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|Book Review By Dr. Loren Pankratz|
The author is a Consultation Psychologist and Clinical Professor at Oregon Health Sciences University in Portland. He has worked at the Portland Veterans Administration Medical Center and has a special interest in problems of deception in the medical setting.
In 1986, Dallas stockbroker B.G. Burkett agreed to raise money to erect a Vietnam veterans memorial in Texas. He never realized that negative stereotypes of the Vietnam veteran would make his task so difficult. Three years later at the dedication of the memorial, television crews approached Burkett saying that they would like to get some comments from the vets. But instead of approaching the distinguished men on the memorial-fund committee, the TV crew focused on an uninvited hodgepodge of men in camouflage fatigues and blue jeans, sporting ponytails and scraggly beards. Several wore the insignia of combat units or the green beret of the elite Special Forces.
Burkett fumed. It was exactly this image of veterans as pathetic losers and wackos from war experiences that had made his fundraising extremely difficult.
He was not merely distressed that his fundraising colleagues had been ignored. There was a deeper problem here. Something just didn’t ring true. He knew that veterans from elite units were the cream of the crop, almost always college graduates with too much pride to be seen in public unkempt and slovenly.
Sometime during the early years of fundraising, Burkett had sent off a request under the Freedom of Information Act for the release of military records for one particularly obnoxious vet. The records confirmed what he had suspected all along, namely that this man was not a Green Beret nor had he ever been in Vietnam. He had served in Germany where he accumulated AWOLs and was demoted in rank to sergeant. Thus began Burkett’s private war to expose the lies of those who twisted history. These false stories had driven out the true. The false had stolen the valor of men who served their country with honor.
This is a can’t-put-it-down book, even though you often know what’s going to happen. Burkett describes the stories of hundreds of individuals, from the anonymous guy holding a sign that says “Vet will work for food” to the rich-and-famous like the hero behind the movie Born on the Fourth of July, Sylvester Stalone of Rambo fame, Dan Rather, and a handful of congressmen. Then with surgical precision, he opens the truth as revealed in these people’s detailed military records.
But Burkett, by going beyond the anecdotal story, provides the bigger picture. Most people believe that the Vietnam war was fought by minorities and ghetto youth. Most people believe that our vets came home to live on the streets and in prisons, haunted by the atrocities of war, drowning their memories in drink and drugs. Burkett names the reporters, activists and politicians who have distorted or created the numbers for their own ends. He names the mental health professionals who reinforce these myths. He provides excerpts from their reports and court proceedings.
Burkett shows how thoroughly everyone has been caught in the web of lies by pretenders. In 1992, Burkett wrote a letter to Col. Harry Summers, Jr., (Ret.), a distinguished fellow at the Army War College and editor of Vietnam magazine. Summers had boasted in an editorial that the magazines’s review board was scrupulous about keeping inaccurate history out of their publication. He stated he and his editors could tell phonies in “the first three sentences.” Burkett pointed out that they had published in the previous issue a bogus POW story that had been stolen from the book Everything We Had. And even the story in that book was bogus!
Moreover, Summers had written an introduction to Shelby Stanton’s book, The Rise and Fall of an American Army, praising him as a “Vietnam combat veteran decorated for valor and now retired as a result of wounds suffered on the battlefield.” But Stanton was not a Ranger performing underwater scuba missions in the Mekong River as he had claimed. He had a desk job in Thailand for one year and was retired from the Army because of his asthma. A few issues later, Shelby Stanton’s name disappeared from the Vietnam masthead.
How did we mess up so badly? We looked for what we wanted to find. And where we could not find what we wanted, there were pretenders who were eager to give us the stories we expected. We have parallels from history. At the end of the 16th century, Bragadino arrived in Venice with stories of his accomplishments in distant lands, like the ability to make gold multiply through secret alchemical methods. The people of the city eagerly laid their fortunes at his feet. How, asked DeFrancisco (The Power of the Charlatan, 1939), could such a singular aberration be explained in this great city? Bragadino was immediately lionized because everyone had been looking for him so earnestly.
The next time your buddy shows you his Medal of Honor, open the appendix of Stolen Valor and see if he is one of the surviving 170 Vietnam vets who actually earned the award. Burkett reveals how fake medals and citations have become a cottage industry. Distinguished Service Cross, Navy Cross, and Air Force Cross recipients are also listed here for the first time.
Check it out.
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