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A Troubling Tribute

By Jan Barry

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Reprinted from Nonviolent Activist: The Magazine of the War Resisters League, July-August 2001 issue

Home to War:
A History of the Vietnam Veterans’ Movement
By Gerald Nicosia
Crown Publishing Group

Imagine a big new book profiles you as a national hero — and that wondrous portrait is not entirely true. In this “epic narrative history” lauded by historian Howard Zinn and Publishers Weekly, Library Journal and filmmaker Oliver Stone, the opening volley proclaims that I founded Vietnam Veterans Against the War at age 23, after “marching through New York City on April 7, 1967.”

Wow! What an accolade. Regrettably, like too much of this book, it is rife with errors. The 1967 event that inducted me into antiwar action was April 15, a massive march to the United Nations. I was 24. And as Gerald Nicosia recounts later on, six veterans founded VVAW, with many others quickly joining to help protest the war we had participated in.

In dramatic passage after passage, Home to War offers a heartfelt, troubling tribute to the legacy of a peace group the author, who previously wrote a biography of Jack Kerouac, so admired that he spent more than a decade crisscrossing the country to trace its trajectory. Many sparkling recreations are marred, however, by a lack of fact-checking.

Fortunately, once past VVAW’s mythic origins, Home to War more reliably relates the development of a widening movement in response to Vietnam vets’ often harsh return to American society: discrimination, unemployment, drug use, clashes with health care, law enforcement, and political systems. Based on extensive interviews and research, Nicosia shows how VVAW and various allies tackled a host of issues, including pioneering programs to identify and treat post-traumatic stress disorder, pinpointing health problems associated with Agent Orange and other chemicals sprayed in Vietnam, pressuring the Veterans Administration to provide programs to treat these problems, launching the mainstream Vietnam Veterans of America organization to provide lobbying clout and fostering reconciliation with Vietnam.

In an effusive review in the Los Angeles Times, historian A.J. Langguth concluded that, should veterans ever again need to protest government actions, “Nicosia has provided a detailed blueprint for how such a movement can succeed.” He also unflinchingly shows how VVAW was torn apart by police agents and ultra-leftist infiltrators; how at the height of its fame it was largely a paper organization with few dues-paying members; and how this rotating collective of combative, frequently provoked men and women nonetheless maintained a dedication to organizing nonviolent actions.

What fascinated Nicosia were the battles angry veterans fought with government agencies and each other. Describing innovative actions accomplished by veterans who harnessed that anger into work in broad coalitions, he dwells on disputes among participants. The big story in Home to War is that fabled VVAW leaders such as Bobby Muller and Ron Kovic, Al Hubbard and John Kerry clashed with each other. The fact that the international anti-landmine campaign organized by Muller won a Nobel Peace Prize, for instance, is noted only in an aside. Kerry’s contributions on peace issues as a U.S. senator are unreported.

Oddly, given Nicosia’s career as a literary critic, he ignores VVAW’s literary legacy. Kovic’s Born on the Fourth of July is mentioned, and a quote is provided from W.D. Ehrhart’s Passing Time: A Memoir of a Vietnam Veteran Against the War. But there is no review of the substantial library of memoirs, novels, poetry, and short story collections by VVAW alumni, as well as various histories of the group such as The Turning, Winter Soldiers and The New Winter Soldiers.

Also missing from this history of the movement VVAW spawned is any look at how vets’ groups addressed international crises, such as the Central American wars, threat of nuclear war and the Persian Gulf war. In a note to readers, Nicosia says he ran out of space and time to cover the full legacy.

Many reviewers have praised the vignettes of veteran celebrities such as Kerry and Muller and sketches of forgotten vets who took a turn at organizing memorable events and then, in Nicosia’s view, faded away. This focus on dramatic moments in the lives of some extraordinary, outspoken activists, however, obscures the lasting legacy of VVAW. In communities across America, numerous Vietnam veterans continue to be peacemakers, amid raising families and holding a spectrum of jobs. This saga has yet to be fully told.

Jan Barry is a journalist and author of A Citizen’s Guide to Grassroots Campaigns. He was one of the founders of Vietnam Veterans Against the War.

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