THE PAINFUL ART OF RECONCILIATION 3

MORE AND MORE AMERICAN VETS are making the journey back to Vietnam, though the total of those returning is only a small fraction of the 2.5 million who served. Clearly, Walt Bacak and his colleagues had led troubled lives; maybe they would have even if there had been no war. Of that I had no idea. But-—and I don’t think I was imagining this—I saw a change in them during the few days we spent together. After the Pho Vinh trip, they seemed less edgy. I saw Steve Lemire smile for the first time. One infantryman who had looked trampish when I saw him in Pho Vinh showed up for breakfast at the hotel in Danang bathed, shaved, and groomed, and I was surprised to see that he was quite handsome. Every¬one was taken aback to discover that a people they had hated—Henry Kissinger had called North Vietnam’s leaders “just a bunch of shits; tawdry, filthy shits”—were gracious, friendly, and decent. They had names. They had faces. They had families. They had their dreams and they had their sorrows.
As Bobby Muller, the paraplegic former Marine with whom I had toured the cemetery for North Vietnamese veterans, put it: “You could probably shut down a lot of VA psychiatric clinics in the States simply by bringing the vets back to Vietnam. It’s better than any medication, and the angrier the veteran is, the more powerful the experience seems to be.”
By the time I went to Pho Vinh with Bacak’s group, I had been in Vietnam for more than three years. The country seemed so hospitable, felt so much like home, I could no longer quite fathom why so many Americans lived with its ghosts, why Vietnam kept playing games with our national psyche, opening wounds we thought had healed and forcing us to remember all that we had tried to forget. Perhaps it was that for my generation—including the 2.5 million Americans who went to Vietnam and the 13 million who were eligible but did not—Vietnam was not a country as much as a state of mind. It was where our childhood ended and the long, dark shadows of the Ashau Valley began.
Of the eleven wars the United States has fought on foreign soil, at the cost of 600,000 dead, none lasted as long. Only the Civil War was more divisive. And somewhere between Dong Ha near the DMZ and Ca Mau in the Mekong Delta, the character of an American era was defined. That era challenged the standards of World War II—the yardstick against which we had judged heroism and the rightness of battle—and turned society topsy-turvy in a social and political upheaval ot drugs, free love, political scandals and assassinations, interracial strife, protest demonstra¬tions, and the cry: “Hell, no! We won’t go!”
Six U.S. presidents, from Harry Truman to Gerald Ford, felt the Viet¬nam War was worth fighting. Although revisionists believe John F. Kennedy would have extracted the United States from Vietnam, he said just weeks before his assassination: “I don’t agree with those who say we should withdraw. That would be a great mistake. I know people don’t like Americans to be engaged in this kind of an effort. Forty-seven Americans have been killed in combat with the enemy, but this is a very important struggle.”
The problem was that Vietnam left Americans with nothing to cele¬brate. We didn’t lose a battle, yet we remained emotionally stuck at a be¬sieged fire base with no American flag to plant firmly in the ground. And if there is nothing to celebrate, what do you do? You continue to mourn. You go back to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial over and over again. But everything that helped heal, like the wall, also ensured that the wounds kept festering and denied us closure.
“We want a president to be commander in chief, not commander in chicken,” U.S. Senator Bob Kerrey—one of 238 Americans who earned the Medal of Honor in Vietnam—said during Bill Clinton’s presidential campaign in 1992. We were still trapped at the wall, grieving and groping, unable to move beyond it. Why were we still talking about Vietnam in our political campaigns, nearly twenty years after the war ended?
If the war was so widely regarded as a misadventure, why should Clin¬ton have been penalized for deciding not to rush off to the jungles of Vietnam? After all, John Wayne—deferred from the World War II draft because of his age (thirty-four) and a football shoulder injury—and U.S. Army Captain Ronald Reagan—who spent the war making movies in Hollywood—were viewed as genuine patriots. Vice President Dick Cheney used his draft deferments to avoid Vietnam. Former Vice Presi¬dent Dan Quayle and President George W. Bush joined the National Guard, widely regarded as a dodge. Republican superhawk Newt Gin¬grich took a pass on Vietnam, too. Politician-journalist Patrick J. Buchanan, a fervent supporter of the war, stayed home with a bum knee. Twenty-seven million Americans came of age during the Vietnam War era, and the vast majority ducked the war through legal or illegal means. It was a huge voting bloc. Why didn’t a candidate declare, “Hell, yes, I ducked it. I’m one of you.” Because, I suppose, we still heard a voice whis¬pering that all American wars are honorable and that one’s duty, when called upon, is simply to go. It’s part of punching the clock to adulthood, as every president from Truman to George Bush did.

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