THE HO CHI MINH TRAIL STOLE THE ADOLESCENCE of North Vietnam’s young, as surely as the war itself robbed Amer¬ica of its innocence. For Americans, the words “Vietnam War” came to refer to an era, not just a conflict. It was an era of distrust, divi¬siveness, disconcertion, of long hair, drugs, rock music, and free love. It changed the relationship between generations, between media and gov¬ernment, people and politicians, those who served and those who did not. Those who went returned home to hear World War II vets in the VFW halls tell them they hadn’t fought in a real war. Those who chose to stay at home had to grapple with the consequences of their decision and would never know the answer to a question every American male has asked himself at one time or another: Would I have the balls to be brave in combat?
But undeniably antiwar activists had scored a brilliant strategic victory: Not only had they been smart enough to duck the threat of death in com¬bat, as Tom Wolfe wrote, “they had also managed to shift the onus onto those who fought. Never mind Ho Chi Minh and socialism and na- palmed babies and the rest of it. The unspeakable … goal of the New Left on the campuses had been to transform the shame of the fearful into the guilt of the courageous.” Then, ten or fifteen years after the war ended, a funny thing happened. Thousands of people who had avoided the draft became Vietnam wannabes. They began identifying themselves as veterans, sometimes weaving elaborate tales about their lives in the jungles of Indochina. Vietnam was such a defining moment for their gen¬eration that even though these people had never set foot in Vietnam they had been there in their heads. Some probably believed their self-deluding fantasy; others apparently fabricated service histories because they carried some emptiness in a culture that finds heroes and defines honor through war and the call to serve.
Before long “Vietnam” became an adjective, usually with a negative connotation. We spoke of the “Vietnam era” and lumped it together with Watergate, the resignation of Nixon, political assassinations, and urban race riots. We were insistent that the 1991 Gulf War would not mire us in “another Vietnam”—that it would not be prolonged, fought without pop¬ular support, or marked by high casualties. And yes, of course, we would give our men and women a rousing welcome when they came home from the 1oo-hour Gulf War, so rousing we might forget that we never em-braced those who came home from Vietnam.
Never before had the United States committed so much in battle and ended up with so little. Korea wasn’t a victory either, but at least we had something to remind us we had not sacrificed in vain—an independent South Korea that eventually became democratic and prosperous. But Vietnam? We had endured what was, after the U.S. Civil War, among the most traumatic events in our nation’s history, and there was nothing to justify the costs. We had been outfoxed at the negotiating table and outmaneuvered, though not outfought, on the battlefield. We had fled for our lives, abandoned an ally, seen the enemy flag fly over a now-commu¬nist land we had paid dearly to save. We weren’t who we thought we were. We were not invincible. Perhaps we weren’t even morally superior.
We couldn’t figure out whom to blame or how things had gone so wrong. What were we to think when an architect of the war, former De¬fense Secretary Robert McNamara, told us in his 1995 memoir, “Yet we were wrong, terribly wrong. We owe it to future generations to explain why.” There wasn’t much to do but grieve. At the Vietnam Veterans Memorial wall. In confessionals when haunted GIs got together. Over our POWs and MIAs, even though no POWs remained and there was nothing left of our MIAs except scattered teeth and bone fragments. We were shocked when former U.S. Senator Bob Kerrey said that, on a moonless night thirty-two years earlier, he led a Navy Seal mission to eliminate several prominent Viet Cong in a Mekong Delta village.When the confusion of combat lifted, he realized he and his men had killed twenty civilians, he said. The U.S. media geared up to fight the war all over again. (One reporter asked Kerrey what he thought about setting up a war-crimes tribunal to bring “people like you” to trial. To reporters who grilled him, Kerrey responded: “You wouldn’t be asking me those ques¬tions if I had been in World War II.”)
What was it that shocked us about Kerrey’s admission and the related story that appeared in the New York Times Magazine? That innocents die in war? That a Medal of Honor winner could be a wartime assassin? Not likely. What should have surprised us was that the pain and guilt of Viet¬nam kept popping up every time we thought we had buried them. We had admitted the war was a tragic mistake, so why wouldn’t it just go away? Part of the reason, I think, is that when confronted with Vietnam, time-frayed black-and-white images and Hollywood stereotypes of Viet-namese and American combatants spring to mind. To update those im¬ages, to humanize today’s face of Vietnam in order to understand postwar Vietnamese, is, for many, to lay the pain and guilt to rest.

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