It is a season of Vietnam retrospectives, but a contrived and unnatural season, one that may not take us anyplace in particular. The calendar alone commends observance: It is 10 years after the fall of Indochina or, as the victors call it, the liberation. Otherwise, we are not ready.
There is no core yet of common remembering and distilled tradition, as there is, for instance, on the 40th anniversary of World War II. It is being celebrated concurrently -- and celebrated is the right word. The Vietnam 10th is merely being observed.
From World War II we demand no explicit "lessons." Its significance has selong since been internalized and made community property. From Vietnam, however, still rather artificially, we do demand lessons, most of them falling in the category of what we would like others to learn.
The divisions the war produced have yielded neither to consensus nor to nostalgia. The passion may be diminished, but the familiar terms of the old debates are echoed in arguments now being made over Central America.
Some people feel an urgency to deliver a message about Vietnam -- a personal vindication or appeal perhaps, some kind of statement on the public bulletin board. But I have the feeling that a great many of the observances of the anniversary, such as they are, will be more private. Television may have been the medium of the war; personal musing is the medium of absorption of it.
Certainly my generation, which came of political age thinking that Korea was a just war, or my group anyway, is still sorting out the just and unjust elements of the American intervention in what seemed at the start a similar anticommunist cause in Vietnam. We are sorting out the events of the Vietnam intervention and, with even more difficulty, the results of it.
To me the most sobering calculation is that what many of us saw 10 years ago as a deliverance for Americans turned out to be only the beginning of a new stage of horror for millions of Indochinese. We are obligated to weigh our own losses first; this is the purpose, awesomely met, of the memorial to the country's Vietnam dead. But we are obligated, too, not to avert our gaze from the losses incurred by others, especially after the Americans went home.
The darker forecasts of regional and global political deterioration did not come true following the American withdrawal -- withdrawal meaning not only the end of the American military presence but also the subsequent default on American pledges of post-withdrawal aid to the South Vietnamese. But the very darkest forecasts of tragedy in Indochina -- forecasts often dismissed by critics of the war -- did come true.
There was, in truth, fault enough to go around. Those who argued for disengagement on the assumption that at least it would not hurt the people and countries left behind were no less mistaken than those who justified the Johnson-Nixon-Ford engagement in terms of the requirements of the balance of power and American credibility.
The film "The Killing Fields" well suits a 10th anniversary mood of tentative private observance, some of it marked by stock-taking, some by avoidance. The harsh large fact of the communist takeover in Cambodia is made bearable in a sense by the heart-warming small fact of the survival of the Cambodian assistant to an American correspondent in Phnom Penh. The correspondent, Sydney Schanberg of The New York Times, is finally portrayed in terms of his devotion to his (similarly devoted) Cambodian friend.
We journalists fall easily into perceptions of great events that put us at the center. I have my own: It was an August day in 1964. We at the paper were working on an editorial on how the Senate should handle President Johnson's request for a resolution supporting his military response to reported attacks on American ships in the Gulf of Tonkin.
The scholar, Bernard Fall, who later was killed in Vietnam, happened by, and we went out for lunch. He said the pieces didn't fit together as LBJ had described them; something was wrong. I recall thinking that he was being French and provocative, sour grapes, that he couldn't possibly be right -- everybody was going the other way. But Fall, of course, was right. We went with everybody. The rest is journalism, and history.
From this sort of episode, too, there is no single clear lesson. Does it prove the advantage of nonintervention? A great power cannot write off all interventions. Does it prove the requirement for skepticism? That attitude can mask indifference and a tendency toward appeasement. We need some vision, and some humility, and an awareness that the stakes must be measured not only in terms of abstractions -- peace, credibility, freedom, honor -- but in terms of human lives, lives lost and lives saved.