Soldier Investigation follows the same pattern. He relies on a Neil Sheehan review of Mark Lane's "Conversations with Americans" and simply repeats charges of Sheehan on selected Lane interviewees. (Mark Lane subsequently substantiated the veracity of his interviewees, but that isn't mentioned by Burkett.) With real enthusiasm (similar to that shown in other sections of the book devoted to African-Americans), Burkett provides a detailed account of the exposure of Al Hubbard of Vietnam Veterans Against the War for lying about his military rank. Burkett points out that Hubbard authored a poem that was published as an introduction to the testimonies given at the Winter Soldier Investigation. Burkett does not note that Al Hubbard did not testify in the Winter Soldier Investigation. The only other member of Vietnam Veterans Against the War that Burkett specifically accuses of false statements about his military records is Michael Harbert. Like Hubbard, Harbert did not testify at the Winter Soldier Investigation. Based on only these two cases, Burkett concludes that the Winter Soldier Investigation was a "tribunal" affected by non-veterans giving false testimony. He does so without impugning the veracity of even one veteran who actually testified at the Winter Soldier Investigation.
That any veteran of Vietnam could oppose the war is an obsession of Burkett that he will not concede. He continually levels ad hominem attacks on every Vietnam Veteran Against the War whose military record he can't attack. Jan Barry (p. 559) was in Vietnam so early in the conflict that: "His biggest moral dilemma may have been whether to have his eggs scrambled or fried each morning." How could John Kerry (p. 135) have opposed the war when he was "a Kennedy protégé with white hot political aspirations." The late Lynda Van Devanter (p. 973) abused drugs and alcohol and represented Vietnam Army nurses as "lesbians and whores." Bobby Muller (p. 560) and Ron Kovic only turned against the war because they were paralyzed by combat wounds. Burkett's attack on Kovic is one the most bizarre attempts at rationalization that I have ever read. According to Burkett, Kovic was a gung-ho Marine who volunteered for Vietnam. In Burkett's words (p. 396), "For Kovic to pretend that he was victimized by the American government is an outrage." Burkett (p. 399) quotes Kovic's citation for the Bronze Star: Kovic was shot, resulting in a paralyzing wound, while attempting to assist a wounded comrade. For Burkett, this demonstrated that Kovic could not have opposed the war prior to his wound. Burkett's simplistic reduction of another vet's courage is the outrage here.
Whatever you do, don't BUY this book. Burkett wants to recover his stolen valor by stealing the valor of thousands of other Vietnam veterans. Burkett does have, however, one big fan. Last year President George W. Bush pinned the Army Decoration of Distinguished Civilian Service on Burkett's chest. Since Burkett's ability at researching military records is so good, I'm surprised that he hasn't been able to find his president's missing military records.
Dave Curry is a member of the VVAW National Office Staff.