Welcome home, Vietnam Veterans. So said the city of Chicago on June 13 -- the eve of Armed Forces Day -- when a cheering, confetti-throwing crowd of hundreds of thousands turned out for a downtown parade in which some 200,000 veterans marched. A monument was dedicated. Nostalgia thrived. Playboy bunnies, clad in "military costumes," walked with the vets.
Retired general William Westmoreland, parade marshal and bedecked in medals, said the event was "unprecedented" in size. Apparently it was. One newspaper, calling the number of marching veterans "an astounding and unexpected total," said that "the turnout was as much as eight times greater than the estimated 25,000 who marched in a similar celebration in New York a year ago and the biggest gathering of Vietnam soldiers in one place since the war."
A parade like this couldn't have been staged in 1973 when the last of the 59,000 bodies was shipped home. If parades were out of place then, they are out of place now. The national sentiment in the early 1970s was sound: What's worth celebrating in a dishonorable war of napalming, defoliation, carpet bombing, killing civilians and official lies? For being ordered to do that, the veterans were owed apologies, not parades. They were victims, not heroes.
With an average age of 19 for combat soldiers, many were too young or unknowing to question the reasons for the war and its sacrifices or to defy their leaders who suckered them.
Whether as volunteers or draftees, how many understood the politics that started the war and kept it going? Did any remember the thinking of Gen. Matthew Ridgway? Three years after his Korean war ended, Ridgway, uttering words that would eventually rank him as an unheeded prophet, said: "When the day comes for me to face my Maker and account for my actions, the thing I would be most humbly proud of was the fact that I fought against, and perhaps contributed to preventing, the carrying out of some harebrained tactical schemes which would have cost the lives of thousands of men. To that list of tragic accidents that fortunately never happened I would add the Indochina intervention."
That was 1956, about a decade before the Indochina intervention did begin to happen in a large way. Ridgway, as the June issue of Veteran magazine reports, went before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in the early 1960s to argue against involvement in the coming war. The magazine, which is published by the Vietnam Veterans of America, shows that a long memory is useful in these days of parades: "The group of military officers that Ridgway led in an effort to keep America out of Indochina became known as the 'Never Again Club' -- so named because they believed after Korea the United States should 'never again' become involved in an Asian land war."
As an expression of emotional support for veterans, the parades are positive events. But only minor ones. They provide a cathartic experience for that part of the public needing to work through its feelings -- of regret perhaps, or maybe shame or guilt -- about sending teen-agers into a useless war. The soldier-victims didn't deserve to be shunned when they first came home, and they don't deserve to lionized now.
Large numbers of veterans have put the war where it belongs, behind them. They did their year or more in Vietnam and are now in their thirties and forties with little interest in joining Westy in the parades. They are grateful if the public will keep fresh the distinction that they are good people who were sent to fight a bad war.
The men and women who served in Vietnam deserve more than one day of cheers, flag hoistings and jiggles from the bunnies. They have a right to fair, decent and consistent treatment by the government. Too many still aren't getting it.
In his first speech after being nominated for the presidency in 1980, Ronald Reagan told the Veterans of Foreign Wars that Vietnam was "a noble cause." His first act as president after the inaugural was to put a hiring freeze on the readjustment counseling program that Congress created two years before. Since then, Reagan has made an ignoble cause of opposing laws or programs to help Vietnam veterans. The Agent Orange problems go on. Unemployment for black veterans is almost three times the rate for white veterans.
In Congress and elsewhere, many who opposed sending the young to Vietnam are now working to protect their rights and benefits. Their commitment has been consistent. These are the true friends of the Vietnam veterans. They didn't throw epithets when the soldiers came home. They don't throw confetti now.
For the veterans who feel they need parades, fine. But after the speeches by Westmoreland are made and yesterday's pariahs are turned into today's folk heroes, questions remain. Are the veterans being used a second time around? Are the parades being staged because under Reagan war is again fashionable?