The Magazine

Ghost Patrol

The curious mythology of the Vietnam war.

Nov 16, 2009, Vol. 15, No. 09 • By ANDREW NAGORSKI
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War Stories

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

by Gary Kulik

Potomac, 304 pp., $29.95

One of the oft-repeated stories among soldiers in Vietnam concerned a purported island in the Pacific where the U.S. Army would dispatch those men who had contracted incurable forms of venereal disease. To spare their families embarrassment, so the stories went, the military would inform them that their loved ones had gone missing in action--and the afflicted soldiers would never return. To this day, some Vietnam veterans remain firmly convinced that this really happened.

"It is of course a false and absurd story," writes Gary Kulik, who served as a medic in Vietnam. "In my experience some young soldiers thought that their repeated cases of gonorrhea were marks of virility, rather than symptoms of long-term unpleasantness. I can easily imagine medics, who were usually older and better educated, using such a fantasy for its invigilating effects."

Kulik's wry comment about this fantasy island constitutes a rare lighter moment in an otherwise deadly serious, emotionally charged book. Anyone who grew up in the 1960s--whether he served in Vietnam, took to the streets in protest, did both, or neither--is likely to hesitate before picking up a book with the subtitle: "False atrocity tales, Swift Boaters, and Winter Soldiers--What Really Happened in Vietnam." The instinctive reaction is to ask what ideological line Kulik is peddling--and why should I, as a reader, dredge up all the political, personal, cultural, and psychological battles of that era? What more is there to be said?

The short answer is "a lot," and Kulik says it extraordinarily well. At a time when most people who lived through the war in Vietnam would rather cling to their own versions of events, disregarding anything that complicates the narrative that they've accepted in their minds as the truth, along comes a writer who refuses to settle for simple ideological answers of either the left or the right. Instead, he follows the evidence wherever it leads him, scrupulously examining the record of how American soldiers behaved when they served in Vietnam, and the stories they have been telling since they came home.

Kulik's ability to navigate and weigh seemingly contradictory evidence, coming to conclusions that will not please the ideologues of either side, flows from his own complex feelings about Vietnam. As a graduate student at Brown, he was opposed to the war and applied to be classified as a conscientious objector. But he expressed his willingness to serve in a noncombatant role in the military, and was inducted into the Army in 1969. While enjoying a cushy assignment as a writer in the Historical Unit of the Walter Reed Army Medical Center, he penned antiwar articles and was even arrested in a demonstration. (Because he was in civilian clothes and released quickly, his superiors didn't learn about this.) In June 1970, he was shipped to Vietnam, where he served as a medic and then, somewhat to his frustration, as a clerk to the battalion adjutant. He volunteered to join a flight crew, but was rejected because of less-than-perfect vision. He was still technically a conscientious objector, but he clearly wanted to be in on the action. The war no longer looked black and white to him, nor did the warriors.

Kulik methodically sets out to debunk anything he has concluded is a lie or misrepresentation about that period. What is held to be true isn't necessarily true, he argues, even when there are Vietnam veterans claiming responsibility for particular actions. His most graphic example: The case of Kim Phuc, the nine-year-old girl who was badly burned in a napalm attack in 1972, and was famously photographed running naked in agony. She was later rediscovered by Western journalists, and in 1996, she attended a Veterans Day ceremony at the Vietnam Veterans War Memorial in Washington. Addressing the crowd, she told them that, if she could meet the pilot who napalmed her, she would ask him "to promote peace." At that point, John Plummer passed a note to her saying: "I am THAT man."

The two embraced and Phuc said, "I forgive you." The only problem was that, as Kulik points out, Plummer was not that man. Yes, he served in Vietnam, but his entire story falls apart on closer examination. The real pilot was a South Vietnamese who had responded to an appeal for help from South Vietnamese troops under attack. So why did Plummer claim he was the guilty one? It produced invitations to appear on Nightline, a documentary on A&E, and countless other appearances to talk about forgiveness. That, in turn, strengthened his reputation as a minister in Purcellville, Virginia.