Jeers and catcalls, in memoriam

Anna Quindlen

June 03, 1993|By Anna Quindlen

THOSE veterans of Vietnam who jeered and booed the president this Memorial Day did a disservice to themselves and to the conflict in which they served.

More than that, it was they, not the man they reviled as a draft-dodger and a coward, who did a disservice to those nearly 60,000 others whose names are etched in stone on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.

President Clinton invited trouble when he chose to spend the solemn holiday not at Arlington National Cemetery, where his predecessors have marked the occasion, but at that black wall of tragic fine print (although the president did lay a wreath at Arlington).

Those other presidents were remembering their wars, less complicated ones. Vietnam was Mr. Clinton's war, even though he opposed it and avoided serving -- perhaps especially because of that. It would not have been fitting for him to go elsewhere. It would have been easier, yes, but it would not have been fitting. He owed it to memory to go to the memorial on Memorial Day.

But the veterans owed it to memory to be respectful, not for the sake of the president, or what the president is supposed to represent, but for the sake of what they themselves were supposed to represent, these graying men in young men's fatigues.

Why did they fight for the freedom of South Vietnam, if it was not to best the perceived lockstep of communism, to permit exactly that sort of dissent that enabled honorable men and women to oppose U.S. involvement in Southeast Asia?

Why do they honor the service at all if they do not believe in the chain of command, a chain that ends with the commander in chief, whether you like him or not?

Why did they demand that the veterans of their war be restored to their place in the nation's consciousness after the demonization of the anti-war years if that was just a shabby cover for making those who did not serve the demons instead?

We who opposed the war learned to understand and accept what those soldiers did. But the veterans who turned their backs on Mr. Clinton on Memorial Day showed that they would never reciprocate, that they would not accept those whose consciences steered them elsewhere.

They were not there for understanding, healing, remembrance. They want someone to admit that they were right and that others were wrong about the war.

One said that Mr. Clinton should look on the memorial for the name of the person who died in his stead. But that should be a knock not on one man but on a system of military servitude that has disproportionately drawn on the poor, the unskilled and unschooled.

One said that Mr. Clinton had been a disgrace to his country. The man had long gray hair and a full beard, held a picket sign and interrupted the president in a public place. In short, he looked like exactly the kind of person he would have despised 25 years ago.

One said the memorial was sacred. Did he ever stop to remember that when Maya Lin designed the long black circumflex it, too, was reviled as an affront to patriotism, "an erosion control project" and "Orwellian glop," mainly by veterans' groups?

It is the most perfect memorial imaginable. Grand and sad, a roster of the dead whose gleaming surface reflects the faces of the living, it says to all: Touch them. Remember them. Mourn them. They are yours.

It is not glory on a horse. It is about human beings who did their best as they saw it. It does not tell you that this was a grand or necessary enterprise. Nothing about Vietnam was as uncomplicated as that. Nothing ever will be. The best we have ever been able to hope for is a fragile truce.

The truce was broken on Memorial Day, of all days, by Vietnam veterans, of all people.

Anna Quindlen is a columnist for the New York Times.

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