The title of a poem by Archibald MacLeish was incorrectly given in Style yesterday. The correct title is "The Young Dead Soldier."
THERE WILL be candlelight vigils once again, this week in Washington. Thirteen Novembers ago, in 1969, one quarter of a million Americans marched past the White House and 46,000 participated in the March of Death. For 36 hours, candles bobbed and flickered in the wind as war protestors paused at the White House gates to shout the names of young men killed in Vietnam.
Tomorrow morning, this year's candlelight vigil will begin at the National Cathedral and will continue for three full days. The reading of the names will take longer than it did in 1969. Some 11,000 more men and women died before it was over in 1975, when Saigon fell.
This time, the vigil was planned by surviving soldiers to remember their fallen comrades -- nearly 58,000 dead and missing -- as well as a tribute to themselves. For those who survived -- only to be treated as unwanted relics of an unwanted war -- it will be, finally, a homecoming of sorts. There will be floats and bands and unit reunions and speeches and tears and memorial dedications.
And perhaps, through all of this, there will be some easing of the indescribable rage veterans have felt for so long that they sometimes seemed to be the only Americans who remembered the war's suffering and pain.
In five days of hoopla, no doubt, there will be no escaping the hollow rhetoric, the war mythologizing. The gutsy cynics among Vietnam veterans are quick detectors of such hypocrisy, however. Ronald Reagan, commander-in-chief, is cochairman of the National Salute to Vietnam Veterans. He is fond of calling Vietnam a noble cause, and speaks of patriotism with just the right catch in his voice. Yet Reagan's administration tried to gut the meager funding for veterans' readjustment counseling centers. His now-departed Veteran's Administration head, Robert Nimmo, successfully stalled a congressional order to produce a study of the effects of the toxic herbicide Agent Orange used as a defoliant in Vietnam. If it were ever proved that cancer and deformed children were grim legacies of Agent Orange, veterans' claims could cost the government billions.
Congressmen now stand ready to salute veterans--although they refused to appropriate readjustment counseling funds for a decade, and did little to sweeten the Vietnam vets' inferior GI bill in the late 1960s. Businessmen have spent lavishly for the marble and the granite -- but frustrated veterans tried in vain for years to get many businessmen to hire veterans. Vietnam memorials in the country have been built through the hard work of veterans, not in their honor by a grateful nation.
All wars produce their iconoclasts, but Vietnam seemed to create its Kurt Vonnegut characters by the thousands. A sense of betrayal is especially strong among the idealistic and naive patriots who "went to kill a Commie for Jesus Christ and John Wayne" and returned saying "it don't mean nothin'." One of them is Jimmy Shea, from South Boston, who lost a leg. When Cardinal Cushing bent over him in Boston hospital and asked, "How did you lose your leg, son?" Shea, sick of it all, replied, "I lost it in a crap game." Shea knew months of pain, from third-degree burns from white phosphorous, as well as a lost leg. They grafted skin from his buttocks to his face. Shea's dark humor surfaces in arguments when he sticks his Irish mug out jauntily, taps the grafted cheek and says, "Kiss my ass." Shea is coming to Washington this week, and applauds the addition of the flag at the memorial. "The flag is very important. We got hit with the s--- war, but we still keep the flag high. I know we're being exploited by the right-wingers. Everything we say positive can hurt the next generation coming up, but there are 58,000 names on that memorial and we're coming to find our friends' names." The names of the living have been put into a computer so they can find each other by units. Shea quips, "They got our names, I'm afraid they'll send us to Lebanon. They probably got the transports waiting for us in the Potomac."
With Vietnam memorial dedications, the government can't always be sure the ceremonies are "safe." Last week, Louise Ransom, a Gold Star Mother, stood on a windswept highway in Vermont that was being dedicated to the 177 Vermonters who died in Vietnam. She recalled the personal pain -- "the shiny buttons on their new uniforms pressing into us as we hugged them goodbye, trying to shield them with our love." She recalled the letters home from her son, Robert (Mike) Ransom: "There is not a man over here that wants to see this war go on any longer. This is not to say that anybody shrinks from doing a job. But everyone is as confused as I as to exactly what, if anything we're accomplishing." And she remembered her desperate prayers as her son lay dying for eight days in a surgical hospital. Then she spoke for all mothers of the dead: "We remember sadly now the things that will not be: the weddings never attended; the children never born; the houses never built and the fields not ploughed; the books never written; the songs never sung . . ." Her tone shifted and she was speaking of the anger at the government "for covering up so many truths about the war . . . for its callous neglect of the returning veterans . . ."
The families of the dead in Vermont were ignited in spontaneous applause when she spoke of a special anger at the government "for requiring such unequal sacrifices of its citizens through a system that permitted nine out of every 10 men to legally avoid service -- or ride out the war safely in the very reserve or guard units we pay to protect us. If our cause was so righteous and just, how did it happen that no member of Congress lost a son or a grandson there?!"
America's most unpopular, divisive and longest war created its own San Andreas fault in the hearts and minds of Americans. The cracks and fissures continue to spread and divide. The only war America has ever lost. That phrase has been a drum beat to rev up the bellicose and a cautionary counsel to those who felt we should have never moved into that unknown land. Passion and acrimony lie not far beneath the surface; with a lost war, speculation over "what went wrong" never dies.
Revisionists worry away at the facts and conjectures of the past as a cat worries a half-dead mouse. The class war that deeply divided a generation also divided the veterans. They came back hawks and doves and just plain apolitical. In this last "decade of denial," we made the soldiers the scapegoats. Now, this week, there is much talk of reconciliation. But it will not come with one week of memorial dedications and vigils; it will not come until there is an acceptance of the war as it was, not as we would will it to be.
Veterans, when they finally speak of coming home, recount still searing memories. Whether successfully readjusted or still troubled, hawk or dove, college graduate or high school dropout--they remember. The neighbbors and relatives who did not want to listen. The people who moved away from them on planes. In a major study by Louis Harris in 1980 for the VA, nearly half of the younger veterans (47 percent) recalled that when on leave they were not "always proud to wear my uniform in public places." Even in middle America, where the antiwar stigma was missing, there were older men who would preach to them of the wars they won. Veterans use the words of the punished to describe their return: "It was like coming out of a mental institution." " . . . it was like coming out of prison." They went to movies and saw themselves depicted as drug-crazed killers. They became "closet vets," hiding their uniforms -- and their unshared, painful memories of devastation.
The problem was especially acute for the thousands--often high school or college dropouts -- who returned from the horrors of war driven to succeed, and encountered ridiculing antiwar professors and non-going peers on campus. Now there is some meager measure of reconciliation; some who used to taunt them at Army camps and airports -- the student deferred taunting those less privileged draftees or those who felt compelled to serve their country -- admit guilt and shame. Still, those memories haunt the veterans.
Fred Downs, who wrote a critically acclaimed book, "The Killing Zone," walked across campus one day, his hook sticking from his sleeve. "Did you get that in Vietnam?" He answered yes. "Serves you right," was the reply.
Jim Shea returned antiwar, but loyal to the American flag. He ignored antiwar students' suggestions that he take his flag from his window. One day they ripped it down, urinated on it and threw coffee on it. Shea and his some of his fellow veterans got even -- sneaking in and cutting the leader's prized, shoulder-length hair to his ears.
Harry Carroll, a Vietnam veteran who designed a South Boston memorial, recalled, "When we got out and landed in the States there were all these kids with these 'Bring Our Boys Home' signs, but they were yelling at guys on stretchers, calling them baby burners. I can't understand why they picked on us. Who were 'our boys,' if it wasn't us?"
Another anger comes from the betrayal they feel at the government for the kind of war they were asked to fight -- a war of "attrition" with no fixed goals for winning. Hills were taken at great cost of lives, and then abandoned. There were free-fire zones where you could kill everything -- and zones where you couldn't kill at all. The collectible prizes of that war were the dead, stacked like torn dolls for the body count -- that Dr. Strangelovian measurement for "victory." Disillusionment with the country's leaders runs deep. In one 1980 study, 76 percent of the veterans agree that "our political leaders in Washington deliberately misled the American people about the way the war in Vietnam was going."
When veterans stare at the black granite wall of a memorial, when they find their buddies' names, they will recall their private memories. Tom Hagel, a lawyer, talking about his friend who, like so many in the guerrilla war, hit a booby trap wire, a trip mine to oblivion: "He was cut clear in half. Here he was, cut in two and just a matter of hours before we were bulls------- around. Someone I knew in high school. He had a Hawkeye Brownie camera. I cleaned out his footlocker -- and sent it home . . ." Hubert Brucker, a former Army lieutenant, saw heavy fighting at Dak To in 1967. He cannot forget a final, horrific farewell to men who had been his friends. "We were there three days, couldn't get helicopters in. The bodies were rotting in the sun. They got this cargo net. There must have been 30 bodies. As the cargo net swung back and forth, fluid and blood sprayed down from the sky. Arms and legs were falling out . . ." Some would have combat veterans keep such nightmare memories to themselves. But wars are not marble monuments and dress uniforms.
Above all, veterans are coming this week for catharsis. That is why the phrase "no homecoming parade" is much more significant than the simple cliche' it has become. Many veterans of past wars understandably resented the sentimental, "welcome-our-boys-back" claptrap as civilians began to ignore them. Yet they did, collectively, benefit from that returning warriors' welcome with its symbolic cleansing that offered both respect and expiation. (Revisionists don't like to hear of the many veterans who feel a guilt for having fought in Vietnam, but one VA study shows that 33 percent of the younger veterans expressed a sense of shame or guilt about Vietnam -- at the same time they expressed pride in their individual performance.) From ancient times, there have been elaborate rituals for purifying and returning the warrior to society.
In the "Aeneid," Virgil ascribes these words to Aeneas: "In me it is not fit, holy things to bear, Red as I am with slaughter and new from war; Til in some living stream I cleanse the guilt of dire debate and blood in battle spilt."
Ticker tape parades, the generous GI bills of the past, effusive welcomes, were all forms of absolving the soldier of anything he may have done in battle, as well as signs of societal commitment -- the recognition that you "did it for your country." Sharing Vietnam is not easy for those who protested our involvement and felt that it was not their war, but that is what the veterans who planned the memorial are hoping for. "They want the country to stand next to us," says former marine Jack Smith, a leading expert on delayed stress. "They want the country to say, 'God it was a mess -- but we can acknowledge that and then go on.' "
Going on is what it is all about for the survivors of Vietnam, the majority of whom have adjusted successfully, have found pride and strength in their service, no matter their feelings on the war. Most are understanding of the estimated 500,000 to 700,000 still suffering from delayed stress. "The monument is not only to honor the dead, but the living -- for the guy who has been stigmatized and needs that cleansing," said Brucker, a businessman. "Some of us have made it, but a lot haven't."
Perhaps it is only tragically fitting that a war so divisive should end in a battle over the monument. Milt Copulas, of the Heritage Foundation, who calls himself a militant anticommunist, sputters that it is a "ditch," a "black hole" and a disgrace. Moderates on the memorial fund committee call the wall a "work of genius" and contend that the detractors speak the language that some of the "right-wingers" in the administration understand.
It is hard to know what the memorial will evoke in a crowd, but alone, on a clear autumn day, war's destruction is staggeringly brought home in panel after panel of names -- the Bobby Joes and Donnie Lees and Richies . . . Lopez and Salinas and Murphy and Garcia . . . and scores of Smiths and Wilsons. There is a hushed gentleness among the workmen who polish the names -- Johnson and Dickerson and Damewood . . .
Jack Cavanaugh, with his weather-beaten face and eyes near tears, has come from Gaithersburg. "Holy cow," says Cavanaugh, as if comprehending for the first time that "so many boys died. I can't think of anything better. It shows what war means." In the shadowing of the sun, the granite became a massive mirror, catching the reflection of the Washington Monument and the Capitol, superimposed on the names of the dead.
Come they will for their final farewells. Those who want to will view the war as a noble cause and fight for freedom, others will view it as death and destruction. One Gold Star mother said, "Each of us could bring whatever anger, pride or sense of history we need to find there." There will be veterans in wheelchairs and with plastic limbs and pieces of shrapnel, war's reminders, floating in their bodies. For them, it is a moment to touch a name of a fallen friend, to say goodbye.
This week's salute and the monument are not designed to glorify or justify the war but to end a decade of collective amnesia, to finally pay tribute to the warriors, to work toward curing the problems of many, as well as to remember the dead.
The young dead soldiers do not speak.
Nevertheless they are heard in the still houses.
They say we were young. We have died. Remember us . . .
We leave you our deaths. Give them their meaning.
-- From "The Young Soldier," by Archibald MacLeish