On a cold, wrenching afternoon of war, the winter sun glistens off the black marble wall, illuminating the names -- all 58,175 of them -- patiently carved into the smooth stone of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. Momentarily, the reflections are mesmerizing, like stars in the Baghdad sky or the thousand points of light a president might use to guide him safely along.
George Bush has promised us this war won't be like the last one. Make no mistake, he said, "this will not be another Vietnam." His promise was echoed by the Cheneys and the Powells and the Quayles, who guaranteed no one will have to ask who was the winner and who was the loser.
Not another failed foreign policy. Not another erosion of will. Not another aimless drifting.
Not another Vietnam.
Wearing fatigues, 43-year-old Al Ziegler stood in front of his tent between the Lincoln Memorial and that black marble wall, his face reddened from the raw wind. He's one of the Vietnam veterans who stand vigil at the tents you see when you visit the wall and look at those names. They're names of men he served with and outlived. Not another Vietnam. "It's a 100 percent commitment to hit, hit hard, and win it," Ziegler said. "They're doing for these men what they didn't do for us -- total and complete commitment." Ziegler glanced toward the wall. "It offends me they couldn't do it for us."
There is, among most Vietnam vets, a bitterness over how they were treated after they came home -- an ache at being reviled as "baby killers" as their government, in its haste to disassociate from an unpopular war, didn't do enough to separate the war from the warriors -- and a confusion over why they were sent into war but not allowed to fight to win. "Our hands were tied" is the phrase you often hear, and Ziegler used it too. However, this simple explanation overlooks the larger context: We insinuated ourselves into someone else's civil war, many of the people we went to help didn't want us, and we had no clear-cut policy there -- not to mention we were nervous that China or the Soviet Union might enter the conflict. Nonetheless, the promise of not another Vietnam aromatically suggests fighting to win this time, a comfort to those who must do the fighting.
Some might hear an insult in Bush's pledge to do things differently, as if Vietnam were not just a failed policy, but an embarrassment to those who fought it. Vietnam vet Tom Wieber heard no such thing. "I'm not the slightest bit insulted," he said. "Jealous -- not insulted. Bush learned a lesson. He isn't letting the politicians fight this war, he turned it over to the generals." Wieber, 46, manned the tent on the Washington Monument side of the marble wall. In the deepening twilight he lit a kerosene lamp and regarded the implication of Vietnam as a national shame. "The policy was failed, but the soldiers weren't. I didn't fail over there. I'm wearing my ribbons," he said. "It's the government's failure." Wieber smiled. Near the lamp, his face seemed a jack-o-lantern. "I always tell people we were winning when I left."
No one wants another Vietnam, a protracted quicksand that sucks the soul out of a country. That's why Bush is pouring everything in -- to end it quickly, before the body bags pile up. "The cold hard fact," said Ziegler, "is that we don't have coffins on the tarmac at Andrews Air Force Base, yet." We're still, however chilling the image may be, in the honeymoon stage of this war, where the video is antiseptic, and this Nintendo Generation of pilots all look like Tom Cruise in "Top Gun."
Iraq isn't Vietnam. We're not in the gulf alone, we're not there without purpose, we're not there without a moral mandate. Congress and the president are in this together, and the inequity of a draft is moot with a volunteer army. Even protests are different. At the beginning of the Vietnam protests, anyone who opposed the war was called anti-American and pro-Communist. There are no Communists anywhere anymore. Nobody thinks the protesters are anything but loyal Americans. Notice you don't hear anyone shout, "Love it or leave it."
The protests are far less confrontational. The demonstrators aren't commonly being clubbed by police. Nor are they identifying our soldiers as the enemy; the worst sin of the '60s anti-war movement was blaming the soldiers, trying to excommunicate them from civilization, assuming they had a blood lust. With so much talk about lessons learned from Vietnam, this, thankfully, is one of them.
So far Bush shows none of the LBJ-Nixon paranoia about anti-war sentiment. Indeed, by calling on Congress to debate the issue, he seems to have encouraged an embracing of the protesters. And they have wisely supported the troops while condemning the war. There's a tenderness and spirituality to the protests where once there was anger. We've all learned to separate our feelings better.
It's been almost 20 years since the last soldier came home and ducked away, unloved. The Vietnam War was lost in the court of public opinion years before it ended in the jungles. "Win, lose or draw," said Wieber, now graying and weather-beaten, like the rest of us who remember how roughly we treated each other, "this time they won't be egged and tomatoed when they get back."
In his inaugural address, President Bush said: "Vietnam. That war cleaves us still... . Surely the statute of limitations has been reached. This is a fact: The final lesson of Vietnam is that no great nation can long afford to be sundered by a memory." Yet here he is, two full years later, resurrecting that memory for his purposes, pledging not another Vietnam.
"He's still a prisoner of Vietnam," Ziegler said as night covered the capital of the United States of America and small footlights softly kissed that excruciating black marble wall. "We all are. And we're going to be as long as we live."