INDULGE ME FOR A MOMENT while I recycle a few words I wrote nearly five years ago when I was doing another of those bleeding-heart stories about the numbness and anger of Vietnam veterans. The article was a collection of brief profiles of vets, successful young men who, nevertheless, felt a nameless rage because they seemed to be the only Americans who still remembered the war's suffering.
"The purpose of their words," I wrote, "is not to reopen the old political arguments, the old wounds, but to make a simple statement: It is a terrible thing, almost obscene, that other Americans should forget so easily, when something still needs to be done. A monument or a law or something. The problem is that nobody has yet figured out how to say to all those veterans the healing words they need to hear."
One of those vets I interviewed then was a young sociology student named Jan C. Scruggs, a combat veteran himself, still carrying little chunks of shrapnel in his body, still having occasional nightmares. Perhaps without fully knowing it, Scruggs was working out his own catharsis by doing clinical studies of the matter. His research told him that combat veterans like himself carried away from Indochina deeper scars. Less trust in other people, greater political alienation, more divorces, lower self-esteem. Scruggs was trying to objectify what he felt deep in his guts.
The most amazing thing happened a few years later. Jan Scruggs went forward with his career but he and other like-minded veterans found a way to work out their feelings and perhaps the nation's.
They attacked the great national amnesia frontally, organized a bipartisan committee, enlisted private volunteers and contributions, orchestrated congressional support. Now they are about to build their monument.
In the last two years, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund raised $2.5 million and chose a design from a nationwide competition, a drastically different kind of war memorial which deliberately does not try to address the political arguments over Vietnam. When it is built, down by the Mall, two black granite walls in a V-shape, it will speak neutrally to each individual's memory. The names of the 57,692 Americans who died there and a brief inscription:
"Our nation remembers the courage, sacrifice and devotion to duty and country of its Vietnam veterans."
That's all. No heroic poetry. No generals on horseback. No righteous claims of victory.
Inevitably, I suppose, Scruggs and his colleagues are now under attack, particularly from the right wing and even from some fellow veterans who want an old-fashioned memorial of heroic image and dimension. The National Review, voice of uptown conservatives, denounced the design as the work of peaceniks, putting into stone the "V" sign of the antiwar movement.
"The Reagan administration should throw the switch on this project," the magazine grumbled, "whether through executive action or a bill in Congress. If the current model has to be built, stick it off in some tidal flat and let it memorialize Jane Fonda's contribution to ensuring that our soldiers died in vain. And let us memorialize with suitable sculpture -- as if they had died at Gettysburg or the Ardennes -- the Americans who gave their lives to their country and to history in Vietnam."
Tom Cathcart, an Army infantry officer in Vietnam, wounded and decorated, testified against the design on similar grounds, namely, that the proposed memorial is antiheroic. He wishes for white marble, for an edifice "rising in massive splendor to honor great American heroes." The proposed design, sunk in the ground as the walls will be, speaks to Cathcart of shame, sorrow, death. "Why can't we have something white and traditional and above ground?"
A fair question, I think, which deserves an answer. It demonstrates that building a national memorial is not a trivial matter, for the monument does make a statement about our collective memory. Some citizens, perhaps many citizens, will insist that their memories are different, are not represented. Let us suppose that the design committee searched, instead, for a more tangible image that would express the war in Indochina the way the Iwo Jima Memorial conveys the heroism and triumph of World War II. What image might be appropriate?
The very question summons from the recesses of memory some compelling scenes. Remember the famous photographs? The terrified little girl running naked from the napalm. Gen. Loan dispatching by summary execution a captured Viet Cong. The wounded infantrymen, surrounded by smoking jungle, looking heavenward for a Medivac helicopter. The last days at Saigon, when choppers landed on the embassy rooftop and left-behind Vietnamese struggled desperately to get aboard.
One could go on with others. The point seems obvious: our shared memories of that war do not include any suitably heroic images which a sculptor could convert to stone or bronze. Of course, an image could be invented. The statue could show John Wayne of the Green Berets, surrounded by grateful peasants, as he liberates their village from the dreaded VC. The Iwo Jima flag-raising is an authentic document because it accurately conveyed the national feeling about that struggle. When one thinks of what might authentically capture the national feeling about Vietnam, there is no clear and obvious answer, none that would not restart the old arguments.
Thus, the memorial committee rightly chose a neutral and soft-spoken monument, one which will give each visitor enormous freedom to ruminate on private memories. Only revisionist fools still insist that Vietnam was Gettysburg or the Ardennes; if the government built such a statue, it would be worse than amnesia.
On the other hand, revisionism is having its day. If some do not like the granite memorial to the war dead, perhaps they will find more enjoyment in another important memorial to the war in Indochina -- the Reagan Administration's defense budget and foreign policy. In the psychology of our nation, this season's resurgence of bellicose rhetoric and the expensive preparations for war are really a revisionist statement about Vietnam. The humiliation of defeat, the bloody years of misguided adventurism, did not happen. It was a noble cause.
If one tries to understand why the United States has returned to the Cold War metaphors and bloated defense budgets, I think the explanation is a kind of collective revisionism, widely shared by policy makers and the public. It attempts to blot out the disgrace of Saigon and the humiliating events in Iran. It pretends that none of those events would have happened, if only we had been more resolute, stronger, better armed. It ignores the reality of what actually happened.
We shall see what that "memorial" brings us. I am not among those who predicts "another Vietnam," in part because I do not think history works in such simple parallelisms. I do wonder if anyone in responsible positions, not to mention the general population, really learned much from the tragedy in Indochina. If not, I think they should be prepared to learn, once more, that most Americans today do not attach heroic imagery to senseless dying and destruction. They will learn again that the peaceable consensus which now prevails in the popular temperament is a very fragile thing, which would dissolve rapidly if the secretary of state sends in the Marines.
An item in the news last week hardly turned any heads in Washington: 300,000 young men have failed (or refused) to sign up for the draft registration now required by law. Will they prosecute all those boys? Or pretend that this disobedience has no significance? The foreign policy planners moved forward with their warlike rhetoric, pretending not to hear the question. And if they move enough in that direction, this nation will once again find itself at war with ourselves.