THE PEOPLE magazine cover said it all. Not only has the self-aggrandizing end of the Persian Gulf war now taken longer than the fighting itself, but it has taken on show-biz proportions the likes of which even Bob Hope may never have dared to dream.
Our local news crews, camped out on the concourse at Baltimore-Washington International or in the recesses of VFW halls throughout the city, have not yet tired of pushing a camera into the face of a sometimes dazed and embarrassed man or woman who has just returned to friendly shores. And obviously, we're still tuning in at 6 and 11.
It was the People magazine close-up of Norman and Brenda Schwarzkopf under the headline "Honey, I'm Home!" that was the source of my latest wince. Via videos and talk shows and by way of the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness Parade, the feel-good war of the century has come home. This Memorial Day weekend, the first patriotic holiday since the war ended, no doubt will be a major exercise in self-congratulation.
As someone old enough to remember Vietnam and skeptical enough to acknowledge America's amazing flexibility in the styles with which we welcome home troops, I figured that the contrast between Vietnam and Desert Storm was on everyone's mind. Evidently not, since the morning I chose to discuss it with my English class, all of whom were born between 1970 and 1973, I looked around the room and ran smack into 18 blank expressions.
So I launched into a short, information-packed lecture on Vietnam, which I self-righteously and unwittingly referred to as "the war."
When I finally took a breath, one young woman timidly asked, "Are you talking about Grenada?"
As I asked them to tell me what they knew about the Vietnam War, which ended when they were small children, I did so over moans. "We weren't even born yet!" they complained. Their lapse in historical accuracy was expected. What was more difficult to accept was their boredom, their indifference that the war had occurred at all. This from people with flags flown on their car antennas, with bumper stickers that say, "I support the troops!"
When I asked my students to describe what they thought a soldier back then might have faced upon returning to the U.S. after a tour in Vietnam, I could see the message flash across their faces: "This is an easy one."
To a person, they told me that although they didn't know for sure, they assumed that those soldiers, too, had returned to neighborhoods decked out in yellow ribbons. As people who were in grade school when Ronald Reagan took office, they had no reason not to believe that and, evidently, no one to tell them differently.
I don't fault my students for their reluctance to discuss what they consider ancient history. I blame all of us who have willingly shoved the muck and mire of Vietnam under our rugs, embarrassed and ashamed. Those of us who couldn't wait to buy our American flags and yellow ribbons assuaged our guilt by telling each other that we were supporting the troops.
We were doing nothing of the kind. We were responding to a war the likes of which people of my generation had never seen. It came neatly packaged with an evil dictator to symbolize the enemy, a strong but lovable general to typify the good guys, a clear beginning, few casualties and a length of only 43 days.
I told my class that Bob Greene of the Chicago Tribune published an entire book filled with letters written to him from Vietnam combat veterans who had been spat upon as they returned home. One conscientious student asked for the title, and I brightened as he wrote "Homecoming" in large letters in his notebook. Then he quickly looked up and said, "Do we have to know that?"
Those brave, strapping men and women who have returned home from the Persian Gulf have done so to the adoring, collective cheer of America, and they deserve every golden moment of it.
So did a young soldier named Ted Podolak of Mentor, Ohio, who got off just such a plane in 1969 after a year in Vietnam. He was wearing his uniform and his campaign medals; his arm was in a sling, and there were stitches above his eye from war injuries.
He wrote about his return in a letter in Greene's book: "A group of three or four college types made some derogatory remarks toward me. One of them spat in my direction, missing me, but making their meaning very clear. Their gesture confused and hurt me. I would have cried if my emotions had not been so numb."
The inequality of these two sets of homecomings is not fair, and nothing can change that hurt. But might we at least, as we wave our flags, not pretend that it was always so? Couldn't we tell the story to those who "weren't even born yet," those who now sit with open notebooks, pencils poised?
We could start this way: The next time you see a soldier being warmly welcomed home, think of this: Somewhere, he or she has a counterpart who was sent to Vietnam "to get the job done" over there. They were young, decent, eager people, too, who upon returning to American soil, slid into the nearest airport bathroom to change out of their uniforms so that no one would know that they had fought for their country.
Yes, someone should know that.
Linda DeMers Hummel writes from Timonium.