Vietnam – Popular Culture Versus Reality

operation-frequent-windVietnam – the last moments of a painful evacuation

The war in Vietnam has been termed a travesty in the otherwise glorified military success of the United States.  There have been multitudes of books and movies created about the events in Vietnam with varying degrees of truth and inaccuracies. It is these half truths and outright fictional accounts that have crept into American culture and altered the understanding of unending suffering for everyone involved.  By everyone involved I mean both Americans and Vietnamese, men and women, families and governments.  We may never fully understand the impact of this conflict but by coming to terms with some of the myths and half truths perhaps we can teach the next generations the importance of precise details. The destruction that lies and fiction perpetuate only continues the cycle of pain and hatred.

Most of us call it the Vietnam War yet historians are careful to tell us it wasn’t really a war but actually a conflict because war was never declared. Politician so easily banter the word “war” about such as “the War on Crime” or the “War on Drugs”, they have even declare a “War on Terror” and a “War on Taxes”. Yet the use of millions of tons of ordinance at the cost of over 58,000 American lives, not to mention Vietnamese lives, isn’t a war?  An event that tore the fabric of our society into divisive sections that have never been mended and that’s not war?  Conflict or war, I’ll let those who served in country and the servicemen who were actually part of the gun battles as well as those who live with the outcome decide what it should be called.

American involvement began with military advisors in Vietnam in 1950 but it wasn’t until the early 60’s that large numbers of troops were deployed.  It ended with the Paris Peace Accords in January 1973 and a withdrawal of American troops but the final, bloody battle took place on May 15, 1975. As the media culture of the 1980’s shaped so many of our ideas about this time period its appropriate to look at some actual numbers.

2,954,000 served within the borders of South Vietnam – January 1, 1965- March 28, 1973

3,403,100 served in the South East Asia Theater (including Laos, Cambodia, Thailand and South China Sea)

Less than 30% of those that served in South Vietnam actually saw combat.   As a general rule, it took 10 service             personnel to support one man in the field. Not everyone who went to Vietnam saw gunfire.  That is not to say that life was easy for anyone and certainly the fear of stray bullets and bombs affected every nurse, typist, solider, and support serviceman. Interestingly, a 2000 US Census shows that over 13 million people report to have served in country during the Vietnam war and saw combat.  The means that 4/5 of people who claim to be Vietnam Veterans are not.


One myth that was propagated during the 1980’s was the average age of infantrymen in Vietnam was 19.  This was popularized in the song 19 by Paul Hardcastle. The lyrics are:

In 1965 Vietnam seemed like just another foreign war but it wasn’t
It was different in many ways, as so were those that did the fighting
In World War II the average age of the combat soldier was 26
In Vietnam he was 19
In-in-in Vietnam he was 19

link to song:

In reality the average age of service was 23.11 years. Most people however remember this song and assume that it must be true.

Another commonly held belief is that the poor were drafted while the wealthy were able to get deferments.  There is more than one myth wrapped up in this statement so lets consider another set of statistics.

Only 1/3 of those that served in Vietnam were actually drafted, 2/3 volunteered.  The numbers are reversed for WWII with 1/3 volunteering and 2/3 being drafted.  Approximately 70% of those killed had volunteered.

This was the most educated military at the time. 80% of those that enlisted had high school diplomas or further education and it was higher for those that were drafted.

The rate of causalities and death was actually higher, not lower, for those from middle to upper middle class because they were more often pilots and officers or leaders of some sort.

Various people, including Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr, in 1967, stated categorically that blacks were disproportionately drafted and fed into the war machine of Vietnam.  Sociologists Charles C. Moskos and John Sibley Butler, in their recently published book “All That We Can Be,” said they analyzed the claim that blacks were used like cannon fodder during Vietnam “and can report definitely that this charge is untrue. Black fatalities amounted to 12 percent of all Americans killed in Southeast Asia, a figure proportional to the number of blacks in the U.S. population at the time and slightly lower than the proportion of blacks in the Army at the close of the war.”

womenvietnam_zps5cde1090Vietnam Women’s Memorial, Washington DC

Many people, even some veterans that served, state that women were not in Vietnam and certainly that none of them saw combat or died. Women did serve in Vietnam although they are a much ignored factor in common thought.  7,484 women were part of Armed Services in Vietnam with about 83% of those as nurses. The other women were in the WAC- Women’s Army Corp- or served in administrative support roles.  7 women died in service in Vietnam, one of those was a nurse killed in action (First Lieutenant Sharon Lane). Their names can be found on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall ( people died during Operation Babylift which was one of the last planes taking orphans out of Vietnam for adoption in the United States.  Included in this crash were nurses, wives of service men and diplomats as well as children. Other women who went to Vietnam and in some cases were killed or taken prisoner were photographers, journalists, and humanitarian workers.  The first American women to die in Vietnam was Dickey Chapelle.  A well known war photojournalist, she was killed in Nov 1965 while on patrol with a marine corp.  A wire was tripped that contained a mortar with a hand grenade attached to the top and shrapnel hit her neck.  Kate Webb, an outspoken journalist, was taken prisoner and then later released while reporting in/near Cambodia.

Huet,_ChapelleHenri Huet’s photograph of Last Rites for Dickey Chapelle

One woman that will always be part of the controversy of Vietnam is Jane Fonda, aka Hanoi Jane.  A self proclaimed peace activist/anti-war demonstrator, she was, at one time, one of the most hated women in the United States. An outspoken critic of the Vietnam War, she became the public face of what many felt was sedition. No matter what you think of her, and some people still want her charged with war crimes, there are some facts that must be borne out in order to make an informed decision.

fonda-old_1685889c Fonda on anti-aircraft gun in North Vietnam

In 1972, Fonda went on a two week tour of North Vietnam visiting schools, villages, hospitals and factories.  She states that her purpose was to represent peace for both sides and wanted to end the war. On this tour she met with high level officials in the North Vietnam Regime.  During her tour she met with 7 prisoners of war (POWs) and here is where the myth begins. Sometime in the 80’s an urban legend started that while she was visiting the POWs they slipped her tiny pieces of paper with their social security numbers in hopes that she would get their information out of prison.  According to the legend she palmed these pieces of paper smiling at each prisoner and then walked over to their captors and turned over all those scraps of paper.  Some people will even quote the names of the prisoners she met and so called betrayed as the source of their information.  Here is the truth: she met with 7 POW’s, their names were already known to the US government, there were no pieces of paper, she actually took letters to them from family members and then took their letters back to the US and, in some cases, spoke to the wives of those being held. The men who were those POW’s are so tired to this myth being propagated and have stated emphatically that it did not happen.


Despite the claims of hundreds of Vietnam veterans who maintain they were “there” and affirm that accounts like the “smuggled Social Security number betrayal” are true because they supposedly witnessed them, the fact is that Fonda met only seven American POWs while in North Vietnam: Edison Miller, Walter Wilber, James Padgett, David Wesley Hoffman, Kenneth James Fraser, William G. Byrns, and Edward Elias. None of those men reported her sabotaging their attempts to slip her information about themselves, and anyone other than those seven men who asserts he was “there” and witnessed such a scene is simply not telling the truth.

Some of the POWs who actually did meet with Jane Fonda, such as Edison Miller, have spoken out on the record over the years to disclaim the apocryphal stories about her:
“The whole [e-mail] story about Jane Fonda is just malarkey,” said Edison Miller, 73, of California, a former Marine Corps pilot held more than five years. Miller was among seven POWs who met with Fonda in Hanoi. He said he didn’t recall her asking any questions other than about their names, if that. He said that he passed her no piece of paper, and that to his knowledge, no other POW in the group did, despite the e-mail’s claims.

Col. Larry Carrigan, the U.S. serviceman whose name is invoked in the e-mailed reproduced at the head of this article, has affirmed that he neither claimed nor experienced any of what has been attributed to him, and that he never even met Jane Fonda:
“It’s a figment of somebody’s imagination.” said Ret. Col. Larry Carrigan, one of the servicemen mentioned in the ‘slips of paper’ incident. Carrigan was shot down over North Vietnam in 1967 and did spend time in a POW camp. He has no idea why the story was attributed to him, saying, “I never met Jane Fonda.” In 2005, the Minneapolis Star Tribune reported that Carrigan “is so tired of having to repeat that he wasn’t beaten after Fonda’s visit and that there were no beating deaths at that time that he won’t talk to the media anymore.”

The tale about a defiant serviceman who spit at Jane Fonda and was severely beaten as a result is often attributed to Air Force pilot Jerry Driscoll. He has also repeatedly stated on the record that it did not originate with him:
Driscoll said he never met Fonda, as the e-mail claims — and therefore, never spit on her and didn’t suffer permanent double vision from a subsequent beating. “Totally false. It did not happen,” Driscoll said.

“I don’t know who came up with [my] name. The trouble that individual has caused me!” he said, referring to the time he has spent repeatedly denying the persistent myth.

Mike McGrath, President of NAM-POWs, has also stepped forward to disclaim the Internet-circulated rumors about Jane Fonda and American POWs:
Please excuse the generic response, but I have been swamped with so many e-mails on the subject of the Jane Fonda article (Carrigan, Driscoll, strips of paper, torture and deaths of POWs, etc.) that I have to resort to this pre-scripted rebuttal. The truth is that most of this never happened. This is a hoax story placed on the internet by unknown Fonda haters. No one knows who initiated the story. Please assist by not propagating the story. Fonda did enough bad things to assure her a correct place in the garbage dumps of history. We don’t want to be party to false stories, which could be used as an excuse that her real actions didn’t really happen either. I have spoken with all the parties named: Carrigan, Driscoll, et al. They all state that this particular internet story is a hoax and they wish to disassociate their names from the false story.
Even Henry Mark Holzer and Erika Holzer, whose 2002 book “Aid and Comfort”: Jane Fonda in North Vietnam made the argument that Jane Fonda could have been tried and convicted of treason for her activities in North Vietnam, acknowledged that the “slips of paper” tale was untrue:
Let’s set the record straight. It has been reported on the Internet in recent years that POWs surreptitiously slipped Fonda messages which she turned over to the North Vietnamese. That story is false. Also untrue is that any POW died for refusing to meet with Fonda.

The POW/MIA issue deserves a post (or two or three) dedicated to solely to that topic.  Its emotional impact can’t be understated and the controversies involved continue to elicit almost daily publications of facts and opinions. I will address this topic at a later date.

               buddhistimmolationBuddhist monk, Quang Duc,  self immolation protesting the war,                                       June 11, 1963

Media plays such a large role in our perception of events that truth and fiction often blend into one idea and then becomes the standard of our opinion.  The above examples of misconceptions about the Vietnam War are just a few of these standards and unless we take the time to correct them, they will become the myth that is truth.

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