Strictly speaking, this isn't a town. There's no authority. Volunteers fight fires. A county patrolman fights crime. Midway between Waco and Austin just off Route 35 (halfway from everywhere, really), it sits in overpowering serenity among gently rolling hills alongside a spring- fed creek where you can watch the glide of sleek fish in clear waters and pick fresh watercress. You can also browse through art galleries and frontier antique stores, buy knitting yarn, ogle high-fashion women's wear at Grace Jones' elegant boutique.
Historically, a welcome stopping point for stagecoaches and cattle drives, it now offers its hospitality in the discreetly affluent new homes and restored ranch houses of its 1,500 inhabitants -- mostly writers, artists and a rich mix of professional retirees.
Hardly the place, you would suppose, to spend a mind-bending weekend struggling in the company of 150 Central Texans and a few visitors from more distant places for a better understanding of the horrors and the heartbreak, the angers and the agony, the origins and the tragic finale, the meaning and the consequences of the Vietnam War.
But it was just the right place as it turned out. The symposium was organized by Salado's latest refugee from urban hurly-burly, Harry Wilmer's new Institute for the Humanities. The institute defines humanities as the "family of knowledge that deals with what it has been -- and is -- to be human, to make value judgments, to select the wiser course of action." In that spirit, the question was: "What does a humanities perspective on the Vietnam experience tell us that may be useful in the 1980s?"
Plenty, was the answer from panelists and participants that included a poet, three generals, a clutch of professors, psychiatrists and news people, a delegation of Vietnam veterans and Lyndon's Johnson's national security adviser, Walt Rostow.
The poet, Robert Bly, who won the National Book Award for his Vietnam protest poems, read from his own work -- of body counts, napalm, and booby-trapped Vietnamese children exploding in the arms of U.S. soldiers. He spoke of the erosion of male confidence in America -- a generational break because "the older men lied to the younger ones."
Historians traced painstakingly the history of involvement, identifying each irreversible step, unrecognized as such at the time. A general estimated that 70 percent of the generals leading the troops had no sense of a clear military objective, other than to kill more of the enemy than could infiltrate -- hence the body count. Rostow sought to convey a sense of the abiding importance of Southeast Asia to U.S. security.
Next time, said the generals, the war planners would have to take the media's tendency to "sensationalize" as a "given" and design a strategy that could stand up under public dissent. Government dissembling, the postwar rejection of those who served, the inherent unworkability of limited war, the inadequacy of congressional oversight in the beginning and the congressional handcuffs in the end -- pretty nearly every aspect of the post-Vietnam debate was addressed.
That most of it was either controversial or inconclusive or even occasionally inflammatory is beside the point. The point was that it played to a packed house, largely composed of ordinary citizens, many well along in years. They wanted to know what hit them. How it was that they came to discover in the late 1960s or early 1970s (many couldn't put a date on it) that things had gone terribly wrong, without their knowing it. They were concerned because, still not understanding how it happened, it could happen again without their knowing.
On display was the "Vietnam Syndrome" in its most positive form. It was nothing so simple or rejectionist as "neo-isolationism." Neither was there the deep disenchantment with past management that translates into back-of-the-hand distrust for any management. The news was not so much in what was said as in the spirit of earnest inquiry after so many years of almost a conspiracy to turn away.
We broke up into luncheon groups and at one of them, gathered in a ring of chairs under parched live oaks in the fall sunshine, we went around the circle, asking participants why they were there. An older lady, graying and grandmotherly, expressed what seemed to be the sense of the meeting: a welling up of genuine concern. She was getting on, she said, and never had understood or even been caught up in the question of Vietnam. But she was worried about the future of the world; she had come in search of information.
Salado is a far piece from the places where policy is made. But it might not be a bad place for the policy-makers of the moment to repair to from time to time to contemplate their handiwork.