An Old Canard

Dr. Maurice C. Fisher,'s Grandfather

 Yesterday following my piece critical of Senator Webb, I received a comment to this blog from somebody I didn’t know. This is what he had to say:

“I find it ironic that you bash Senator Webb for his militaristic tribalism. You married outside the tribe right? You would let your daughter do so right?

You served in the military in combat too right like the not over-represented members (in the mil,itary) of your tribe and you college. Seth you are like all those NY Sun boys -suited up sissies with not much of anywhere to go but cyberspace. But I will enjoy your blog. It is good to know what the enemy in the Amen Corner think.”

Note his clever use of the phrase Amen Corner, wordchoice employed by Patrick Buchanan prior to the first Gulf War.  Of significant interest, however, is his not-so-veiled reference to Jews and military service, a bone of contention for some since it was raised in World War I in Germany. (Jews, contrary to conventional wisdom, were actually over-represented in the Kaiser’s army; their Iron Crosses did them little good when they were taken by the S.S. three decades later.)

While my critic is correct in his hunch that I did not serve in the U.S. military, he has hit a sore point here, one about which I have written previously. My grandfather, Dr. Maurice Fisher, served as an Army surgeon in World War II. He treated wounded soldiers at invasion beachheads in Italy and narrowly escaped a Nazi shell. Thanks to an accident of fate, some 1000 letters he wrote during the war ended up in the hands of the Boston Atheneum. I wrote about him here.

In addition, my father, Gerald Gitell, was the executive officer of a U.S. Army Special Forces A-Team in South Vietnam in 1965. He lead native CIDG troopers in Tien Binh and Vinh Gia. An associate of Staff Sgt. Barry Sadler at Fort Bragg, the headquarters of the Green Berets, my father played an integral role in the making of “The Ballad of the Green Berets”. I am working on a major magazine piece about his story, which, hopefully, will someday become a book.

Here is a November 19, 1999 op-ed I wrote in The Forward on the subject.

“A new book seeks to remake the public perception of the
Vietnam War — while blaming the Jews for dodging the draft and
contributing to the defeat of the war effort on the home front.
The book is ‘Vietnam: The Necessary War’ by Michael Lind
(Free Press). In it, Mr. Lind makes the argument that American
engagement in
Vietnam was a necessary — albeit failing — attempt
to stop the spread of Communism in the Indochinese peninsula.
Further, says Mr. Lind,
America‘s commitment of energy, resources
and lives served to head off Communism’s advance and sustained the nation’s international credibility — paving the way for an eventual American victory in the Cold War.Much of Mr. Lind’s attempt to consider

Vietnam as one in a line of Cold War battles holds merit. One aspect does not: his treatment of the American Jewish role during
Vietnam. Writes Mr. Lind: ‘Although Jews accounted for 2.5 percent of the
U.S. population, Jewish men accounted for only 0.46 percent of the war-related deaths in the Vietnam War. The evident explanation for this discrepancy is the use of college deferments by the higher than average proportion of Jewish men in college to avoid military service.’ Mr. Lind uses this data to explain the presence of a major anti-Cold War population in the nation’s universities — the foundation of the anti-war movement, which he blames on Jews:
‘Apart from Jews, few American students in the sixties were radical.’
No matter Mr. Lind’s purpose for the inclusion of this information, I found myself thinking of his words while unpacking some boxes in my new apartment. Rifling through one box, I discover a pack of old photos. Gently I loosen the photos from one another until the distinct images become clear. In one photo, a dark-haired an with glasses wearing black pajamas and carrying a holstered evolver on his side stands before a Jeep and a patch of jungle. Inanother, the same man — this time wearing a green beret – is greeting a visiting officer. Somehow the images in my photos don’t jibe with Mr. Lind’s words and arguments. The photos are of Lieutenant Gerald Gitell of the United States Army Special Forces. My father.

Mr. Lind is on target when he writes of the prominence of Jews in the anti-war movement, though in truth many of them were less radical than their counterparts on the Christian left. His lumping together of socialists and Communists as one mass opposed to American military intervention abroad ignores both the experience of World War II and the significance of the anti-Communist socialists allied with the labor movement who
refused to back George McGovern for president in 1972. Finally, there’s a fallacy in using death rates as a proxy for willingness to serve; just because Jews may have been better at dodging bullets doesn’t mean they weren’t there.

More concretely, though, Mr. Lind’s smear ignores the subtleties of personal stories like my father’s. Three important men in my life — all Jews — served in Vietnam, and two of them fought in the elite Green Berets. My father’s early life was like most of the Jewish boys in his cohort — Yiddish-speaking parents, graduation from Newton High School outside Boston, admission to Boston
University. Where his life began to diverge was in college, when he signed up with the Army ROTC. After college he paid a visit to the army’s psychological warfare center that was housed in the same place as the Special Forces — the Green Berets. The time was the Kennedy presidency. Kennedy was exhorting the nation to bear any burden to defeat Communism. The Green Berets were being specially trained to fight the war in the
Third World. They would win back the hearts and minds of those swaying toward the Kremlin. A sense of idealism — both domestic and international — hung in the air. My father felt he had to be a part of that. So he scrapped psychological warfare and tried out for Special Forces. He passed their arduous tests and by 1965, he was overseeing a group of 100 Vietnamese irregulars patrolling Vietnams canal-strewn border with
Cambodia. When we discuss his role in the war, he doesn’t often get into specifics. My father’s not the type to get off playing ‘what I did in the war.’ What I do know is that when I moved to Washington, D.C., to serve as the Forward’s bureau man, he was very interested in having me do something for him. Speaking over the phone, he gave me three names — Bryan Grogan, Paul Stepinov and John Arnn. On a steaming July day, I made my way from my office in the National Press Building to the Vietnam Memorial. Stepping around German tourists, I located the names on the wall. Later, when I reported to him what I had found, he explained that Arnn was his superior, whom he had warned against driving carelessly through a mountain valley. Arnn was ambushed. Grogan and Stepinov were his colleagues. Grogan went into some tall grass near Pleiku and didn’t come out. Stepinov went in after him and vanished as well. Another ambush. Then he hung up. Whatever he did along the Cambodian border, he had done it with these men. I left it at that.According to our family lore, when he came back from Vietnam lean and deeply tanned, there were few Jewish men around like him. The numbers say otherwise; thousands did serve. My father went on a local radio show to talk about the war and was accosted by
anti-war activists. ‘If you weren’t killing babies in
Vietnam, you’d be killing babies here,’ one caller sniped.The reaction of that caller pretty much epitomized the American feeling towards people like my father who had fought in

Vietnam. In time his life took other complicated twists and turns, but one day not long ago he happened to encounter three men from Singapore. A conversation ensued, and they asked if he had ever been to Asia. Yes, he said, a long time ago. They asked where, and he said Vietnam — during the war. They reached out to shake his hand. Thank you, they said. You held the line for us.To Mr. Lind’s point that America‘s involvement in Vietnam was necessary, I say, I agree. But Mr. Lind gives short shrift to those Jews who thought so at the time — and served this country proudly.”


As a final note, the president and editor-in-chief of The New York Sun (i.e. the boss), Seth Lipsky, served in the Army in Vietnam as a combat reporter for the Pacific Stars and Stripes.


2 Responses to “An Old Canard”

  1. » Blog Archive » Italy 1943 - 1945: Blood in the mountains Says:

    […] Seth Gitell has a post on his father’s service in Vietnam and his grandfather’s service in Italy during World War 2. Coincidentally, my father-in-law and my wife’s grandfather served in those campaigns as well, the former in 101st Airborne and the latter in 10th Mountain Division. […]

  2. Adam Hurtubise Says:

    A poetic response to the haters among us, Seth. Nice work.

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