The night the bombs fell on Baghdad, George Bouza was walking home to his apartment at 16th and R NW. "I saw people running down R Street and saw a cop blocking the street," the 21-year-old George Washington University political science major recalls, "and heard the chants of people gathered a block away." The next day, he went and stood around the White House -- "you know, walked the long way to school just to see it."
"That," he says, "was the first time I felt like I might have a feeling of what it was like during Vietnam."
George Bouza is part of a generation too young to have gone through that earlier trauma. The gulf is their first big war. So when President Bush told the nation that "this will not be another Vietnam," adding that American troops won't be asked "to fight with one hand tied behind their back," many didn't understand what he meant. The president's words were part of a vocabulary that has never belonged to them, and the reactions he hoped to elicit are just out of memory's reach.
Yet for those who grew up in the years after Vietnam, there is a tremendous need to understand -- to make sense of foggy recollections of televised combat footage, to decode the suppressed emotions of parents and older friends, to establish a place in some sort of national family tree. Some resort to movies and TV shows -- "Apocalypse Now," "Platoon," "China Beach." Others, like George Bouza, sign up for academic classes on the war.
Ronald Spector, a professor of military history at GWU, has been offering such classes since the mid-'70s. "When I first used to teach," Spector says, "I used to tell students to think of it as a course in comparative religion." Their classmates' ideas about the war, he'd explain, would have "the strength of religious conviction, so you aren't going to change anyone's religion, but you can find out about others' religion."
But eventually, the intensity of belief began to fade. These days, Spector finds "a lot less emotion" among his students, "more a kind of puzzlement than anything else, about how we could have done something so stupid." Indeed, six days after the shooting began, the mood in his Vietnam class seemed oddly clinical, equally distanced from its emotionally charged subject matter and the tension-filled bulletins from the gulf.
Why the change? "The crossover point was probably in '80 or '81," Spector says, "when you stopped having people who had any personal experience of the war either as participants or as students or protesters." Before this, the focus was on ideological issues -- "Could we have won the war? Was it morally acceptable?" -- and "no one was interested in personal experience, since everybody had had them." Now, despite their seeming dispassion, students want to know what the war felt like.
"I'm interested in the history and I'm interested in the human side of it," says Bouza, whose only memory of Vietnam is "riding home with my mother and sister and hearing them talk about the war and being frightened thinking of tanks rolling down my street." His sister, who is eight years older, "basically idealized the '60s," he says, but Bouza -- who had done some reading about the war before he signed up for Spector's class -- thinks that "you can't really understand it unless you've lived through it."
"My dad was in Vietnam," says another of Spector's students, Eric Plesniarski, "and I have two uncles who were in Vietnam. But they really don't talk about it; they just talk about the good times and friends who were over there . . . You don't find many people willing to talk about it."
Plesniarski, a 21-year-old history major, says he has always wanted to ask about his father's war experiences but worries about what he might learn: "I don't want to know about his involvement over there." Someone his age, he thinks, can get a better sense of the war by reading about it than by watching screen simulations. "You see so much violence on TV and it's so impersonal. You see killing all the time, it's always good guy/bad guy . . . I read a compilation of letters from soldiers and I think it hits home."
When the gulf war broke out, Plesniarski was heading for the library. "I felt like someone threw a football into my chest and knocked the wind out of me," he says.
Someday, his own children may wonder just what he means.