``That might sound strange, given the tenor of the times when Woodstock was the ultimate happening, with all its antiwar undercurrents. But I`m beginning to think of the Chicago parade as a sort of Woodstock for Vietnam veterans, the ultimate event to symbolically begin to close the real and imagined rifts between them and the rest of their countrymen. It`s a pity that none of the networks or the national news magazines paid much attention to the parade because I don`t think there`ll ever be another one quite the same as this one.``
A woman interviewed by The Tribune shortly after the parade ended perhaps best explained what was going on that day:
The idea that it isn`t just the Vietnam vets who have bottled up some dark memories for the last 15 years was one of the reasons that Tom Stack says he thought the parade was necessary.
``The whole country still has some healing to do,`` he says, ``not just the veterans. This parade turned out to be the biggest group therapy session I`ve ever seen.``
In 1972, a year when American troops still were in combat in Vietnam, a nationwide Louis Harris poll indicated that 61 percent of all Americans thought Vietnam was a war ``we could never win.`` The same poll indicated that 49 percent of all Americans thought Vietnam veterans ``were made suckers, having to risk their lives in the wrong war at the wrong time.`` A follow-up poll by the Harris organization in 1979 indicated that the number of Americans who thought the veterans were ``suckers`` had grown to 64 percent.
``Sucker.`` That is a hard word. Vietnam is a small country, and the American war there will never be considered a big one. Because of that, and because the three presidents during the war tried to minimize the scope of our involvement there, it is easy to forget what a big war it was. Lasting from 1961 to 1973, it was longer than the Civil War and our years in World Wars I and II combined. World War II was our biggest war, during which 15 million Americans were in uniform. Through the years in Vietnam 9 million Americans served in the military, 3 million in the war zone. That is a lot of people for two-thirds of all Americans to regard as suckers.
``There were 27 million men who came of age during the Vietnam era,``
says Phil Meyer, a combat veteran and a parade organizer who works as a counselor at the Veterans Center at 547 W. Roosevelt Rd., ``and only 9 million of them went into the military. Two-thirds of their own generation had deferments and were excused from the war. One of the big problems among the men who come here for counseling is the notion that they were duped.
``No one wants to live with that rage. `Why was I so dumb? Why didn`t I see it?` It is a false notion, but a lot of veterans have gone through a long period of shutting themselves off from such feelings, of not recognizing them and examining them.``
Of those who went to Vietnam, a remarkable number went out of a sense of idealism. In World War II the majority of men were drafted. In Vietnam 80 percent who served there volunteered. And after arriving in the war zone, the soldiers in Vietnam had a lower combat-desertion rate than Americans in any other war.
But war is war, and idealism does not wear well in combat. For the soldier in battle, war is reduced to a desperate contest to survive. The classic studies of combat have confirmed that the overwhelming impetus for the average soldier in battle is to protect his buddies in his immediate unit--and thus himself--from harm. Soldiers in Vietnam, as in every war, forged bonds in battle that in many ways are stronger than those between brothers.
To believe that comrades who were killed in battle next to you died for nothing, that they, like you, were duped into serving, has been a bitter pill for Vietnam veterans to swallow. Yet it is a bitterness that many veterans have chosen to chew on alone, in solitude, because of the way they were sent to and brought back from the war.
In World War II most men who saw combat were trained in battalions in the U.S., sent overseas intact as a unit and fought together for the duration of the war. When they came home, they came home as a unit, generally on a long ride in a slow-moving ship. And once they were home, though most did not have a homecoming parade, they were welcomed universally. The people who had remained back home supported the war and the reasons for fighting it. Indeed, they themselves had suffered during that war from, if nothing else, strict government rationing of such necessities as food and gasoline.
But in the case of Vietnam most soldiers were sent into the war under a one-year rotation system. After receiving combat training in the U.S., they were sent to Vietnam individually rather than in units, obligated to serve for one year from the day of their arrival. Once they were ``in country`` in Vietnam, each was assigned to a unit that needed a new body to replace one that had been killed, wounded or rotated home. If they survived their year intact, they were plucked from the field one day by a helicopter, shuttled to an airbase and put on a plane for America.
The average age of the Vietnam combat veteran was 19, compared to 27 in World War II. The speed with which they could be moved from combat back to the U.S., and the anonymous nature by which it was done, allowed them no time to decompress from the battle zone. Nor did they have time to talk out their experiences with someone they could trust to understand them.
``Never in the history of this country was a veteran taken out of battle in the field to the living room of his home in the U.S. within 36 hours,``
says Vietnam vet counselor Meyer. ``One day you had a gun in your hand, grenades hanging around your neck and the balance of peoples` lives in your hands. The next day you were home among people who often were fed up with the war. They didn`t want to understand what you had been through, and, in fact, they felt some hostility towards you, blaming you for fighting, for the war itself.``
One of the most painful aspects of the Vietnam War was the way it divided an entire generation of Americans--the young people who went to war and those who didn`t. ``Our harshest critics as veterans,`` says Meyer, ``were our own people, our own generation.``
It wasn`t hard to stay out of the military during the war. The government was liberal with college- and graduate-school deferments. And it wasn`t long before a preponderance of men going to war came from lower-class and lower-middle-class families. As American involvement expanded in Vietnam, the antiwar movement and political radicalism exploded on campuses at home. By 1968 the nation was as riveted by the fighting on campuses--by full-scale riots, seizures of buildings and bombings--as it was by the war itself. The radical politics of the antiwar movement soon spilled into other areas of American life. It fueled and radicalized older existing issues such as Black Power, the feminist movement, gay rights, the American Indian movement.