Because there is a perceived lack of national leadership, Veterans Day marks a suitable time for a fairly bold prediction: the American veterans of the war in Vietnam will emerge during the 1980s as a major reservoir of national leadership.
These men will emerge as leaders because, as a result of maturity brought by war service, they embody values that are crucial to America's survival in the decade: sacrifice, wisdom about the difficulties of government andd common sense about war. Their emergence as leaders will eclipse the popular image of the Vietnam veteran as an angry, tormented man, or a man in some way broken, whom some pity and whose presence stimulates guilt and unease along with memories of the 1960s.
The war lasted over 10 years, the longest in our history. Nearly three million of our young men fought in it. The great bulk of them turned 21 between 1964 and 1969.Even a two-year Army hitch interrupted a man's life for three years, given the disruptions of preparing for service and then reentering civilian life. For many soldiers, the interruption was longer. Thus, many gifted veterans were finishing college, in professional school and just starting careers in the 1970s. Unlike their contemporaries who are women or who did not fight in the war, they have not yet been in their careers long enough to emerge as leaders. Many were natural leaders while growing up; as soldiers, many were officers. They fought, returned, assimilated their experience. And now, upon their professional maturity, the 1980s will see their full arrival in their various callings.
This large group of young, vigorous men cannot help affecting our society in some mighty way. Some of them are in business, some practice law; others teach and write or serve in government or in the military. But they have three things in common that will unify and concentrate their life's work.
First, their life in the battle area marks them as men who will sacrifice themselves for others and for things they believe in.They are not saints, but it is true that they are the ones who, in spite of the irresolution of national sentiment, put their personal selves second to the national will as expressed by an elected president and Congress. The orders said Vietnam. They went. Even will full allowance for the mixture of events and motivess that bring a man to war, there remains a valid thread of personal sacrifice that ties the Vietnam veterans together. The battlefield, for most men, nurtured the recognition that sacrifice is part of any strong community. The typical act of gallantry was not assaulting the foe; it was saving a friend's life.
In the 1980s, with the oil shortage and inflation and global pressures of famine and population growth, it is plain that sacrifice must be a theme of our national policy. Our elder leaders know this.But the need is forr younger leaders to apply the theme realistically in the different sectors of our society. The men who returned from Vietnam have the perspective to contribute to this, out of proportion to their numbers. They can be expected to steer clear of rabid, purely selfish extremes of special-interest politics, which now frustrate coherent policy. Evidence of this is the moderate size and approach of the veterans rights groups formed by Vietnam returnees.
These men share somethng else: the knowledge of life together at the center of a wrenching tragedy. For many people, tragedy bestows wisdom. It does so by bringing maturity through a radically altered perspective on life. The men who returned from battle know, better than any other single group, that the war and its participants were complicated and that there was evil enough to be found on all sides.
The young leaders among these men will bring to decisions during peace and war a vivid knowledge of the irrationality and uncertainty that attend all the affairs of mankind. This is true of all government, but has virulent effect when armed conflict is afoot. The classic military texts call it the "fog of war." Our veterans learned to live with it but never to lose account of it in a season of My Lai, friendly fire and, some think, false budget estimates and other reports to and by the president himself. The force and harshness under which our veterans learned this specialty qualify them for leadership.
Finally, these men will not let their generation forget one truth about war: notwithstanding fancy technology, even the brutal effect of nuclear bombs, the determinating factor in war is the conventional battle of man to man and ship to ship -- the surface battle. They know that, in spite of all the helicopters and B52s, the final result depended on national resolve to slug it out on the surface. But surface war is arduous, and it is easy to spare expense in preparation for it. It is instructive that the Soviets know the lesson: their determined effort to build a fleet and to garrison Eastern Europe shows they have learned it.
Our hope is that American leadership in the 1980s will reinvigorate our fleet and the NATO army. The veterans' common-sense perspective on war is needed in the leadership that can fulfill this hope.
The generation that came of age in the later 1960s was sundered by the war. The leaders among the many able women and among the men who had no military service began to emerge during the late 1970s. especially in the current presidential administration. Beginning soon, the leaders from the other part of our generation, the men who soldiered and came back, will make themselves felt. We need them.