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Reliving Vietnam, Year 25

By E. J. Dionne Jr.

Friday, April 21, 2000; Page A27

For years after World War II, kids playing soldier games in playgrounds and backyards reenacted victory over and over, and a just victory, too. Who could deny that defeating the Nazis was a good cause? One of the great heroes of that war, Dwight D. Eisenhower, was a solid, comforting presence in the White House. "Everybody likes Ike," went an unusually honest ditty on his campaign ads.

Perhaps I missed it, but over the past quarter-century, I haven't seen kids play Vietnam War games. They're more likely to reenact the exploits of Luke Skywalker battling the Empire or stage Pokemon battles. Children, no less than adults, prefer reliving triumphs to playing at defeat. And if the World War II generation conveyed a sense of moral certainty--reflected in Ike's outward serenity--those who came to adulthood since the late 1960s have sent messages of moral ambiguity about Vietnam. Kids pick up on that, and turn elsewhere.

The country as a whole is likely to do the same on April 30, the 25th anniversary of the fall of Saigon and the end of the Vietnam War. Reliving Vietnam means reliving an era when families and communities were torn apart and when a still-unhealed wound opened between those who served and those who did not.

Remembering the unfair allotment of the burdens of that war is the first reason April 30 cannot go unnoticed. Vietnam was the first war in our history in which veterans were not treated as heroes, or even as good citizens who had done their duty.

The hostility toward the first fully televised war was such that those who returned home from service were often treated like TV villains. Those who never served were, on the whole, wealthier and better connected than those who did. This produced an appalling spectacle: the privileged dumping on the less privileged who had stood in for them in battle.

"They would look at us like we were filth," 54-year-old veteran John Spedea told the Philadelphia Inquirer's William Macklin. Spedea had served in the Army's First Infantry Division, but that did not win him respect. "They thought of us as a bunch of dopeheads," he said. "They didn't consider us soldiers."

The nation's double debt to Spedea and his comrades--first for serving and then for bearing the blame for a war they did not start--cannot be fully repaid. But it can at least be recognized. The response John McCain drew on the campaign trail as thousands waved their copies of his memoir of service and captivity was a partial acknowledgment of the nation's bounced promissory note to Vietnam vets who returned home uncheered.

The political lessons of the war are just as hard to assimilate because there is still great division over what they are. Does the end of the Cold War prove that the war was unnecessary, given what we now know about the weakness of communism? Or, on the contrary, did our willingness to fight in Vietnam stall the spread of communism and speed its demise?

Without fudging on the policy question--I still believe the war was a terrible mistake that weakened our country for many years afterward--one can surely insist that lessons be drawn here at home.

From the excesses of the anti-war protests, one might learn that assaults on the basic values of workaday Americans are wrong as a cause and disastrous as politics. My old professor Bill Schneider, now an analyst on CNN, once polled a woman in Sommerville, Mass.--a blue-collar town that borders Cambridge--who told him the war was a terrible thing started by those "Harvard professors." So, Schneider asked, did that mean she sympathized with the war's student opponents? Oh no, she replied. "They're worse."

Imagine how she might have felt if the war's opponents had followed, in practice and spirit, the advice of the late Norman Thomas and staged symbolic washings of the American flag instead of burning it?

Imagine, also, if the federal government, especially in the Nixon years, had accepted that in a free country, citizens have the right to oppose wars and should not have to worry about being bugged, burglarized or made the subjects of FBI files. The country would have been saved from Watergate and the bitterness and mistrust that is still its legacy. That inheritance makes it all the more difficult for us to come to terms with Vietnam.

© Copyright 2000 The Washington Post Company

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