The craggy-faced general, a Cav patch dangling from the breast pocket of his tuxedo, bent over the guy in the wheelchair and said, "Hello, I'm Gen. George Patton."
In the wheelchair, Bobby Muller, a gung-ho Marine in Vietnam who got himself blasted on some hill and came back with a couple of paralyzed legs to join veterans against the war, looked up at Patton -- son of the War II hero -- and shook his hand.
"I blanked out 'cause I couldn't believe it," Muller said, laughing and slapping his dead knee. "The other day I saw that Vietnam documentary, 'Hearts and Minds,' and they showed Patton at a funeral for some guys who were killed. He looked at his men, then he turned around and said right into the camera, 'They're a damn good bunch of killers,' or something like that. That's all I could think about while I was looking at his face tonight. So that's Patton!"
These two men with their different views on war and life and so much else came together Saturday night as 500 Washington glitterati, corporate moguls, members of the nation's warrior class and just plain Vietnam vets -- most with wives or girlfriends -- gathered in the big interior court of the old Pension Building downtown to dance and dine at $150 a ticket for the benefit of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund, 1025 Connecticut Ave.
Willard Scott was master of ceremonies, and the speakers included Sen. and Mrs. John Warner, Sen. Charles McC. Mathias Jr., Texas businessman H. Ross Perot, and two prominent Vietnam vets: Gen. William C. Westmoreland and Veterans Administration chief Max Cleland, himself missing his legs and seated in a wheelchair.
There were about 25 generals and admirals there, including the Joint Chiefs of Staff. General Dynamics and General Electric were there, too, their executives seated at $2,000 tables along with executives from other companies that sell equipment to the military.
The $3 million memorial, still to be designed, has the blessing of congress and will be located in Constitution Gardens near the Lincoln Memorial. It is to memorialize the 57,661 Americans who died in Vietnam and to symbolize reconciliation after a war that so divided America: a garden with a sculpture "symbolizing the experience of Americans who served in Vietnam."
Getting that just right in one sculpture could be tricky.
He had one of those faces, I saw that face at least a thousand times at a hundred bases and camps, all the youth sucked out of the eyes, the color drawn from the skin, cold white lips, you knew he wouldn't wait for any of it to come back. Life had made him old, he'd live it out old. All those faces, sometimes it was like looking into faces at a rock concert, locked in, the event had them; or like students who were very heavily advanced, serious beyond what you'd call their years if you didn't know for yourself what the minutes and hours of those years were made of. Not just like all the ones you saw who looked like they couldn't drag their a---s through another day of it. (How do you feel when a 19-year-old kid tells you from the bottom of his heart that he's gotten too old for this kind of s---?) Not like the faces of the dead or wounded either, they could look more released than overtaken. These were the faces of boys whose whole lives seemed to have backed up on them, they'd be a few feet away but they'd be looking back at you over a distance you knew you'd never really cross. -- Michael Herr, "Dispatches"
The last time Jan C. Scruggs wore a tux was when he got married. He's the young ex-soldier who got the idea for the memorial and organized all this. Now there he is, an ex-E 3, up there on the stage with all those dignitaries, or down there on the dance floor, some guy with four stars on his shoulder draping his arm over Scruggs' shoulder and laughing.
"Crazy, hey this is crazy," says Scrugs in his shy, slouching way, looking down at the arm in disbelief, not hearing what the four-star is saying. lHere's how Scruggs got the idea for the memorial:
In March of 1979 he went with his wife to see "The Deerhunter" in Silver Spring. On the way home to Columbia he didn't talk much. "Later that night I was thinking things over and I got very depressed. I started getting flashbacks, it was just like I was in the Army again and I saw my buddies dead there, 12 guys, their brains and intestines all over the place, 12 guys in a pile where mortar rounds had come in."
That night, sitting at his desk alone with his head drooping in his hands over a whiskey bottle, Scruggs got the memorial idea. He thought about nothing else for months, and then began pursuing it relentlessly. He went to his senator, Mac Mathias (R-Md.).
Mathias was there Saturday night and he said: We're trying to develop a national expression of feeling. I think Congress would have been willing to appropriate the money, but there was a feeling that this should be an effort of the American people as a whole." So far, $400,000 has been raised.
As he spoke, The Singing Strings were playing "Greensleeves."
Scruggs said the party was a great thing because, "for the first time, people put on tuxedos and black ties to honor Vietnam veterans. Before tonight, the image of Vietnam vets was guys hanging around drug rehabilitation centers."
He thought a moment and added: "I basically think that the war was kind of a serious mistake. I'm not pro-war, not a right-wing warrior. I served as a combat medic. I later protested the war. I gotta admit I'm still quite confused about the damn thing. . ."
"And Mikey wasn't that way." Gene pushed his chair away from the table and stood up. "Mikey wasn't the kind to get disturbed about things, and yet in those last letters he was !"
"He couldn't take any more," Peg said .
Gene walked over to the window looking out on the barns, and then he turned, facing me, and said, "You know, I could say something violent -- I will I will say it! GOD DAMN what's causing this!" He walked back to the table and stood gripping the back of his chair. "We have boys all around here who are basket cases in this area --"
"That story in the Des Moines Register," Peg said, "how many legless boys did it say are in Iowa ?"
"I don't know," Gene said. "Twenty-six, I think ."
"Twenty-six!" Peg said . -- C.D.B. Bryan, "Friendly Fire"
Elizabeth Taylor Warner, who was dressed in something flimsy and red, let her voice get softer and softer as she stood at the podium and said: "I give them my love. . . I give them my support . . . and I'm so sorry they had to die . . . and God bless those young men . . . and God bless . . . I can't tell you how moved I am. . ."
Ex-POW Capt. Red McDaniel said: "The real heroes of the Vietnam war are 57,000 Americans who didn't come home, who gave their lives so we could enjoy evenings like this." He quoted a college magazine as having written, "Nothing is worth dying for" and said of his military-age sons:" . . . But I pray every day that I'll never hear them saying that . . . If it isn't worth dying for, it isn't worth living for."
"Oh my," said a woman in the audience when she heard that. She smiled.
H. Ross Perot said to a reporter that "out there in the heartland" the people support the memorial idea completely. "Here in Washington you get a distored view."
Perot said when he made his famous raid into Iran to rescue his employes he used all Vietnam veterans. "You take these young guys out and give'em a mission and cut out all the chatter and they do it just fine."
Cleland said from the podium: "I think the country is finally trying to understand what most of us went through there. . . "
And then Westmoreland spoke. Ramrod straight. White hair. That face, like granite. Westy.
"Tonight we honor a man who is symbolic, a man who answered the call of his country . . . a man who supported the ideal of human liberty . . . dispite the criticism and ridicule of many of his peers . . . " His voice is booming now. ". . . a man who can look any man in the eye and say, 'I served my country and the cause of freedom in the time-honored tradition.' That man is the Vietnam veteran."
Muller watched Westy from his wheelchair. "I think he's out of his mothering mind. If they'd given him what he wanted over there, he would have blown the hell out of everything."
The shattering or fragmenting effect of high explosive occasionally caused semantic difficulties in reporting injuries of men who had undergone extreme mulilation. It was a rare phenomenon, but some marines had been so badly mangled there seemed to be no words to describe what had happened to them. Sometime that year, Lt. Col. Meyers, one of the regiment's battalion commanders, stepped on a bobby-trapped 155-mm shell. They did not find enough of him to fill a willy-peter [for "white phosphorous"] bag, a waterproof sack a little larger than a shopping bag. In effect, Col. Meyers had been disintegrated, but the official report read something like "traumatic amputation, both feet; traumatic amputation, both legs and arms; multiple lacerations to abdomen; through and through fragment wounds, head and chest." Then came the notation "killed in action."
-- Philip Caputo, "A Rumor of War"
Muller's view is that the memorial idea is fine, but that it doesn't go far enough. He is now the executive director of Vietnam Veterans of America, an organization that seeks to promote additional federal dollars and benefits for Vietnam veterans.
"The memorial is long overdue," he said. "It is certainly needed, but it is only the beginning of a long process of the veterans and the nation as well coming to terms with and settling with the Vietnam experience . . . I think it's a real open question whether America can face up to the implications of Vietnam."
He had finally despaired of being the "duly moralist" of the platoon. He had personally refrained from setting fire to any of the thatch hootches as they burned the village on their way back, but he no longer spoke to any of the others about their actions. He had decided to maintain his own standards, to preserve a sense of sanity in spite of such events, but it would only have enraged them more deeply to try and stop them. A vote against burning a hootch would have been a vote against the memory of those who had been hit. -- James Webb, "Fields of Fire"
James Webb, the author and ex-Marine captain in Vietnam, has curly hair and thick glasses. It is hard to imagine him out there in the "Arizona territory" southwest of Da Nang with his officer's Colt. 45 blasting, at pointblank range, the brains out of two North Vietnamese Army troopers before a grenade blasted him into the air and landed him in a stream. But he did it, and got a Navy Cross in the action.
"Fields of Fire," his Vietnam novel, has sold 700,000 copies in hardcover and paperback and is still selling at the rate of 3,000 copies a week. It's a gripping novel and you really feel when you read it that Webb has got many things down on paper just right -- all quite an accomplishment for a guy who never intended to be a writer.
He wanted to be a Marine lifer. A southerner and a Naval Academy graduate, Webb's trip to Vietnam was to be the beginning of a career. But that grenade wrecked his left knee permanently, and the corps invalidated him out on medical grounds even though he fought it.
Then he went to Georgetown Law School, and the reactions of people there to the war -- people who didn't understand it, or didn't care about it, or thought all Vietnam vets were pathological killers -- drove Webb to rage and despair and, finally, to writing a novel that might make these people feel and know what it had really been like.
Saturday night, Webb said he thinks Muller is wrong to portray the Vietnam veteran as "a downtrodden loser." He cited statistics that he said show that 91 percent of Vietnam theater veterans are glad they served their country. And he cited another poll that he said shows that Vietnam veterans, particularly POWs, rank higher in the affections of the American people than any other group.
"The key thing that's been missing," Webb said, "is simply according the people who served the dignity of their experience . . . The hardest re-entry point for Vietnam guys was their own peer group."
At another point in the conversation, Webb recalled a marine friend who had been shot between the eyes, the bullet exiting under the jaw. The man had been medevaced to a hospital, where he recovered and then was returned to combat.
Marines are crazy, man," Webb said. "That guy has a dime mark between his eyes now. Every time he shaves he sees that dime . . . Sometimes I wonder how he made out when he got back. You talk about guys with problems. . ."
"And Billy Morris," said the commander, "he used to get in all sorts of of trouble down at the high school. He got killed too. There was a land mine or something and he got hit in the head with a tree. Isn't that crazy?" The commander was laughing almost hysterically now.
"He goes all the way over there and gets killed by a [mothering] tree."
"We've lost a lot of good boys," the heavy guy said. "We've been hit pretty bad. The whole town's changed." -- Ron Kovic, "Born on the Fourth of July"
Dean Phillips is a strapping black-haired six-footer who is now Max Cleland's assistant in the VA and who in Vietnam was a Lurp sergeant in the 81st Airborne. Lurp means long-range patrol -- the boys who went out for weeks in the triple-canopy jungles, behind enemy lines along the Cambodian and Laotian borders.
"When I came back I was against the mothering war," Phillips said. "I didn't like Jane Fonda -- she sucked donkey tails as far as I was concerned. dI opposed it because it was bad for America. Mothering Fonda was against it because she was for the North Vietnamese. You get the difference?. . . It was a civil war. We were over there propping up a tinhorn dictatorship.
". . . Out of my 26-man recon platoon, 21 were killed or medevaced to Japan. And we weren't kids off the block. We knew our stuff. Hell, if you're gona get killed and wounded, there ouighta be a mothering reason. It was a waste."
After he got back, Phillips contracted throat cancer and has a scar where they cut it out. He's convinced it was caused by Agent Orange, which U.S. planes were spraying on the jungles while he was sneaking through them underneath. "My throat is slit from here to here. We got screwed over there. I mean, they screwed us."
Despite all this, Phillips is now trying to get a commission in the Marine Corps. He is 37 years old.
"If there's a war in the Middle East and we're drafting 20-year-olds, then we ought to set the example, we ought to be grabbing out rifles and going ourselves and not just sitting back on our fat a---s."
This one, he thinks, may be worth it.
The United States might leave Vietnam, but the Vietnam War would now never leave the United States. -- Frances FitzGerald, "Fire in the Lake"
While everybody enjoyed the dinner and dancing and speeches and conversation Saturday night, the troops lurked in the shadows on the sidelines, out of the way -- the eight guys in the Armed Forces Color Guard who marched the colors in the pre-speech cermony.
Usually at such functions these young men are allowed to circulate freely, but Saturday night they had been told to stay out of the way. It irked them. b
"We should be treated with respect even though we are young and they are Vietnam veterans," said one. "My dad was in World War II, Korea and Vietnam. Heck, we're all starting out just like they did once."
"After a Vietnamese custom, the book quotations in this article were chosen by opening the books and placing a finger on the first passage noticed.