Morning-After in America

October 4, 2004

Vietnam hangs heavily over this presidential campaign. Consider the biting and eye-gouging over the candidates’ service records. Sure, everybody’s got their reasons. It’s galling to the anti-Bush people to have a war hawk in the White House who kept his own wings safely folded when he had his chance to fight. It’s infuriating to Bush loyalists to think that the challenger once used his own episode of heroism to grandstand against a war his comrades were still waging.

To me, what’s remarkable about their Vietnam-era records is that between the two of them, President Bush and Senator Kerry reflect pretty faithfully the range of response of my generation to that war: Many skated clear; others found a way to finesse service obligations without risk or disgrace. Some served — valiantly, begrudgingly or both. Still others fiercely protested.

So the two candidates are fairly representative of their peers, and you might think that would invite recognition and understanding. Instead, their actions as very young men have touched off unusual bitterness and rage. CBS “60 Minutes,” faced with a choice between documenting the flawed intelligence that led to the Iraq war or running that ill-fated report on Bush’s National Guard service, found the Guard story more newsworthy.

Why such intense interest? Why is Bush pilloried for doing what so many others did: Pull whatever strings you could to keep from going. Why is Kerry – who fought and killed – vilified for denouncing a bad war that most of his countrymen had long since turned against?

Above all, why has the passage of 30 years not quieted the anger enough to allow the possibility of reconciliation?

This has consequences. Vietnam lasted more than a decade and was the most calamitous U.S. war of the past half-century. But ironically in view of the passions it still provokes, it isn’t really discussed.

Instead, Vietnam stalks our political discourse. It’s a presence, not a subject. It’s mentioned only obliquely and allusively. It intrudes into debate through disembodied fragments and metaphors: We hear about quagmire, we’re admonished to support the troops, we see images of civilian dead. There’s talk of eroding international prestige, of our foe’s base of support, of widening mistrust of official assurances of progress.

But we’re captive to echoes and shadows on the wall. We can’t decide if Vietnam holds lessons for the Iraq war because we never agreed on what the lessons of Vietnam were. Too much resolve, or not enough? Did we try to crush a genuine expression of popular will? Were we arrogant or timid, too heedless of foreign realities or too fearful before domestic ones?

Other countries, confronting social and political fault lines left by discredited regimes or failed wars, create special commissions dedicated to truth and reconciliation. I can’t say how successful they are, such bodies in post-apartheid South Africa or in Argentina after the military was chased from power.

But I can’t help but prefer them to our approach, epitomized by then-President Ford’s pronouncement when Richard Nixon was ousted, a few months before Saigon fell: “The long national nightmare is over.” What did that mean? That we had been asleep? That we needed now to brew up some coffee and forget about it?

What were we doing? Hundreds of thousands of people – theirs and ours — died while we fought to keep a Southeast Asian country from being forcibly reunified, and now, because we lost, it has been. It is also peaceful, increasingly prosperous, and while hardly a darling of the human rights community, it’s part of nobody’s Axis of Evil and draws growing numbers of U.S. tourists, including former GIs. So what was that war about?

Sadly, we don’t have answers. We have only resentments and lingering hatreds. And we have an increasingly balkanized media that beat whatever drum might be at hand, and don’t provide the forums on which these questions might be raised. Was John Kerry wrong to fight a war he doubted, or George Bush wrong to stay clear of one he supported? Were they both the youthful victims of a situation of incomparable moral complexity?

And might they now be equally deserving of a grace that’s extolled so often, and extended so rarely, which is forgiveness?

Meantime, as Fitzgerald wrote, we’re borne back ceaselessly into the past. And we continue trying to slay ghosts, which is not how to put them to rest. It’s how you make new ones.

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