CONTRARY TO popular stereotypes, most Vietnam veterans have made the adjustment to peace. Granted, many of us continue to suffer, but the vast majority are hooked on drugs, are not unemployed, are not suicidal, are not beating up wives and children, are not robbing banks, are not knee deep in grief or self-pity or despair.
Like our fathers, we came home from war to pursue careers and loves and cars and houses and dollars and vacations and all the pleasures of peace. Who can blame us? Wasn't peace the purpose? peace with honor and dignity. Hadn't we sacrified years of our lives?On the battlefield, weren't our daydreams lush with images of peace? And here at home, weren't the shrinks and scriptwriters and politicians telling us, at least by implication, that we ought to be seeking social and psychological readjustment? Heal the wounds, pick up the pieces.
Well, we've done it. By and large we've succeeded. And that's the problem. We've adjusted too well.
In our pursuit of peaceful, ordinary lives, too many of us have lost touch with the horror of war. Too many have forgotten -- misplaced, repressed, chosen to ignore -- the anguish that once dominated our lives. The guilt, the fear, the painful urgencies have faded.
That's sad. We should remember. Not in a crippling, debilitating way, but rather a form of affirmation: Yes, war is hell. The cliche is true. Oh, we all know it's true, we know it in an abstract way, the way we know that the moon is a lonely place. But soldiers, having been there, have witnessed the particulars which give validity and meaning to the abstract. That's an important kind of knowledge, for it reminds us of the stakes: human lives, human limbs. Real lives, real limbs. Nothing abstract.
It would seem that the memories of soldiers should serve at least in a modest way, as a restraint on national bellicosity. But time and distance erode memory. We adjust, we lose intensity. We look back on our own histories with a kind of numb disbelief, as though none of it really happened, as if paging through a scrapbook of photographs without being able to recollect the circumstances and colors and emotions at the moment the shutter clicks.
Filters are place over memory. For many of us, years later, Vietnam is seen with a certain tempered nostalgia. A half-remembered adventure. We feel, many of us, vaguely proud of having "been there" forgetting the terror, straining out the bad stuff, focusing on the after-image.
The same principle, I think, applies for the population as a whole, veterans and non-veterans. We have forgotten, or lost the energy to recall, the terribly complex and ambiguous issues of the Vietnam war. Often with nostalgia, we look back on the turbulent years of the last decade, but we've ceased to think and talk seriously about those matters for which we once felt such passion. What to fight for? When, if ever, to use armed force as an instrument on foreign policy? Which regimes to support, and how, and under what conditions? To what extent and by what means do we, as a nation, try to make good on our beliefs and principles -- opposing tyranny, preserving freedoms, resisting aggressions?
We used to care about these things. We paid attention, we debated, passion was high. These and other questions, philosophical and empirical, were at once more difficult and more urgent than they seem now.
Fuzzily, we recall the outlines and the bare silhouettes of the issues, but we do not, I fear, recall much of the detail. We are left with impressions. Black and white hawks and dove, the old categories. The national memory, like the memory of soldiers, is fickle and too damn short. Look around. Too many of us call for blood in the Persian Gulf, retaliation in Iran, but without any systematic examination of the implications of such action, without much inquiry into the history of American involvement in that part of the world, dumbly, blindly, impatiently.
We've all adjusted. The whole country. And I fear that we are back where we started.
I wish we were more troubled.