Perhaps it was to be expected that, with a huge standing army and enough fire power to vaporize, once and for all, the assorted enemies of democracy, the United States would develop a passion for the splendors of military might. We adore war movies, of course, and, whenever the opportunity arises, march down Main Street with armaments slung over our shoulders.
Particularly inspirational are the moments when children in crisp uniforms join the procession, swinging rifle butts side to side as they lockstep along. Then there is the profusion of khaki-colored garb, much of it emblazoned with a camouflage motif as though the wearer were heading for Central America instead of Studio 54. Also, plastic machine-guns seem to be enjoying a renaissance, and Gi Joe, the attack doll, is a hot item, too.
How much importance to assign our preoccupation with brute force is difficult to say. Does the child firing imaginary rounds at the grocery man and bus driver betray the first signs of misanthropy? Is the woman who dons full battle dress for her Saturday trek to Bloomingdale’s apt to take hostages at the costume jewelry counter? Do endless hours of watching M*A*S*Hreruns put one in the mood for a friendly little border skirmish? Research psychologists may ponder those matters forever, which, after all, is what they are paid to do.
The issue becomes less ethereal, however, when considering not the sales of toy grenade launchers but the future of the 19-year-old American male—the fellow who, just out of high school, is invited to protect the security and uphold the reputation of his homeland. In accordance with the risks such a young man may be asked to take, it becomes necessary, always, to keep the population convinced that our cause is fundamentally right, whatever the cause happens to be. You are not going to tear these kids away from hearth, home and video cassette recorder unless they, and their families, are assured that the United States remains squarely on the side of decency.
After Vietnam people began to wonder. There is no need to review at length the woes occasioned by our years in Southeast Asia. What we were doing in the underbrush—and what was being done to us—seemed incredible to a citizenry formerly persuaded that our hon-
or was ever bright, our power unassailable. The boys who went overseas for 13 months scarcely were prepared for the horrors that awaited. How does one ready oneself for what has been called the first rock ’n’ roll war? Rapid fire and The Rolling Stones. Of those kids we asked too much.
Now they want something back. The Vietnam vets came home mostly to ambivalence. Much has been said to the effect that the troops were maligned on their own turf, that Americans aggressively sought to question their courage, morality and mental health—that we were deeply ashamed of the war and therefore of the fellows sent to fight it. No doubt, harsh words were spoken at times, but for most Americans the kid who came back from Vietnam was not a soul to be scorned. He had been through something the rest of us hadn’t, something dreadful, perplexing and more
'Vietnam vets have a right to be cynical.
At firstf we showed no enthusiasm. Now they are heroes'
than a little embarrassing. Who knew what to say?
The vets, quite naturally, turned defensive-more so after the peculiar rigors of the Vietnam War persisted years beyond the fighting. Exposure to Agent Orange was jeopardizing their health, the Gis said, and the surrealism of battle was not so easy to forget. “Best time of my life was when we were stoned and in a fire fight,” whispered a young man watching a Vietnam movie in New York. “Incredible.”
No one could know what it was like unless he’d been there, they said. No one. Impatient and angry and feeling the first faint buzz of political power, the vets pushed the chemical manufacturers for compensation and the government for greater benefits and employers for more jobs and their neighbors for some of the glory withheld years before. In the process this peculiar war of ours was washed, rinsed, spun dry and— what do you know?—it came out almost clean.
Recently, President Reagan wept at ceremonies during which an unknown soldier from the Vietnam era was buried at Arlington National Cemetery in Vir-
ginia. The day was a tribute, the president said, to the young people who served in Southeast Asia—“heroes as surely as any who ever fought for a noble cause.” During proceedings, a chaplain directed his prayer to the dead soldier: “We know what you have done for us. We love you for it.”
A less romantic view comes from Jack Fuller, a Vietnam veteran and author of the novel Fragments. Here, Bill Morgan, the narrator, discusses why he didn’t duck when the postman brought his draft notice—why he went to war: “When you come from where I did, when you’d been raised on certain tales, when you’d learned to respect your father and his friends, not because of what they did in the wars but rather because of what they suffered, then you simply had no alternative when your number came
up____It wasn’t duty or honor or country
or any lofty imperative. It had nothing to do with courage, moral or otherwise. It was simply who you were.”
Fuller’s point—that idealism is superseded by circumstance—lacks the Disney-esque charm that public officials so admire. Their careers rest largely on the ability to discern what the audience wants to hear and, forthwith, letting the audience hear it. The time was exactly right for an unknown soldier, and so we placed the coffin in a tomb, and the president uttered soothing phrases. Later Newsweek magazine suggested strongly that the identity of the soldier probably could have been determined, given the advanced state of forensic science—an outrageous notion but entirely consistent with the banality of our Vietnam experience. Forget what anyone says, nothing is sacred.
Vietnam vets have a right to be cynical. When the fellows returned from combat we showed no enthusiasm and then, a decade later, decided they were heroes, every one. Without our help, the former Gis will continue to defend their interests as, certainly, they must. It remains for the rest of us, though, to draw the distinction between the warrior and his war, to recall the dimensions of our Vietnam disaster, to stay alert. Jungle chic and plastic bazookas and graveside meditations tend to divert attention. By sanitizing the war we do not honor its veterans—just the reverse. We trivialize their suffering and imperil all the decent boys who head into battle not for lofty imperative but because someone
Fred Bruning is a writer with Newsday in New York.
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