(Editor’s Note: Memorial Day and post-Vietnam era liberal presidencies haven’t always been made for each other. This year’s Veterans Affairs scandal is showing our current commander in chief in the worst possible light. Twenty-one years ago, his draft-dodging predecessor was perhaps in an even dicier position. Just to be safe, Bill Clinton’s team made sure to keep Vietnam veterans protesting his appearance at the memorial wall in Washington far away from the actual site. A nice reminder of the Obama team’s effort to shut off access to the war memorials on the Mall in our nation’s capital during last year’s so-called government shutdown. David Clayton Carrad, whose report we flash back to here, was near the Vietnam Veterans Memorial on Memorial Day, 1993. It was an ugly, sobering event.)
On Memorial Day this year I got up and caught the 8:22 a.m. train to Washington, D.C., and headed for the Vietnam Veterans’ Memorial Wall to join the protest against Bill Clinton’s presence there.
In my right hand I carried a small, white plastic bag. Inside the bag was my “boonie” hat—the shapeless, unofficial camouflage hat I wore in the jungles of Vietnam twenty-five years ago. The night before, I had found the hat in an old suitcase in the basement and decorated it with my medals (nothing extraordinary; almost everyone who served there got the same ones I did) and my unit patches and old insignia. Without the boonie hat, there was no way you could have guessed I was a Vietnam veteran. I’ve been told I look a lot like other paunchy, middle-aged corporate lawyers and I was dressed accordingly, in a conservative blue blazer, white shirt, and club tie.
And that’s exactly what I wanted on the train to Washington: anonymity. I returned from Vietnam in mid-1969 and entered Harvard Law School. The atmosphere in Cambridge in the fall of 1969 was not a friendly one for returning veterans; in a very short time I acquired a lifetime supply of angry words, spittle, and hostile glances. Although I was proud to have served, I quickly learned the basic survival skill for Vietnam veterans: keep quiet about it, leave it off your résumé, turn the other cheek.
I kept the boonie hat concealed in the plastic bag all the way to Washington, and as I walked through Union Station, and on the Washington Metro as I rode to the subway station nearest the Wall. It was only when I came up the escalator out of the subway that for the first time I saw enough other veterans wearing similar hats, or T-shirts, or old bits and scraps of uniforms, to feel comfortable. I paused at the top of the escalator to put on my boonie hat and joined the growing stream of veterans headed for the Wall.
It was my third trip there—and it had taken me years to get up the strength to go there for the first time. I knew exactly what Army nurse Lt. Col. Janis Nark was talking about later that day when she mentioned “tree vets,” those who came to the Wall and were so overwhelmed by its towering black presence when they got up close that they had to back off into the tree line for a while, to get some distance from the names, the cold black granite that looms over you, and wait for hours, sometimes years, before they could find it within themselves to get up close. I’d been through that on my first two visits, both times coming by myself, at dawn, when no one else was there.
This time, I was in for an unpleasant surprise: the Clinton White House had ordered the Wall circled with an ugly wooden snow fence that kept us—the veterans!—500 yards away. You could go inside through the airport-style security detectors—but not if you were carrying a protest sign. Our hastily organized rally was kept back behind the fence—“halfway into the next bloody time zone,” as Terry, another veteran, put it.
Terry’s gray hair was neatly trimmed. He was wearing khaki shorts and a faded black and white T-shirt. If you knew the crossed-arrow-and-dagger insignia and the motto (“De Oppresso Liber”), you’d know him for the Special Forces Captain he had been in Vietnam in 1966-67, but otherwise he looked exactly like the investment banker he had been since his discharge in 1968. He’d come all the way from London. We shook hands, and Terry introduced me to his high school friend Jack, a medic in Qui Nhon in 1967-68 and a career FDA bureaucrat in Washington since then. We wandered around on the sunny hillside above the Wall where the Clinton forces had confined us, seeking out people from our old units. We weren’t bothered by the press—corporate lawyers, London investment bankers, and Washington civil servants don’t fit their notions of what Vietnam veterans ought to look like. Instead, newsmen were busy seeking out the motorcycle-club members and two field-jacketed brothers from Iowa who looked startlingly like ZZ Top with gargantuan hangovers. Fred and his brother had heard Clinton was coming to our Wall and had driven straight through for two days just for the opportunity to stand up and turn their backs when he spoke. They were delighted to see the other 1,998 (my own completely unofficial estimate) Vietnam veterans gathered on the hillside when they arrived.
“But don’t you think your protest is contrary to the spirit of the Wall?” one of the TV reporters was asking Fred. “After all, this Wall is for healing the wounds of Vietnam.”
I heard several reporters trying to bury us in the mush of that word.
Terry stepped forward to Fred’s aid. “That’s a myth,” he said. “Why don’t you go down and film the inscription on the Wall and show it on television tonight? That’s why we’re here, and why Clinton shouldn’t be. This Wall was built to honor everyone who served in Vietnam, which most emphatically does not include Mr. Clinton.”
I checked later, and Terry was right. The inscription read:
IN HONOR OF THE MEN AND WOMEN OF THE ARMED FORCES OF THE UNITED STATES WHO SERVED IN THE VIETNAM WAR…OUR NATION HONORS THE COURAGE, SACRIFICE AND DEVOTION TO DUTY AND COUNTRY OF ITS VIETNAM VETERANS.
Not a word about “healing.”
Another favorite media word was “courage,” as in “Don’t you think it took courage for Bill Clinton to come here today?”
“If standing around in a suit and tie and getting booed for a couple of minutes, and then going home to the White House is ‘courage,’ ” said Jack, “then what’s the word for going to Vietnam and getting shot at for 365 days?”
We were amateurs at protest, and it showed. The White House had seized all the tactical advantages before we even arrived. Up on Firebase Clinton we had been pushed out of sight of most of the TV cameras. We had no press spokesman, no press releases to hand out, no binoculars or walkie-talkies, no organization—nothing except our bodies, some of them brutally wounded in Vietnam; our memories; and our determination that this was our day, our Wall, and that Bill Clinton’s presence there was a national disgrace.
I talked to dozens of veterans, and found no disagreement about Clinton. None of us had voted for him, but he had been elected president by the American people, and with that went the title of commander-in-chief. We had no objection to his going to West Point to speak at the cadets’ commencement. And we had no objection to his going to Arlington National Cemetery earlier that day to honor the dead of other wars. None of us would have come to Washington to protest either of those things.
But not here. This was the monument to our generation’s great fault line, the fault line that has grown wider over twenty-five years—between those who went and those who didn’t; between those who served and those who chickened out.
And there was a second consensus among the veterans up on the hillside at LZ Slick Willie: none of us would have come to Washington had Clinton received a medical deferment for a bad knee or back, or joined the National Guard like Dan Quayle, or found some other legally proper, if morally dubious, way to stay at Oxford. What set us off was his in-your-face “I loathe the military” letter in 1969—back then, we were the military—and our unshakable perception that he lied to the Arkansas ROTC program in 1969, and lied again to the American people in the 1992 campaign about what he had said and done to dishonorably evade his duty to his country while we were fighting in Vietnam. There wasn’t anyone on the hillside who believed that it was possible to “forget” you got an induction notice in that troubled year.
So today was payback, for a lot of things. Our most popular signs were “Vietnam Veterans Loathe Clinton” and “Coward” and “Draft Dodger” and “You Dishonor the Dead by Appearing Here.” About 12:45 we fell into a loose formation. We stood on our hillside, kept away from our Wall by the ugly snow fence, until 1:00 when the band played “Hail to the Chief” and we had our first chance to boo.
We came to attention, did a reasonably smart about-face (it was surprising how well we remembered that maneuver), and turned our backs on him. “Where was Bill?” we chanted, and “Off our Wall,” and “Come up here!”—an invitation he did not accept. We did another about-face to salute the flag as the military band played “The Star-Spangled Banner.”
We listened respectfully and attentively to all the official speakers, booing only when they stated that they welcomed Clinton to our Wall. General Colin Powell—a man whom we respect enormously—introduced Clinton. He spoke to us about welcoming the president in the stern tones of a high school principal trying to calm an unruly, out-of-control assembly, and suddenly the feeling ran over us—Yes! Perfect! High school!
The Clinton White House had made a serious mistake in keeping us so far back in the trees—we were too far away to feel the overwhelming, somber grief that the Wall calls up from your heart when you’re close by. We’d been pushed back so far that it was high school again, a year or two before we were drafted, and we were free to be the unruly boys from shop class, the hoods, the louts, the greasers, the troublemakers, booing that smarmy kid up on the platform who always stayed out of trouble with the teachers and ran for class president and won, but we knew you couldn’t count on him in a pinch.
And there was General Powell, who could do nothing except frown and lecture to us, like a principal scowling at earlier years’ graduates who had come back and were shouting insults and smoking on the front lawn, against all the rules, in the middle of a solemn ceremony—but who grudgingly realized that there wasn’t anything he could do to stop us; we had graduated and were beyond his power. We were raunchy, insolent American high school kids again, reveling in our few moments of recaptured innocence.
We booed our lungs out as Clinton himself rose to speak, our anger at him mixed with the sheer lighthearted joy of rebellion, and of hearing our strong voices blend together. We came to attention again and turned our backs on him in unison, even more smartly than in our first about-face. We sang “God Bless America” at the tops of our lungs and drowned out his words. We booed him until our throats were hoarse, half angry and half proud of our solidarity and the sheer volume of the noise we made.
For me, and for everyone else I spoke to that day, it was our first demonstration. We were twenty-five years behind the times, and for the first time a lot of us began to understand the sheer emotional joy of solidarity and brotherhood in just standing together on a hillside and shouting. It helped us understand why demonstrations had been so popular in the sixties, no matter how solemn your cause—they’re fun, a terrific emotional release.
Sometimes you have to sit down and solemnly debate and think through your position on things and perhaps write an essay; sometimes you just have to stand up on a hillside with your brothers and shout like a soccer hooligan.
When Clinton left, we fell out and walked slowly away. I threw my white plastic bag in the first trash can I saw, and I wore my boonie hat as I walked from the Wall and past the State Department and through the streets of Washington to the Metro station, and I wore it on the Metro all the way to Union Station, and I wore it as I walked through the station in Washington and all the way home on the train. I got some curious stares, but that was fine.
For the first time in my life, it felt good to be publicly recognized as a Vietnam veteran.