For both sides of Vietnam War, peace effort hurts

July 16, 1995|By MICHAEL OLESKER

I had a fortunate war. I got as far as Dundalk Avenue, where the fighting wasn't too rough, and rode the bus into Fort Holabird where they lined up thousands of us in our underwear and grabbed everybody who didn't have a suitable excuse not to be grabbed.

It was the meanest winter in memory. In Vietnam, there was a blood bath known as the Tet Offensive. On television every night, the generals talked about light at the end of the tunnel, but the tunnel kept getting blown up. At Fort Holabird, they threw a few hundred of us draftees into a big room and told us to shut up.

Some wise guys ignored the command. The guy at the front of the room, who looked to my civilian eyes like a major general with a flushed red face, said for a second time, "I said shut up." A few people continued muttering. The major general heard it, and commenced to throw himself a fit.

"If I hear one more sound," he roared, "you're all shipping out to Vietnam today."

There came a sudden silence like you've never imagined. Silence like the inside of a coffin, silence that came from no one at Fort Holabird exactly believing the major general but not a single solitary soul wanting to test him.

Nobody in that room in that winter of '68 wanted to go to Vietnam. Sometimes back then it felt like almost nobody in draft-eligible America wanted to go, although many who tended to be older than draft age, who tended to measure all wars by World War II memories, or who'd staked their political careers to the war, or who believed we had to stop communism in Southeast Asia before it reached American shopping malls, thought we had every responsibility to go there.

And many went whether they believed in the fight or not, and 58,000 Americans paid the ultimate price.

But I never got past Dundalk Avenue. At Fort Holabird, at the end of a long day, at the head of a long line, an Army doctor looked me up and down and examined X-rays they'd taken. Then he said I had a bad back, and he told me I could go home for the duration.

So I had a fortunate war, and thus find myself in an awkward position today. It's 20 years since Vietnam, but maybe there's no statute of limitations on sensitivities. I didn't fight in that war, so who am I to talk about the thing that happened last week, when that other fellow who didn't fight, named Clinton, announced the establishment of diplomatic relations and the end of enmity with Vietnam.

I don't have any friends who are still missing in action. My friends all came home, most of them alive though not all, but at least all of their fates are known. Some who are infuriated by Clinton's war record, some heartsick over those Americans still missing in action, some who went to Vietnam and suffered, and some whose kids paid the price, wonder today how we could make peace with such an enemy after such trauma.

Maybe those in Vietnam should be making such a case. It was their civil war, after all, into which we invited ourselves. We lost 58,000 American lives, but they lost countless hundreds of thousands. Our boys came back with missing limbs and broken psyches, but their children were bombed inside their schools and watched their homes set afire.

In Vietnam, everybody lost, and everybody got hurt, and everybody has reason to feel furious about what happened back then. The guy who wrote, "There are no war crimes; war is the crime," had a point. But we make peace -- the way America has with Japan, which bombed us; the way Israel has with Germany, which attempted to murder an entire people -- because we wish to put the wars behind us and find a way to live together on an increasingly small and vulnerable planet.

Ideally, establishing diplomatic relations doesn't end the search for those Americans missing in action. What good does such a tactic bring Vietnam? More likely, diplomatic relations gives them more reason than ever to cooperate in the search, and bring some sense of peace to all those not knowing how to mourn loved ones who never returned.

Last week I went back to Dundalk Avenue. The Fort Holabird I remembered is gone now: no Army barracks, no recruits wondering if their young lives were about to be over, no major generals threatening to throw them into action for talking out of turn.

Now the new buildings there carry names like Yonar Laboratories, Baltimore Ortho Design, A&B Flooring Inc. Capitalism has broken out on the the old Army grounds.

Now, the optimists tell us, maybe the new diplomatic ties, the negotiation of trade and investment and tax treaties, might lead to Vietnam taking on many of the trappings of capitalism, and one day of democracy itself.

Which means, what? That, all these years after America's sad withdrawal from Vietnam, maybe we wind up winning that war, after all.

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