The Veterans Day gathering in Washington to dedicate a statue of three servicemen as part of the Vietnam Memorial has rekindled the unfulfilled hope that the final chapter of a conflict that so severely rent the fabric of this nation has at last been written and that reconciliation is at hand. These books, using very different approaches and written in very different tones, show why the possibility of reconciliation has been such a long time coming, and why the final chapters may still lie before us.
"The Vietnam Veteran: A History of Neglect" is, as its title suggests, an impassioned, at times hyperbolic, indictment: "When the war ended, quarreling U.S. institutions did not carry their dead home from the battlefield, offered no dignity to their wounded, but simply withdrew, leaving those whom they implicitly regarded as irrelevant to make their own way home."
What follows is a critical retrospective assessment of what the authors perceive as a truly national failing -- part inertia, larger part indifference -- to reintegrate Vietnam veterans into the society they sought to serve. The result is uneven, but the authors' message is clear: Americans had a moral obligation to their Vietnam veterans and failed to fulfill it.
The tenor for Vietnam veterans benefits was set in the Johnson administration, which fashioned a GI Bill that was a pale copy of its landmark World War II predecessor. World War II veterans received up to $500 a year for tuition -- a sum that in 1946 "covered the full tuition at nearly every college and university in the United States, public or private" -- and an additional $75 a month for living expenses with extra stipends for dependents. The 1966 Vietnam GI Bill, which President Johnson signed into law with considerable reluctance, provided a lump sum of $100 a month to cover both tuition and living expenses, notwithstanding the fact that the costs of attending private colleges had quadrupled.
"It was a fundamental paradox of the Great Society," the authors assert, "that it would do so much for so many and then be struck by sudden caution in helping those to whom it owed the most."
The result was predictable, perhaps intended. Although 79 percent of Vietnam veterans had a high school diploma at the time of their discharge (as opposed to only 45 percent who served in World War II), the Veterans Administration found in 1978 that World War II veterans were 46 percent more likely to have a college degree than their nonveteran peers; Vietnam veterans were 45 percent less likely.
It is when the authors take on the country's elected leadership that they are most convincing. They castigate Vietnam-era Congresses as "co-conspirators" who scuttled programs to aid Vietnam veterans. They are heartened by recent congressional gains in related veterans' employment and counseling programs, but these gains, while encouraging, may be a case of too little too late for many Vietnam veterans (now pushing or past 40).
The unanswered question with which the reader is left is: Why? The answer may lie in figures in the book's foreword: 27 million men came of age during Vietnam, 9 million served -- 3 million in the combat theater. The vast majority, 18 million -- out of conviction, by chance, disability, pedigree -- did not.
"Wounds of War" is, by contrast, a clinical, chilling account of the psychological effects on the combatants in the aftermath of their Vietnam experience. Over the course of five years, the authors, both psychiatrists, worked with more than 100 Vietnam combat veterans with varying degrees and manifestations of "post-traumatic stress disorder" (and with a small group that never developed the disorder). Using case histories, the authors seek to explain the causes of the disorder and grope with the challenge of treating the lingering stress associated with Vietnam veterans' wartime experiences.
The authors blame a significant amount of the stress disorder on the "unparalleled" degree to which combat in Vietnam resulted in the killing of women, children and the elderly. The VA estimates that about half the soldiers who saw combat in Vietnam are afflicted with post-traumatic stress. Accordingly, the authors believe, treatment must center on those combat experiences: "All too frequently, we have encountered veterans who have spent years in treatment dealing with work or marital problems, or drug or alcohol abuse without discussing the combat experiences and post-traumatic stress disorder that were the source of these difficulties."
It is a lingering problem and a growing one that may not peak until 1985 or 1986. As the graphic case histories demonstrate, the Vietnam war goes on -- via flashbacks, dreams, nightmares -- in the minds of young and once-young men who were rotated out of Vietnam years ago, but, in a sense, never left. The war and its aftermath are still very much with them.
And, as these books serve to remind, with all of us.