Editorial Column: No More Vietnams

The Fayetteville Observer

August 9, 2008 – The conversation turned, briefly, to what happens when the wars end. Someday.

Will industries that produce war materiel back off production, shutting down lines and laying off workers, or will we peddle our surplus to other governments that will use it (or lose it) we know not how? For those who have done two or three tours in Afghanistan or Iraq and want out, will there be jobs? (A third that didn’t come up, but could have: Will the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) be able to manage the load and help the nation keep its promises?)

The exchange yielded no easy answers, and we moved on to other subjects.

It now occurs to me that there’s another after-the-war question, not reducible to ordnance or employment data, that is at least as important: How are we going to feel? Not about the wars, but about ourselves? Will we be a nation reunited, or will this be another post-Vietnam, with Americans divided into hostile camps for the next 40 years?

We can, if we choose, stomp about with our nerve endings extended half a mile beyond our skins, ready to wreak real or rhetorical vengeance on anyone who would deny us our vindication. (That line works equally well for all camps, don’t you think?)

We can blame good soldiers for bad policies, or tar good and bad with the same brush, or insist that the bad not be tarred because, after all, there was a war going on. We can (and I’m sure that some will) dehumanize all of them, turn them into action figures perfectly suited to whatever adventure each of us who didn’t go imagined these wars to be.

A couple of weeks ago, I was listening to a caller – a retired officer, if I remember right, a veteran of both Vietnam and the Gulf War – who liked something I’d written. His voice was calm and pleasant, but it took on a hard edge when he talked about old men who’ve never known war peddling romantic notions to young men, barely more than boys, enticing them to the front.

“There is nothing romantic,” he reported with quiet authority, “about what happens in combat.” Even with nothing connecting us but a phone line, I was sure he wasn’t just working with ideas; he was seeing faces. Situations. Carnage.

I don’t think we’ll see much spitting at troops this time. There will be hometown parades with returnees on floats, overjoyed to be back and appreciated. Many others will skip the festivities and sit in bars or parks or darkened rooms, many of them physically as healthy as horses but broken by PTSD or gut-punched by sheer disillusionment. In countless hospitals, soldiers will strain to regain the use of damaged limbs, to learn how to use new ones, or merely to reconnect to a foggy world set at a distance by brain injury. And in churches and cemeteries, memorials will be read while the living reach for meaning as a balm for their pain.

We can stay mad, if we choose. But I hope that people all across the country will instead choose to emphasize the unity part of “United States” – not conformity in thought or expression, but simple agreement not to let bitterness be these wars’ legacy.

Simple, but nobody said “easy.” Politicians can’t tell us how to do it, and there’s no Army regulation that covers it.

Another post-Vietnam? It’s our call.

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