Memorial Day: I Never Hiked Alone

A long, long time ago in what seems like a galaxy far, far away I hiked contested hills with a rucksack, weapon and Ashai Pentax 35mm SLR film camera. At the time we didn’t use the term hiked; we humped ruck. For our overnights we didn’t say camped, but instead we set up NDPs (night defensive positions).  And when I took the photo below in 1970 our means of transportation to the trailhead was other than what I do today. Most importantly, I never hiked alone. During those years hundreds of thousands of us humped those trails, or flew the unfriendly skies. Some lost their lives in pursuit of… of what?

 With troops of the 101st Airborne Division in I Corps, Vietnam, 1970.

With troops of the 101st Airborne Division in I Corps, Vietnam, 1970.

As mentioned in earlier posts this blog and the Peaking At 70 project are not simply about the challenges of climbing and crossing glaciers. They are also about rediscovering America. Just as one retraces their track if they miss a flash on a trail, one might wish to retrace our history to find out where we are.

Sunday, May 21, 2017: I’m back on the AT. This section begins flat, becomes gently rolling. The Housatonic River is to my right as I head north toward Cornwall Bridge. To my left there is a broad field (photo below); and west of the field is the ridge. About a mile north the trail will veer into the woods and up Silver Hill. On the trail at the end of the field there is a small sign which explains that heritage plants and farming techniques from the time of the American Revolution are being used here to preserve the accuracy of the agricultural knowledge of that ere. Caution is advised as the field is not sprayed for ticks. Perhaps that’s what set off these thoughts… in pursuit of what? Life? Liberty? The right to…?

 On the Appalachian Trail south of Cornwall Bridge

On the Appalachian Trail south of Cornwall Bridge

Then it hit me. The reason it is hard to answer that question is the same reason many current conundrums are in dispute. Let’s face it, right now everyone seems to be talking or writing about fake news as if fake news has not been around for a very, very, very long time. Indeed, throughout much of history, fake news has been the norm.

There was an article in the local paper last week about a conference at which the participants defined the concept variously as “propaganda efforts to shield President Trump,” or “false stories circulated about prominent Democrats.” They also cautioned about confusing fake news with misguided priorities or biased discussion of events and issues.

Odd! How about fake news is news that is less than real, less than accurate, less than balanced? How about fake news is half-truths, as in, half-truths are lies. It is not simply a bias. It is disinformation. Worst of all: Fake News becomes Fake History. Both are devastating to individuals and to cultures.

Allow me a few examples.

For my third novel, Carry Me Home, I analyzed the raw data from an internal report by ABC, NBC and CBS which listed all evening news stories about the war in Southeast Asia that aired from 1963 to 1977. The total number of stories was 9447. Of that number 473 dealt with one incident which occurred in March of 1968, but remained unknown to the public until November 1969. From the time of first airing to the end of reporting approximately 10% of all news dealt with this one incident--the American atrocities at My Lai. In that incident American soldiers killed between 340 and 504 unarmed civilians.  No excuses. It was an atrocity. In the scope of the war the numbers are small—around 3/10,000ths of the war’s dead—but in reportage the focus was immense. More than any other action it convinced a large portion of the American public that their sons had become baby killers. Incidents in which thousands, even tens of thousands, of civilians were murdered by communist forces often went unreported. If half-truths are lies, what do you call 3/10,000ths truths?

Other fake news (again by omission): in early 1959 Hanoi’s politburo, in secret, essentially declared war on the South by initiating three infiltration routes into the South. The most famous of these tracks was Route 559 (for May 1959), or as we called it, the Ho Chi Minh Trail. On that route and trails 759 and 959, the North sent into the South what were called at the time agents or insurgents. Today we would call them terrorists. From 1960 to 1962 these agents assassinated or “disappeared” approximately 19,200 village, hamlet and province officials, including school teachers. Consider how we react today to a suicide bomber killing 25 and injuring 100. In 1960 South Vietnam was a nation of less 11 million people. The terrorist events it endured would be the equivalent today of terrorists killing over 630,000 Americans in three years. Many people still question why we got involved. Some think it was because North Vietnamese patrol boats, in August 1964, fired a few rounds at American ships in the Gulf of Tonkin.

Let’s go back earlier: A more devastating fake news story—created as disinformation and circulated as propaganda yet reported often enough to have become “factual history,” is the story of Ho Chi Minh in 1945 quoting from the American Declaration of Independence, and thereby showing, according to some historians, his desire to be an American ally. To accept this hypothesis one must ignore not just Ho’s personal history, his actions, and the actions of his faction of Vietnamese communists, but the actions of communists in much of Europe and the rest of Southeast Asia as well. As WWII wound down the American OSS armed many indigenous nationalist groups, including the communists, in France, Italy, Yugoslavia, Vietnam, et cetera. In every country non-communist nationalists attacked occupying German or Japanese forces; in every country communists “nationalists” attacked non-communist nationalists groups. [See Dr. Mark Moyar’s book Oppose Any Foe for a fuller discussion.]

For years, decades, after the American effort in Southeast Asia ended (note—the war went on for ten more years without us) fake news, skewed reporting, false or biased stories and half-truths devastated many of my fellow veterans. Twenty years ago I delivered the following in conference at Texas Tech University:

It is important to keep in mind that our cultural story, our mythos, includes not only the misjudgments, errors, crimes, atrocities and scandals of our past, but also the great accomplishments, the altruistic struggles, the valor and sacrifice earned and waged with tremendous effort, that has brought betterment of the human condition to millions. If only the negatives of our story are reinforced, and the positives are denied or dismissed, then our culture will have no positive role models, and our behavior will reflect our negative self-image.

If you want to honor the memory of those who humped the trails in Vietnam, or in any and all of our wars, and of those who paid the ultimate sacrifice, ditch fake news. Realize, also, that accurate story insulates those who survived from the ravages of stress disorders, and the nation from unnecessary domestic polarization.