The New York Times reports today that Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal, who appeared to be cruising to the Democratic nomination for Senator, has lied about serving in Vietnam. Reporters and some bloggers are using less forceful language, but that’s pretty much what he did. There’s no other word for it. Blumenthal repeatedly made statements that suggested he had served in Vietnam, when in fact he hadn’t. Now, Blumenthal did serve honourably in the military, but that’s not the issue. The issue is what is the import of the fact that he has embellished his military record.
This isn’t the first time a Democratic figure has gotten into this kind of trouble. Tom Harkin seemed to have taken some liberties when he claimed to have served as a pilot in Vietnam. Idaho Congressman Walt Minnick claimed he served in Vietnam on his facebook page, but he didn’t, if by “serving” we mean being stationed there, as opposed to flying in and out a couple of times to meet with economists. And, of course, Republicans have gotten into the act in the past as well– it’s genuinely bipartisan.
And it’s not just politicians. Historian Joseph Ellis, whose books I like, was outed in 2001 for an invented military record. Actor Brian Dennehy did too, although he at least was in the Marines. This stuff does seem to happen.
Now, veterans tend to feel strongly about this issue. Republicans claim to also, especially when John Kerry is concerned. Who can forget Michelle Malkin, well-known veteran, suggesting that John Kerry had actually shot himself in order to get a medal? But Republicans have their own issues when it comes to military service, although that probably won’t prevent them from piling on over this.
I was in the army, was taught Vietnamese, and then sent to Prisoner of War Interrogation School (yes, there is such a thing). And then the army, in its wisdom, decided to not send me to Vietnam—in fact, a number of us in that group didn’t actually go to Vietnam. Some stayed stateside; some went other places. It’s the army. Who tries to figure any of this stuff out? (Although in my case, it might have had something to do with anti-war activity, but who can tell? Especially since others who were just as active did go.) And when I tell people that I was in the army (like on the trading floor at Citi, where I was almost the only veteran among a couple of hundred guys who thought the Iraq war was a pretty cool thing back then) I always said that I didn’t actually go to Vietnam. It would never occur to me to say otherwise. When I ran for the School Board in my little New Jersey town, I’m sure it didn’t hurt that I listed myself as a veteran. But saying Vietnam Veteran was crossing a line—this is just understood among vets.
This does matter. And it matters in a way that calling someone a World War Two veteran doesn’t seem to, which is interesting. My parents’ generation was that generation. But they generally didn’t talk about it. And while there were many who served overseas, there were many who didn’t. But I’m not sure that that generation made much of the distinction—they may have, but I was probably too young to remember if they did. Although people are people, so I’m sure some of that lot made stuff up too. But why make up stuff if it’s a virtual certainty that you’re going to be caught at some point?
The distinction about Vietnam is important, for reasons I’m not entirely clear about. It was a hellish experience for many, certainly. Every war is. But for many it was not. Not everyone in the military during that period served in Vietnam, and not everyone who served in Vietnam was in combat. But somehow “being there” became an important metric of…something. I’m still not sure what, since I didn’t experience it myself, so I’m just guessing. But it was such a polarizing conflict (the first of many, it seems), that actually serving in Vietnam (in combat or not, it didn’t seem to matter) provided an existential validation for whatever one’s views were. And this validation became an important talking point, particularly in American politics. Witness the decades’ worth of publicity John McCain has gotten for his experiences. They were horrific, no doubt—but I certainly don’t recall any WWII veterans displaying these experiences to the same extent. Maybe that’s why Tom Brokaw calls that group “The Greatest Generation”—not for what they did, but the fact that they didn’t talk about it much, sort of a Gary Cooper thing.
All of this should be clear by now. Anyone who chooses to embellish their Vietnam experience has to know that they’re in for a pack of trouble if they get caught. So what was Blumenthal thinking? That no one would check? Is this a Spitzer thing redux? Whether or not this jeopardizes his election efforts remains to be seen, but it certainly isn’t going to help. Especially when people start wondering why he would do it in the first place, when it seems to be so unnecessary.
Because the other point is it’s not clear to me that anyone really cares any more whether anyone served in Vietnam or not, except for people still fighting the 1960s. We’ve had a couple of wars since then, in case people have forgotten, and some of them are still going on. But Vietnam seems to remain the important one, for some reason. Enough.
The above stamp was issued by the US Postal Service in 2000 to honor the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, one of the most stirring and moving monuments in Washington. It’s the second such stamp–the first was issued in 1984.