For retired Army Maj. Gen. George S. Patton III, the Vietnam War still evokes powerful memories of the 81 men he lost in 1968 when he commanded the 11th Armored Cavalry regiment.
The gung-ho general whose experience in Indochina left him with dysentery, malaria and "a couple more holes in me than God intended," says a memorial to Vietnam veterans is long overdue.
But Patton, the son of the World War II hero, plans to spend the weekend at the Massachusetts farm where he raises peacocks, not marching in Washington with his fellow veterans. A previous commitment, he says, prevents him from coming.
Patton and other high-ranking officers who commanded the regiments and executed the strategy conceived at "Pentagon East," as American headquarters in Saigon was sometimes called, said that this week belongs not to them but to the many thousands who served under them.
Although every one of more than a dozen officers interviewed said they applaud the tribute, the majority are staying away from the national ceremony honoring the victims and survivors of one of longest, bloodiest and most unpopular wars in American history.
Jan Scruggs, president of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund, the sponsor of the activities, said the salute has attracted mostly enlisted men simply because "the vast majority of people in Vietnam were enlisted men."
"I have no idea if there are not enough generals here proportionally," Scruggs said. "But if just the PFCs are in town to celebrate, that's fine with me."
Some officers contacted said they remain embittered at losing a war they considered just, winnable and badly misunderstood. Others say that as high-ranking career officers they were largely insulated from the kind of hostility encountered by many enlisted men returning to civilian life.
"Nobody ever called me names," said LeRoy J. Manor, the retired Air Force lieutenant general who led the unsuccessful 1970 raid to free American POWs from Hanoi's Son Tay prison. "Of course I'm older and I didn't look for parties, or tickertape parades. They gave me one in San Francisco the week after Son Tay and it didn't make me feel any different," said Manor, executive vice president of the Retired Officers Association.
As in most wars, those most intimately involved were the lower ranking enlisted men. Of the 57,979 people killed in Vietnam, three were generals and five were colonels, according to Defense Department figures.
"There is a real reluctance among Army officers to go back and think about Vietnam," said retired Army Brig. Gen. Douglas Kinnard, who was involved in planning the 1970 invasion of Cambodia. "The reasons for the loss are so deep . . . . "
"Any of us who were in senior positions either political or military certainly have to takeresponsibility," said Kinnard, a professor of politics at the Univerity of Vermont and author of "The War Managers," a book about generals who fought in Indochina.
Some officers are involved in the week's activities. Gen. William A. Knowlton of Arlington, a former West Point superintendent and division commander in the Mekong Delta during the Tet offensive, will read names of the dead at Washington Cathedral this morning.
Army Gen. John W. Vessey Jr., chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, will attend two receptions and has sent a congratulatory letter to Scruggs. "These names are our comrades, friends, parents, sons and daughters," Vessey said.
For the most part, however, the majority of participants are enlisted men.
"We're not looking to take a high profile this week," said retired Army Col. Minter L. Wilson, a Vietnam veteran and public affairs chief of the 315,000-member Retired Officers Association headquartered in Alexandria.
"We purposely haven't planned special events for officers. We want to do what affects everyone."
The Mount Vernon chapter of the retired officers' association, one of the largest in the country, could muster only six volunteers out of more than 600 members to march in tomorrow's parade.
"I tried to get more," said chapter president Kenneth J. Fousel of Fairfax, a retired Army lieutenant colonel and a veteran of the Vietnam fighting. "I don't know why they're not interested."
Being cast as scapegoats for the war is a source of deep resentment for many officers. "It's absolutely inexplicable that the citizens of the United States blamed the military," said retired Rear Adm. Eugene Carroll, an early advocate of American withdrawal who commanded the USS Midway in 1971.
There is a lingering anger as well that the war was ultimately lost not in the jungles of Southeast Asia but in the press and on college campuses back home.
"I have problems trying to rationalize those beautiful American soldiers with me who got killed and then we didn't win that war," said Charles A. (Chargin' Charlie) Beckwith, the Army colonel who planned and led the failed mission to rescue American hostages from Iran.
"We had the politicians fighting the war for the generals," said Beckwith, a hard-nosed special forces commander who served four tours in Vietnam and retired last year.
"We didn't understand the power of the media, especially television," Patton said. "There was insufficient censorship which would have allowed us to do some things without getting bothered by the press.
"The other problem was we had national policy vacillating from the very top," said Patton, echoing others who blame America's defeat on the administration of President Johnson. "There was too much emphasis on systems analysis and machinery and not enough on people."
Others regard the Vietnam debacle as the inevitable consequence of a military solution imposed gradually on a political problem. "We thought of a war of attrition as a test of power and will," Kinnard said. "We learned that we had the power; they the North Vietnamese had the will."
Although both officers and enlisted men are theoretically bound by their common experience as veterans, the war sharply underscored generational differences.
Many enlisted men were reluctant young recruits whose chief concern was surviving their one-year tours and rejoining civilian life.
By contrast "in country" service for older officers, as Vietnam duty was called, was an integral part of "ticket punching," military slang for career advancement.
"A lot of generals in my study said they felt careerism was a problem," said Kinnard, who holds a doctorate from Princeton. "They knew they had to make it on that tour or else. After all, this was their war."
Frequent rotations and the fact that officers generally served six-month field tours while recruits served 12 months also affected morale, some officers said.
Knowlton said his two sons who served in Vietnam don't feel the same kinship he does with his World War II buddies. "I wrote for years to guys I fought with," said Knowlton. "I don't see my sons doing that."
For one of its most controversial participants, learning from the lessons of VietnamWar is as important as honoring the Americans who died fighting it.
"Getting into Vietnam in the first place was where we made a mistake," said Brig. Gen. Samuel W. Koster, who was demoted for attempting to cover up the Mylai massacre. "Before you fight on the continent of Asia you ought to have an overwhelming reason to be there and I don't think we had one," said Koster, now a businessman in Anne Arundel County who does not plan to attend the ceremonies.
The reexamination sparked by this week's events is viewed warily by some.
"Hopefully we won't get into a lot of scab scratching," said retired Army Gen. Volney Warner of McLean, whose involvement in Vietnam spanned a decade. "Making no more Vietnams a cornerstone of our foreign policy has been a terrible mistake," said Warner, former commander of the Rapid Deployment Force. "We'll do it again. We don't have any choice. Our role as a world power almost demands it."