They Tell Me the Cruelty is the Point
In his essential history of the anti-Vietnam war movement, Out Now, the late Fred Halstead tells of the activist newspapers that were written by veterans and, in time, by active duty servicemen, newspapers that detailed the atrocities of war and urged soldiers to resist in ways grand and small. Veteran Stars and Stripes for Peace, Vietnam GI, The Bond - each were messages of defiance against a war that will stand the test of time as an act of utterly unjustifiable barbarity, waged on behalf of the American way. These papers came together around 1968 or so, years before the tide had turned so fully against the war that there was less danger in publicly opposing it, especially for those still employed by the United States military. Eventually these largely veteran-produced publications would inspire others written and edited entirely by those on active duty, on-base antiwar papers like FTA and Fatigue Press. These guerilla newspapers were a vital indicator of a military whose lowest-ranking members increasingly fought against a war they knew to be immoral.
The veterans and servicemen who made these papers were overwhelmingly white. That is not surprising; the US military presence in Vietnam was overwhelmingly white. It is true, as has been pointed out repeatedly in art and journalism, that there were racial inequities at play in the drafting of conscripts in the latter half of the war, and among all draftees Black soldiers exceeded their percentage of their overall population by about 5%. It is also true, though, that despite what you may have heard most of the fighting in Vietnam was conducted by enlisted men, not those conscripted, and they were white in dominant majorities. One might say that all of this is besides the point; many of the soldiers in Vietnam were coerced or conned into going, and they suffered then and suffered when they came home, white or Black. But today I’m afraid we must place demographics above all else. Who am I to blow against the wind?
The veterans and GIs behind these papers made choices, the right ones: they chose to stand against a hellish war and risked great personal costs to do so. Some did not. Some went off to war and enthusiastically mowed down Vietnamese people, NVA and VC and civilian all the same, stopping only to rape and plunder. Many others simply went on supporting a brutal and unwinnable war after discharge out of toxic political convictions, helping pave the way for more warmongering politics and a total abdication of accountability by those who waged them. My point here is simply that those choices mattered; it was better to be the kind of soldier who risked imprisonment through guerilla resistance against the war machine than it was to be the kind who simply went about the military’s bloody business and enjoyed it. Behavior matters. Choices matter. We cannot look at moral questions purely through the lens of the gross identity traits of those involved and claim to live in a healthy moral culture. And we must remain alive to that idea in a political environment that every day gets closer and closer to pure demographic determinism. The kind recently put up for vulgar display in The New Republic.
I would not think that I would still have the capacity to be offended, after all these years of being desensitized, but Chris Lehmann has proven me wrong. Lehmann wrote something of such special cruelty that today I am moved to write in anger.
I was initially surprised that this piece had not kicked up a lot of outrage, but then I remembered that it was published in The New Republic and so no one has actually seen it. TNR, a legacy magazine if ever one deserved the name, has stumbled around like Mr. Magoo for two decades, trying to recapture past glories like shaming “welfare mothers” by re-strategizing and re-conceptualizing and re-branding and bringing in one talentless asshole after another to pilot the listless ship. TNR long ago achieved that status of being a publication that exists for no other reason than to keep Managing Editors and Senior Content Directors puttering along, a money pit from which new leadership can extract some expense-account lunches before passing it along to the next rube with a desire to be taken seriously by the worst people alive. At least there’s a kind of value in that, I guess; certainly no one is reading it. The last piece in The New Republic that mattered was, uh. Hmmm. Gawker gets more buzz than TNR and it was shut down five years ago. But Lehmann’s piece requires attention. True moral poverty of this type deserves to be recognized.
The offending piece is a review of a book called How White Men Won the Culture Wars by someone called Joseph Darda, a minor academic who I must congratulate for making such a naked stab for relevance with his book and its title. Its argument, according to Lehmann, is that the anguished fight for recognition, respect, medical treatment, and mental health care waged by veterans coming home from the war in Vietnam was, in fact, simply white male grievance politics. Legless 23 year olds who had been put through a meat grinder by a rapacious and indifferent military machine were, to Lehmann and Darda, no different from the angry white guys who own Ford dealerships that powered Donald Trump’s campaign. Their demands for recognition and access to basic social services can now be safely derided as the special pleading of the privileged; you know, the privilege of being crippled both literally and metaphorically. I urge you to read Lehmann’s piece to see how unbroken and shameless his contempt for these wounded and hopeless victims of empire really is. There is no “to be sure” paragraph here. Lehmann and Darda are committed to the bit.
I am an anti-imperialist. I do not generically “support the troops.” Many who went to Vietnam committed atrocities or casual barbarism or just enjoyed killing the locals a little too much. I have no support or sympathy for them. I celebrate and affirm the Viet Cong and the People’s Army of Vietnam’s victory over American anti-communism. But like all real anti-imperialists I understand that the individuals caught up in these wars are themselves pawns deployed at the whim of great powers, and that those great powers are made up of those whose lives are never at risk. My commitment to fighting imperialism does not reduce the revulsion I feel as Lehmann waves away the the plight of men chewed up and spit out by the Defense department, many of whom signed up after a lifetime of propaganda or in an effort to escape poverty. Sometimes American soldiers are monsters guilty of war crimes; sometimes they’re kids who got sent overseas to die face down in the jungle because Henry Kissinger wanted to project strength. I reserve the right to tell one from another and not squash their experience into one uniform bloc, as is happening in Lehmann’s piece. And I maintain a pre-political commitment to a basic form of human compassion that compels me to want better for suffering people, even if progressive trends declare them to be Bad.
Darda, it is worth noting, has just so happened to release a book about why white men are bad at precisely the right time, riding the wave of what’s politically fashionable among those who write takes and buy books. Lehmann, too, has had a political evolution recently, suddenly injecting clumsy waves at antiracism into his doddering leftish scribblings for places like The Baffler, that bland stew of vague and toothless post-capitalism. Darda and Lehmann are, of course, both white men themselves, and the product they sell is the reassurance to other white men that all white men are bad, save them, the writer and readers; they tell the white men who are undoubtedly the large majority of their audience that there is, in the sea of evil that their own race and gender connote, a tiny elect who get it. Darda and Lehmann believe that they are the good ones, and they are willing to sell that status to whichever white men will buy.
I call these kinds of opportunistically woke white men “crabs in a bucket.” They jostle and scrape for a little glimpse at sunlight, convinced that one day they will emerge on top, and a beautiful Black angel will descend from above and place on their heads a crown that reads “The Only Good White Man.” To Lehmann these veterans are just white men because that perspective is monetizable. He sees nothing of experience, only of demographics, a stance that might leave you wondering how he himself is deserving of his station as “Editor-at-Large” (lol). These are not opinions that Lehmann developed organically, like a tumor growing on his face. Instead I think that this disdain for all things white and male was a calculation. Greying old white men in this industry have collectively decided that ceaselessly complaining about “white men,” an abstraction that they excuse themselves from with every ham-handed denunciation they write, will keep the old career going until they can enter their shuffleboard-playing years. It’s a living, in the sense that necrotizing fasciitis is alive.
Lehmann is a fan of creating an association he can’t really prove through the deeply sophisticated act of placing sentences next to each other. “[P]oised to capitalize in a host of ways on America’s emerging postliberal backlash,” writes Lehmann, “[c]onditions were ripe for returning Vietnam vets to engineer this dramatic change in status. The so-called white ethnic revival announced a defection from the old model of WASP ascendancy, and the assertion of new cultural status on behalf of a cohort of twentieth-century immigrants.” Now, as a piece of history, this is laughable - it was World War II that signaled the beginning of the end of “the old model of WASP ascendancy” and not Vietnam, as that older war thrust “ethnic” whites and WASPs together in socially momentous ways and transformed the ethnic demographics of the white collar workplace through the GI Bill. Whatever WASP elites still existed during Vietnam did not participate at all, in contrast to World War II, in which fully 18% of American men served. JFK’s generation of bluebloods went to war. Their kids did not.
But my concern here is what Vietnam vets engineered, and how. There’s already a postliberal backlash going on, I take it, and so Vietnam vets could engineer a dramatic change in status. (This is all a little sketchy but then so is Lehmann.) For many, their post-war “change in status” was living under a bridge, but alrighty, let’s go with this - what is the connection between the second-to-last sentence in the quote above and the last? Is the “so-called white ethnic revival” what Vietnam vets engineered? Where is the basic semantic connective tissue needed here to establish an explicit sense of agent and effect? Lehmann can’t be bothered to make an explicit connection, suggesting either someone dishonest enough to try and wing that one by his readers or a writer so out of his depth that he can’t control basic elements of attribution of action. (My guess is both.)
Either way - a little more than 3,000,000 white men served in Vietnam across the entire war, which if we’re defining things honestly took 21 years. Many of them came home to economic and social marginalization; most, likely, simply embraced good old American apolitical life. Is this group sufficient to explain a massive political realignment centered on white male grievance? Certainly representation in Congress would suggest the exact opposite of an explosion in veteran political influence, as the end of Vietnam coincided with a vast decline in veterans in our legislature:
And indeed at the height of representation of Vietnam veterans in Congress a combined 21 in the House and Senate served at once. In fact members of congress born during the years that made one draft-eligible for the Vietnam war were three times more likely not to have served in the armed forces at all than to have served, let alone to have served in combat. If the country was so transfixed by the white grievance politics of Vietnam veterans, why were more not elected to our legislature? Nor can we say that they enjoyed the power of many votes, as veteran status in the population writ large continued to plummet after a mild and brief rise to coincide with the war:
Certainly there can be influence beyond numbers, but then it’s Darda and Lehmann who are asserting some powerful bloc of Vietnam veterans cynically exploiting positive public sentiment to advance white grievance politics. It is therefore on them to provide evidence, and Lehmann’s review contains literally nothing beyond innuendo and a frankly bizarre digression into film criticism. I myself might be tempted to look for an alternative explanation for white identity politics, like, I don’t know, the entire fucking edifice of the Goldwater-Reagan conservative revolution that captured one half of America’s political consciousness and was conspicuously led by elites who were too old to serve in Vietnam. And, in turn, by those who used their privilege to avoid the draft. But, no, it’s true Chris: they made First Blood and suddenly the country decided white men needed to return to glory. An army of draft-dodging Gordon Gekkos in Brooks Brothers suits didn’t do that. Paraplegics whose bodies were still filled with shrapnel must be the culprits. Thank you, woke Hercule Poirot.
Lehmann seems to think the moral status of conscripts and the enlisted are necessarily and uniformly different. That many enlisted precisely to avoid the draft process and its greater uncertainty in terms of branch and deployment has escaped Lehmann’s attention, much like the commitment to writing with clarity or intellectual humility. There’s an entire left-wing literature about the ways that our military apparatus has coerced generations of men into enlisting, and for the record if you’re any kind of a materialist you might understand that these behaviors are the product of systems, not individual choices, but never mind, never mind. We are using buckshot here today and so they all must fall: white enlisted men were overrepresented in the post-Vietnam veteran social movement and conspired to be declared an oppressed group. In fact two-thirds of Vietnam’s fighting force (and 70% of casualties) were enlistees, and 85+% were white, so they would hardly be overrepresented, but who’s counting?
As part of the phased withdrawal of troops from Vietnam, the Nixon administration orchestrated a high-profile return of 591 American prisoners of war in the spring of 1973, in an initiative dubbed “Operation Homecoming.” The returning prisoners were acutely unrepresentative of the actual forces serving in Vietnam: They were mostly college-educated officers. None of them had been drafted. They were all men, and 95 percent of them were white
Again, Lehmann seems not to understand the basic demographics of a war that he writes about with total confidence: any collection of returning soldiers from Vietnam would be dominantly white and enlisted because the entire war effort was dominantly white and enlisted. And of course a group of POWs was mostly officers! More than 80% of POWs were pilots! Lehmann appears to have not spent a single red second wondering whether he knew the first thing about who actually served in this conflict. Look, I think the Black experience in Vietnam matters too, and I recognize that there were unique draft pressures on Black men and unique vulnerabilities once they got to war. But several decades of books and films about them has created an impression of an American presence in Vietnam that was dominantly made up of draftees of color. This simply isn’t true, not remotely, yet Lehmann is totally committed to engaging with the narrative rather than the reality. This is one of the deepest sins you can commit in nonfiction writing: leaving your readers less informed than they were before. To repeatedly claim disproportionality when you clearly don’t know the actual historical proportions is an embarrassment. Just a total embarrassment.
“They were all men.” No shit, really? A group of Vietnam POWs were all men? That’s crazy. Please, pull deeper from your treasure trove of secret knowledge for us.
From this lily-white, mediagenic presentation of returning prisoners of war, an activist movement took root, seeking the return of allegedly still-living POWs in Vietnam who were chiefly figments of urban legend—and the broader optics of the American veterans’ movement ensured that these imaginary figures had to be white.
“Chiefly” is a weasel word if I’ve ever read one, designed to let Lehmann wriggle around. The fact is that we don’t know how many POWs remained alive in Vietnam after the war; in 2015 there were still some 1,600 American servicemen with unresolved status. No doubt the vast majority of them had been killed in action and were never found. But was it really crazy for many who had returned home to fear that some remained caged in Vietnam? The Northern Vietnamese had publicly admitted that more than 60 American POWs had died in captivity. But even if no such living prisoners of war remained, the idea that the only reason to talk about them was a devious conspiracy of grievance politics is insane.
And, again - of course the remaining POWs would be assumed to be white. The war effort was dominantly white and the POWs were white officer pilots in vast majorities. You can lament the racial inequalities that kept Black servicemen from becoming pilots but the simple fact of the matter is that assuming Vietnam POWs would be white in huge majorities is just paying attention to reality. The problem is that Lehmann doesn’t know who made up Vietnam servicemen or POWs. That’s bad enough, but it seems Darda (a professional historian) obscures this basic reality in his book, writing “The whiteness of the Operation Homecoming vets, the most visible and distinguished former prisoners of war, made the POW/MIA movement a vehicle for white racial grievance.” Again: the whiteness of Operation Homecoming was an expression of proportionality of the POW population, not disproportionality. I sincerely hope this is better expressed in the book; here it looks like pure propaganda.
Famously, many Vietnam veterans turned against the war, like the newspaper writers I discussed above, disgusted by its senselessness and savagery, and became a vitally important part of the antiwar movement that ended Lyndon Johnson’s political career. Do they escape the censure of Darda and Lehmann? Of course not: to be opposed to the war, too, was a kind of special pleading, a way to put white men first. Lehmann:
In a telling augur of this shift [towards white grievance politics], Vietnam Veterans Against the War—a militant anti-war group that gained notoriety when several of its members (among them future senator and presidential candidate John Kerry) hurled their service medals over a fence near the White House—began to focus principally on issues of trauma and recovery, sponsoring a series of “rap groups” to describe the harrowing experience of combat in Vietnam and vets’ halting efforts to come to terms with its psychic legacy.
How dare they. How dare a group of men who had lived through horrors that could not be imagined by almost anyone of us turn to an effort to overcome the crippling mental illnesses that would remain with many of them for the rest of their lives? Lehmann goes on to describe this all as part of the “emerging dynamic of white blamelessness.” Pause and marinate in that emotional logic: to suffer from war and seek help is necessarily to seek a status of blamelessness. Never mind that the literature of the antiwar vets is absolutely stuffed with narratives of punishing guilt for the war effort they took part in; I believe inescapable guilt is the literal opposite of “blamelessness.” But no, Lehmann knows that these men, casting about for meaning after experiencing the heart of meaninglessness, were really seeking special political favor because… well, if I’m being honest, I don’t know what proof Lehmann has for any of the things that he says. I hope that evidence is locked away in Darda’s book, because right now it’s all just asserted without proof and without decency or shame.
Would it surprise you to learn that Darda and Lehmann ridicule PTSD and the veterans who, they are somehow sure, did not experience it anyway?
The mounting sense of anomie in the white veterans’ community became focused on the notion of post-traumatic stress disorder—a new psychological diagnosis that took root after a nurse in a Boston VA hospital treated a veteran who’d taken part in the infamous massacre of some 500 Vietnamese villagers in My Lai. By the time PTSD was formally adopted in the 1980 edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, the notion of post-Vietnam trauma was already spreading beyond the corps of afflicted veterans and gaining traction as an all-purpose depiction of white male grievance in a contracting economy and a still-confrontational climate of post–civil rights and feminist protest. “The attribution of PTSD to vets and the white men who identified with them, most of whom did not serve and did not suffer from PTSD” worked “as a kind of entitlement,” Darda writes, “a belief that something they deserved had been taken from them, had been taken and must be returned. It encouraged a feeling of entitlement through a sense of discrimination.”
“Anomie” is a great way to describe vast numbers of young men who would wake up screaming from the horrors of war they had experienced, if you’re a complete raging asshole looking to juice some click metrics. You see, PTSD was new and thus the diagnosis was somehow suspect; the general contours of the disorder have been described in war literature going back to antiquity, but never mind. And the initial diagnosis is here claimed to be attributable to an unnamed veteran who’d taken part in My Lai and was thus suspect; a condition that was plainly the same disorder by another name appeared in the DSM-I a quarter century before, utterly invalidating Darda’s timeline, but never mind. And then the condition went on spreading to those Darda does not see as worthy of the status of bearing a debilitating mental illness and was thus suspect; that mental illness affects everyone is a cherished point among advocates for mental health care, but never mind. Finally PTSD’s slow growth in acceptance as a legitimate harm was in some utterly vague and unproven way an indicator of white male grievance and thus suspect; chalking it up to a matter of political convenience insults the memory of all of those who fought for PTSD to be taken seriously, but never mind.
This elision of guilt is the entirety of the argumentative content in this piece; again and again we are asked to let our eyes slide lazily from one sentence describing bad behavior to those who aren’t quite accused of doing it and then to the creation of the modern Republican obsession with white grievance. It’s a kind of free association that somehow leads you from some wheelchair-bound homeless man begging for nickels in Union Square to a political machine that serves only the wealthy, through the magic of guilt by association and the discursive magic of writing “white men” over and over again from your white male perch. And of course, as all useful idiots do, Lehmann and Darda have left the immensely wealthy masters of the universe who have never served in anything, let alone a war, completely off the hook. Congratulations, guys. When you get speaking gigs out of this I hope the checks clear.
I draw my title for this post from Adam Serwer’s new book. For some reason I thought of Serwer’s title when I read Lehmann’s horrid piece. I suppose there is a primitive part of my brain that wants that word, cruelty, to mean something beyond “the other side did it.” Cruelty, you know, is not a partisan thing. The political world possesses it in abundance and I would hope that even the most deranged BlueAnon Democrat would admit that plenty of it emanates from “the good guys.” What remains to be seen is just how deeply people are willing to go with the sentiment proffered by Lehmann and Darda and so many other contemporary liberals: that some people, thanks to the accident of being born outside of the currently approved demographics, simply deserve no compassion, no sympathy, no help. Just how far are liberals willing to wander down this line of toxic reasoning? You may, if you are feeling masochistic, search on Twitter for people saying they’ll never give to homeless people who are white. We know such people are afflicted in vast proportions by mental illness and addiction, but no matter: universal compassion amounts to “centering” whiteness. Welcome to the new moral world.
The question that you would hope would eventually occur to the type of liberals who runs The New Republic, and the whole woke world, is this: am I really against cruelty? Or am I only against it when I can pretend it’s only found on the other side? This is what they mean by cruelty, after all: cruelty is only cruelty when it is undeserved, and anyone who is my political enemy deserves whatever comes to them, no matter how gross and baseless it may be. And now a white man whose father forced him to enlist at 18, lost an arm at Khe Sanh, faced ridicule and abandonment by turning against the war, then struggled for years through mental and financial instability - well, he’s an enemy of all progressive people, you see. His existence is grievance politics. Joseph Darda holds a cushy tenured position at TCU and loves to wallpaper the internet with photos of himself running cross country races like an adolescent, and he is here to tell you that such a man as I’ve just described deserves only censure. Darda, you must understand, is a freedom fighter. He speaks for those who have no voice, many of whom are conveniently those who have the clout in academia to help raise him to the status of celebrity academic he so clearly craves.
You know there was a time, even just a few short years ago, when “white men deserve no respect or compassion simply by dint of that identity, regardless of circumstance” was seen as an ugly and stupid parody of social justice politics. Now here we are.
Look, what matters to me here is Lehmann’s little branding exercise, his market calculation of the impact of this petty cruelty on his future earnings potential. That is generalizable. But it’s worth saying that Chris Lehmann himself deserves all I’ve given him and more; his exercise in collective guilt is such a cute little act of self-impressed callousness that he deserves to be treated callously in turn. And it happens that he’s an easy target as well as a deserving one. As a writer he is a non-entity; no human being in the world has ever finished one of his pieces and thought “if only I could write like that.” In that he truly is a model of the good old days of legacy media: success divorced from talent. He has built a career that has taken him to the heights of magazine publishing, yet no one has ever heard of him. I cannot imagine that even the most dedicated reader of American political letters could scratch together an opinion about him. I dug into his archives a little and found someone affecting a voice that someone else had already affected, all of his work a Xeroxed copy of an earlier facsimile of a style that wasn’t very good to begin with. He thinks his prose is tough, but it’s really just jaundiced; he means to be precise but achieves only precious. He swipes at registers and tones his fat fingers can’t begin to achieve.
What’s remarkable is not that a stale and fumbling hack tried to bang out a little outrage-bait for a magazine that was once a joke but which is now so irrelevant nobody can remember what the joke was. What’s remarkable is that Lehmann, and Darda, have made this accurate calculation: to survive as white men in the business of ideas, one must always be jousting at other white men, at a conception of white men that they imagine excludes them. That’s their grind, that’s their business. They act this way because they keep getting rewarded by the establishments of academia and media. Is this what you intended, all of you, the little child’s army that brought us the Great Awokening? For some white men to grow fat and successful through the ritualistic denunciation of other white men? Was this your vision of progress?
Should you be convinced that I am being too harsh, I ask you to comprehend the actual living and breathing humanity of the white Vietnam vets who sleep in doorways and who Darda and Lehmann view only with disdain. The New Republic did not have the guts to run a photo of an actual suffering Vietnam veteran; they used a still of Tom Cruise from Born on the Fourth of July instead. In that petty act of cowardice you learn all you need to know about that magazine. But pictures like the one I’ve placed above exist, and in them you often see what you see here: a broken person, destitute and fading, wounded in war and scarred by peace, desperate, hungry, in pain, and alone. Does Lehmann have what it takes to tell this man to his face that all of his problems are just a white man’s grievance games? Would he smack the coffee mug from Cal Walker’s hands? No. Men like Lehmann and Darda keep their subjects at arms length, never looking them in the face, hiding behind references to Bruce Springsteen and old movies, keeping hidden the fact that their peacocking controversialism and laughably “radical” opinions reside safely in the realm of abstraction. I promise you that if Lehmann were to spot a homeless veteran on the street tomorrow he wouldn’t step up and tell him how he really feels, but keep his head down, adjust his Very Serious Writer glasses, and walk quietly by. That’s the kind of guy he is: a coward.
A weariness settled into my bones as I wrote this post. It arose from knowing that what I am asking for here is simple human decency and the courage to recognize that many of these white men were also victims of the war machine. But it will, inevitably, be seen as just another volley in a culture war. That’s where we are, now: sympathy itself must fall only on the right demographics. And it’s liberals as much as conservatives who have brought us here, their perspective having grown so deluded and hateful that they think that there are literally no rules of engagement, that no behavior is so vile that it deserves censure so long as you pick the right targets. For myself I choose to continue to believe that the kind of engagement in casual and petty cruelty exemplified in that rancid TNR piece demeans those who commit it worse than their targets, and that there are moral obligations which compel you to behave in a way that you’d hope any child would. Well, at the risk of declaring myself on the wrong side of the holy war: should I ever become such a wretched creature that I try to ring a little buzz for my pathetic career out of dancing on the graves of men who were manipulated into a war they didn’t start, had their bodies ravaged for their trouble, and were lucky enough to come home in anguish and destitution rather than body bags, let me slit my wrists right there and then. I would rather be dead than to have so evacuated my heart of the most basic stuff of being human, the courage to love all of our neighbors, which we call compassion. I would rather be dead.