Reviewing Vietnam

March 31, 1995|By Sydney H. Schanberg

WE HAVE SOME 20th anniversaries coming up. On April 17, 1975, Cambodia fell to the Communist Khmer Rouge. Thirteen days later, Vietnamese Communist forces rolled into Saigon.

With the exception of the Civil War, no conflict ever scarred the United States so badly. Our military had won the big battles but Washington, wedded to a Cold War policy that sent hosts of American troops to fight on soil where no national security interest existed, had lost the war.

Within a few weeks, our television sets will carry the obligatory programs marking the events of the Vietnam War as if they are long past. Yet, as one who was there 20 years ago, might I suggest that perhaps the most important thing to remember about that war is that it is still very much with us.

Over two decades, it has become a regular occurrence in American life for political leaders to come before us and give tub-thumping speeches about the need to restore American pride by putting Vietnam "behind us." As if some poorly drafted, jingoistic rhetoric can erase the pain -- and the shame.

A few million American soldiers rotated in and out of Vietnam over several years. At the peak of U.S. involvement, in 1968, 540,000 troops were there. Some Americans -- too many -- identified the soldiers with the failed policy. These young men were blamed, called "baby-killers" and spat upon when they came home. It took seven years for the country to erect a proper memorial to the 58,000 who died there.

We have a lot to be ashamed of. The soldiers didn't lose the war; our civilian leaders did. The soldiers were merely performing their sworn duty, without choice, as soldiers have always done. The difference this time was that we didn't have a victory -- and therefore felt we had nothing, not even a ticker-tape parade, to soften our losses. President Nixon called it "peace with honor," but even he had to know this was gibberish crafted for the evening news.

Because no one in the White House could speak the truth, then or since, America has spent the past 20 years not being able to look Vietnam in the eye. For if we come to terms with the mess we helped make, we wouldn't be still trying to put it "behind us."

Successive presidents kept looking for the war that would supposedly get Vietnam finally off our backs. We had rehearsals in Grenada and Panama. Then -- eureka! -- the pieces fell into place. Iraq was invading Kuwait and threatening our oil supply. Nasty Iraq. Led by Saddam the Sadist. The perfect war. So we held that war and, as we knew we would, beat the daylights out of an army that was no match for ours. And then we had that ticker-tape parade and declared that, huzzah and hooray, we had finally chased the cloud of Vietnam from over our heads.

But then why is that dark shape still hovering up there? Why does it continue to infect the Pentagon with rampant paranoia? Why does it send frissons of fright to this day through the State Department? Why do they all keep saying, as they try to address our world-power obligations in Rwanda, Somalia, Bosnia: Don't worry, America, this isn't going to be another Vietnam.

They should give up the foolishness of these chicken-soup speeches. A million such nostrums can't exorcise this very real specter. We have a lot more grieving to do. And we have a lot more telling of the truth to do, too. Truth has a sharp blade and it will definitely cause pain, but it is, in the end, a certain cathartic.

We may think that because the Pentagon Papers and other documentary accounts have been published there is nothing more to tell. Not true. Significant portions of the Vietnam archives remain classified and buried. This means that many embarrassing secrets of the White House, State Department, Pentagon and the intelligence community have yet to be dragged into the sunlight.

Though there's probably little in those files that would surprise us, since the endless Vietnam cover-ups conditioned us to expect the worst, I believe that a lifting of the secrecy would nonetheless have a cleansing effect. At the very least, it might nurture a renewed and more honest national discussion about Vietnam.

Many millions of Americans -- not just the soldiers who fought there -- still have much to unburden themselves of. Wives, children, extended families, all manner of people whose lives were affected by Vietnam. To this day, whenever I write about something connected to the war, I get phone calls from men I do not know. Typical was a voice that said: "We've never met, but I have no one to talk to about what happened there. I'm just a broken-down farmer from Kansas." And so we talked for a long time.

And then of course there are the tens of millions of young people who cannot understand the national fixation about Vietnam because they were too young at the time to remember or weren't even born yet. The history books tend to condense and homogenize, as they do with most wars, so the section on Vietnam sounds only slightly more recent or relevant than the War of 1812.

Yesterday, a young scheduler from a television channel who was arranging a retrospective called to ask about my participation. When the discussion turned to Cambodia, she said: "Cambodia, that's near Vietnam, right?"

Yes, right. Before we can put this tragedy behind us, we first have to put it in front of us.

Sydney H. Schanberg is a Newsday columnist.

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