VFW Magazine — February 2010
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DEBUNKING THE MYTH OF THE ‘ADDICTED ARMY’
JEREMY KUZMAROV

For two decades, the news media and Hollywood, as well as congressional committees and the anti-war movement, perpetuated the pernicious myth that Vietnam veterans were a threat to society because of alleged drug addiction. Finally, a full-length book has been published to bury this persistent fallacy once and for all.

The image of the drugaddled Vietnam veteran has become a staple of American popular culture, the demoralized symbol of a lost war.

In reality, however, relatively few soldiers were addicted to drugs in Vietnam and even fewer when they returned to the U. S. There is little evidence, further, that drugs hindered combat performance.

As early as 1972, a Southern Illinois University study pointed out how veterans were thought of as “dehumanized killers and drug addicts, pitiful victims of a hated war to be avoided and shunned.” This false image had been driven home, especially throughout 1971.

Yet in a 1976 article summarizing the findings of military psychiatrists, Morris “Duke” Stanton concluded that there was “no hard evidence” that military capability was “seriously affected by drugs.”

Gis who got high did so almost exclusively while on rest and recuperation leave (R&R), at rear support bases or during lulls in combat. The vast majority of fighting men were not about to jeopardize the lives of their comrades.

An early study in 1967 by Roger A. Roffman and Ely Sapol determined that 28.9% of Gis stationed in III and IV Corps experimented with marijuana at least once during their tour of duty in South Vietnam. This was a comparable total to user rates (28%) in the U.S. for men between the ages of 18 and 21.

Not surprisingly, soldiers who experimented with drugs in the U.S. were far more likely to use them in Vietnam. Gallup polls taken by 1975 revealed that 40% of youths smoked marijuana at some time.

Roffman and Sapol were dismayed by the media’s coverage, which inflated their data and issued “bombastic statements that 60%, 70%, 80% or even 90% of American troops”were on drugs.“It is a distorted impression,” Sapol remarked then, “that the average soldier uses drugs.”

Congressional Claims

The part played by certain members of Congress in creating the negative stereotype is seldom acknowledged. Robert H. Steele (R-Conn.), who jointly led a committee investigating drugs, at least recanted his claim that exaggerated by three times the percentage of Gis addicted to heroin only two months after his report was issued in May 1971. It was a classic case of conflating experimentation with addiction. Nevertheless, the unsubstantiated numbers were still being touted by TV shows as late as 1988.

Sen. Jacob Javits (R-N.Y.) claimed weapons-trained, addicted vets were “being let loose on the streets of our great cities.” Not to be outdone, Sen. Edmund Muskie (D-Maine) said, “Thousands of veterans exposed to heroin in Vietnam are now carrying a horrible curse home.”

In February 1972, Rep. Seymour Halpern (R-N.Y.) issued another inflammatory report, making the preposterous claim, “The American GI is as liable to die from the needle, as the bullet. … What is so scary is that soldiers are bringing back the festering of their contagion to the United States. Society has a terrifying scourge and walking time bomb on its hands.”

Anti-War Crowd Chimes In

The anti-war movement and political left played a crucial though largely unrecognized role in enhancing the “drug panic,” too. They exaggerated its scope for political effect. The “movement” helped to cement the public impression that drugs were a lasting legacy of the war. It further contributed to a transformation of the image of Vietnam veterans as “agents of imperialism” to pathological victims of a war gone bad.

Network news advanced this notion early on. A September 1970 CBS News broadcast showed Gis smoking marijuana from the barrels of their shotguns. The reporter conveniently failed to mention that it was an anti-war ploy staged by the soldiers to infer a decline in morale. This was later revealed by a congressional inquiry.

In an otherwise well-researched exposé of the CIA’s role in the Southeast Asia drug trade, Alfred W. McCoy, national director of the anti-war Committee of Concerned Asian Scholars and co-author of The Politics of Heroin in Southeast Asia, in 1972 wrote:

“The Vietnam War seems to be fathering a generation of junkies. … Returning GI addicts have come home as carriers of the disease, and are afflicting hundreds of communities with the heroin virus, spawning a crime wave that has turned America’s inner cities into concrete jungles.”

McCoy and the anti-war left ultimately succeeded in utilizing the drug issue to their political advantage and to help breed added public skepticism about the war.

So did left-wing magazines. The Nation ran a story called “Addiction in Vietnam: Coming Home with a Habit” in its July 5, 1971, issue, for example.

In 1972, the editors of Ramparts published a collection of essays titled Smack!, which exemplified the left’s propensity to embellish the link between drugs and the immorality of the war. The book also helped to advance a pathological image of Vietnam veterans, similar to that of the mainstream media.

Media Distortions Abound

During the late 1960s and early 1970s, a wave of media reports based on congressional subcommittee hearings created the perception that drug use was rampant in Vietnam. They linked it to a breakdown in military discipline and fighting efficiency. The media also promoted widespread fear that addicted soldiers returning to the U.S. would exacerbate domestic crime rates and disorder.

Hollywood and network television continued to reinforce the notion that drug abuse had provoked the nation’s military collapse and at the same time was a spiritually corrupting influence. Both mediums stigmatized veterans as depraved junkies.

Apocalypse Now, a 1979 film, was most celebrated in portraying drugs as a metaphor for a war run amuck. It fostered a shallow public understanding of the war by exaggerating the impact of drugs and was ultimately the most influential because of its wide popular acclaim.

Refusing to die, this drug myth was resurrected as recently as 2007 in the movie American Gangster.

Film and TV portrayals had done their damage right from the start. As early as June 1971, a Louis Harris poll determined that the American public projected a “much more serious problem than veterans who had firsthand knowledge of the situation.” In fact, various Pentagon studies found that only a small percentage of Gis actually engaged in “heavy” or “daily” drug use in Vietnam.

One survey characteristically concluded that nearly 50% of those who smoked marijuana did so fewer than 10 times. Another revealed that less than 10% of soldiers used drugs more than two or three times. Psychiatrist W.B. Postel found that “the usual habit was to smoke the drug after a battle to calm down. Only one person [in his survey] indicated that he smoked while fighting.”

A pivotal distinction between use and abuse also is essential in weighing the impact of the so-called heroin “crisis” in Vietnam. In 1970, the opening of transportation routes from the Golden Triangle through Cambodia, a decline in morale and a crackdown on marijuana by the Department of Defense facilitated the spread of a highly purified form of heroin, which could be smoked, known as “scag.”

Studies varied widely as to the percentage of Gis who experimented with the substance.

Gis Speak Out

From the perspective of individual soldiers one can assess the genuine scope of drug abuse in Vietnam and disprove claims that the crisis was all-encompassing. The majority of veterans remain adamant today that the drug crisis was overblown in the media and a trivial aspect of fighting the war.

As Pvt. Michael Longo said to reporters, “My parents told me that back in the ‘world’ people seem to think that 40% of Gis are using heroin in Vietnam.How unrealistic can you get!”

A sergeant with the 173rd Airborne Brigade in 1971 said, “Our newspaper reporters are sensationalists—they have to sell a paper or a story, so they are going out and getting one.”

Marvin Matthiak, an infantryman with the A Co., 1st Bn., 1st Cavalry Div., from 1969 to 1971, tellingly stated: “The press has done a tremendous disservice to this country in portraying grunts as being out there doing drugs. We didn’t have a drug problem, and as far as I know and as far as everyone else I ever talked to about it, there was essentially no drug use whatsoever in the bush. Everybody knew what the dangers were and nobody was stupid enough to incapacitate themselves.”

If someone was stupid, self-policing by the troops solved the problem. One former sergeant said we employed “local justice” to keep unit members “clean.”

Testing Shows Limited Use

In June 1971, the Pentagon instituted a mandatory urinalysis test for departing servicemen under the direction of Dr. Jerome H. Jaffe, in which 5.5% tested positive for drugs. By May 1972, the total was reduced to 1.5%, though this figure remains the source of controversy because of laboratory inconsistencies.

Despite inaccuracies,which even Jaffe admitted to, the low figures confirm that public fears of a full-fledged drug “epidemic” were overblown. They also indicated that despite the high purity of the heroin, the majority of Gis who tried “scag” were neither incapacitated nor addicted.

It was a fact that most drug use was designed to alleviate boredom in the rear. Keep in mind that only 15% of U. S. troops in Vietnam were actively engaging the enemy.

In short, at no point were units in Vietnam incapacitated by drugs, despite media and governmental proclamations to the contrary.

Back in the World

Proponents of the myth of the “addicted” Army have been most disingenuous in spreading popular fears surrounding the extension of the drug crisis from Vietnam to the U.S.

Beginning in the early 1970s, popular culture became submerged with images of drug-crazed veterans returning home to exacerbate urban disorder and unrest.

Jack Anderson of The Washington Post was in the vanguard among journalists in promoting this fantasy, using his semiweekly column to frequently recount horror stories involving drugs.

In reality, less than one half of 1% of Vietnam veterans committed any crimes after returning to the U.S.And they generally achieved higher education and income levels than their peers.

In 1973, psychiatrist Lee N. Robins of Washington University in St. Louis conducted a series of interviews with Vietnam veterans who had tested positive for heroin. She concluded that less than 10% used any drugs at all back in the U.S. This was an extraordinarily high remission rate, which she attributed to their removal from the environment of the war.

Only 1.3% of those sampled were drug dependent, and less than 1% addicted to opiates.

Robins’ findings were reiterated in the December 1994 issue of The Harvard Mental Health Newsletter.

The Vietnam Era Research Project subsequently released a report, which found that drug use was actually “more common among non-veterans than Vietnamera veterans,” and that Gis were “not inclined to heavy or problematic use.”

Around the same time, in 1980, even TheWashington Post recanted: “A decade ago, reports of widespread heroin use by U. S. troops in Vietnam spawned fears that servicemen would come home with their drug habits, leading to a generation of drug enslavement, crime and ruined lives. Today, it’s clear that those fears were grossly exaggerated.”

This revelation was profound coming from a newspaper responsible for perpetrating some of the most egregious myths surrounding the drug crisis in Vietnam and its domestic ramifications.

It came almost 10 years too late, however, to alter public opinion or rehabilitate the image of the Vietnam veteran. He had long since been falsely stereotyped as a psychologically scarred junkie responsible for the collapse of the armed forces and the spread of degradation and crime in the U.S.

The legacy of Vietnam remained potent, partly because of the influence of popular cultural media. It preserved the myth of the “addicted” Army and distorted public memory of the war by recasting Gis in the role of drug-addicted victims.

This was especially damaging to the personal reputations and post-war job prospects of some of the Americans who served in Vietnam. They had to contend with this legacy for years to come.

Contrary to popular myth, drug use in Vietnam was far from omnipresent. It had little effect in determining combat performance or military morale. That was based on political contingencies and the insolubility of trying to fight a highly motivated enemy on its own terrain.

The minority of servicemen who used drugs did so mostly in the rear, off duty and were not incapacitated.
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