FIVE VIETNAM VETERANS and two former war resisters sat around a table at The Washington Post one day last year. Their mission: to try to work out a formula for a reconciliation between the nation's 1.5 million or so combat veterans of the Vietnam war and many other millions who avoided or resisted it. They assumed that both groups remain terribly wounded by their respective experiences.
An edited transcript of their discussion (misnamed a symposium; actually it was more of a bull session) forms the central portion of this book. Part One is mainly excerpts from books about what the war was like, including selections by three of the discussion participants, James Fallows, Philip Caputo and James Webb. A final section consists of short essays reflecting on the meaning of the war.
The result is engrossing, and may even succeed in pointing the way toward how to live with the memory of a rotten decade.
Those who missed Caputo's book, A Rumor of War, will have a chance to read his story of how he and his platoon went temporarily mad in the heat of battle and rampaged through villages, burning huts and killing anything that moved.
A selection from Webb's Fields of Fire tells how Will "Senator" Goodrich watched his comrades die in a misplaced American fusillade, lost his own leg, and later, returning to Harvard where he had been a student, couldn't resist denouncing other students at a peace rally: "How many of you are going to get hurt in Vietnam? I didn't see any of you in Vietnam."
And an edited version of James Fallows' 1975 magazine article, "What Did You Do in the Class War, Daddy?" tells of his shock at watching fellow Harvard draftees at the Boston Navy Yard throwing their urine in the faces of young orderlies, as well as his contrition over working his weight down to 120 pounds so as to be ruled unfit for service.
The bull session demonstrates for one thing that most people can write better than they can talk. Like most such transcripts, edited lightly if at all, this one contains a lot of hay, a lot of half-thought-through examples that trail off into "or whatever."
A recurrent theme, documented persuasively, is that the draft and the later volunteer army caught mostly the poor and the non-white and have largely exempted the well-off and the white.
At one point in the rambling conversation, several seem to bemoan the death of machismo as a meritorious trait. Webb takes issue with a remark he recalls by Betty Friedan, that machismo died in Vietnam. Not so, he says. "If it died at all in this society, it died among the people who had to question who they are as a male because, through one way or another, they avoided what is the quintessentially male function in a society, and that's going into uniform. They're having to deal with that."
John P. Wheeler III, a former Army captain in Vietnam, asks: "What's the 'quintessentially male' thing again?"
Webb replies: "Defending your society. Taking up arms and defending your society, in the history of the world and every civilization that exists today."
In an effort to get to the main point, Caputo says that, for all the sarcastic comments he has made about peaceniks, "I would like one day to put my arms around this Elizabeth McAlister or Philip Berrigan and even Tom Hayden, for that matter, and literally say that we--all of us--went through something together."
"That none of us caused," adds Fallows.
And Lucian Truscott IV, a West Pointer who resigned his commission rather than go to Vietnam, adds further: "Went through different kinds of hell."
But Caputo says the burden of the reconciliation is more on the peace movement's side: "They are the ones who were the most strident and the most vocal and in many ways are the ones who did a lot, unconsciously or no, to undermine and destroy our sense of self-worth."
It goes on like that for page after page. The main line is that the combat veterans are a "screwed minority," unappreciated for their heroism and service to their country.
The discussion avoids almost entirely the question of why the war was fought. For starters, they might have considered the role of the national leaders who believed incorrectly that Communism was a monolithic force centered in Moscow with Peking and Hanoi as its tentacles. Or the role of national leaders, starting with John F. Kennedy, who believed America's vital interests were threatened by every victory by anything called "Communism" anywhere in the world. They might also have considered the inflated propaganda that kept the war going--the "light at the end of the tunnel" and Lyndon Johnson's description of Ngo Dinh Diem as the Churchill of Southeast Asia.
Such matters doubtless were considered beyond the scope of this short book. But what about the question of what an American citizen should do when confronted with a bad war? There is such a thing, you know. It's a tough but an important question.
It remains for the essayists in Part Three to wrap up the issue in any sort of satisfying way. Sam Brown, the former peace movement leader turned bureaucrat, is unrepentant but risks attack by his old comrades by coming out for an "equitable" conscription for both men and women. But he sees no indication that "those now in power in Washington" have any understanding of how to go about regaining the trust lost by "the deception of the American people by two presidents."
Susan Jacoby, another unrepentant opponent of the war, also favors universal service by men and women, partly as a deterrent to future ill-advised military adventures. Her recollections of male chauvinism in the peace movement are worth noting.
Nicholas Lemann, executive editor of Texas Monthly magazine, winds things up with a reminder that the post-Vietnam generation thinks differently. Born in 1954, he says: "I cannot remember having any perception of the Vietnam war other than it was a bad war that we were losing. I cannot remember ever not thinking of the incumbent president as a failure." Vietnam and other disruptions caused him and millions of others to vote less than their parents, to feel no loyalty to employers, to think of marriage and children as a frightening prospect.
His account of slowly working his way toward love, political responsibility, and even a form of patriotism supplies a hopeful note that eluded many of the book's representatives of the wounded generation.