As one who has been involved in Vietnam veterans' causes for the past five years, I am developing an unpleasant metaphor for the way in which the experience of the war resides in the belly of America. It is that of the Alien, a creature from the movie of the same name. The Alien lives within its host as an indigestible identity, erupting unpredictably to turn on its former home with a voracious appetite.

The most recent example of such an eruption was the CBS program "The Uncounted Enemy: A Vietnam Deception," aired in late January. The documentary made a strong case for the proposition that our headquarters in Vietnam, under the command of Gen. William Westmoreland, deliberately understated enemy strength at a time when it was telling the country that we were winning the war; misled the nation about the amount of enemy infiltration during the months preceding the Tet offensive, presumably preventing adequate defensive preparations from being made; and then ordered that the computer records of these intelligence estimates be doctored retrospectively so that no one could ever reconstruct the truth of what really happened.

A few days later Westmoreland held a press conference to rebut the charges. Accompanied by retired Lt. Gen. Daniel Graham (the officer said to have altered the records) and other principals of the relevant experience, he also stated that he had been "ambushed" by interviewer Mike Wallace. A few days after that, Westmoreland apologized for this characterization of the interview, producing a letter CBS had sent him before the taping and stating that he had neglected to consider it through a lapse of memory. In the meantime, conservative columnist William F. Buckley Jr. was calling for a congressional investigation, while a former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Maxwell Taylor, was saying that Westmoreland had been the victim of a hatchet job.

The incident is typical of appearances of the Alien, of which I will mention only two others. The most significant private institutions to emerge in the aftermath of the Vietnam War, and to hold forth promise for healing the wounds it inflicted on our society, are the Vietnam Veterans of America, a national membership organization lobbying, litigating and educating the public on veterans' issues, and the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund, a nonprofit organization sponsoring the Vietnam War memorial to be built in Washington.

VVMF took extraordinary steps to ensure that its final design selection for the memorial was unassailable both procedurally and architecturally. After the hoopla surrounding the final choice subsided, up cropped a group of veterans who charge that the memorial design is a "black trench" that would be an embarrassment to the memory of those lost in Southeast Asia. At the eleventh hour before groundbreaking, Interior Secretary James Watt interceded to say that despite the approvals already secured, he would have to review the plans before they could proceed. Meanwhile, VVMF's president was on television predicting that 500,000 veterans would be in Washington for the memorial's dedication on Veterans' Day this year, calling it "the parade we never got."

On Christmas Eve, the executive director of VVA and other VVA members traveled to Hanoi to discuss with the Vietnamese those Americans who were missing in action during the war and remain unaccounted for, and the effects of exposure to a herbicide, colloquially known as Agent Orange, used by the United States during the war. Unschooled in diplomacy and unprepared for the speed with which their trip was arranged, these veterans were nevertheless possessed of deeply humanitarian motives and did advance discussions on those issues, which had been stalled or nonexistent. For example, the Vietnamese subsequently agreed to meet next week with a delegation from the departments of State and Defense on the MIA question. Yet at their homecoming press conference the members of the delegation were accused by other veterans of being dupes of Hanoi, and a POW/MIA group now echoes those charges.

Despite its different guises (intelligence deception, black trench, Hanoi dupes) the beast is the same: our inability or unwillingness to assimilate compassionately our own history. This is not to say there are no legitimate grounds for serious concern or disagreement on these questions. It is only to observe the relentlessly bitter animus underlying the disputes, which not only impedes their resolution but leads to the devouring of the losers.

The foremost dilemma before the country respecting the legacy of the Vietnam War is how to close the divisions it opened in our society, between the doves and hawks, unrepentant veterans and peace activists, the uniformed military and its civilian leadership, the Class of '46 and those who fought in Vietnam, and so forth. As Congress considers whether to investigate the war, Secretary Watt whether to approve VVMF's memorial and the Defense and State departments how to deal with VVA's possible breakthrough on MIA's, I hope they look beyond these specific issues to the important long-term objective, that of defanging the Alien. What Arthur Miller said of people in his play "After the Fall" seems equally true of nations: "One must finally take one's life in one's arms."