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Healing the Wounds

June 25, 1986

Gradually but surely, America has emerged from the long and painful twilight of this nation's experience in Vietnam. More than anyone could have guessed, the symbolism of the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington has exorcised various demons that infected the American psyche in many ways. From the dedication of the memorial in the fall of 1982 through the recent addition of more names to the list of Vietnam dead, a new sense of togetherness has forced into the distance much of the bitterness that divided the United States in the 1960s and 1970s.

As Americans of all political and philosophical minds kneel and caress the shiny black granite--either in person or, symbolically, in their own consciences--they become united in the process of reconciliation. They may still argue the very basic issues of the war, and many do. But the hate and rage have been diminished by the greater collective need to honor the Vietnam dead and to respect and care for the survivors.

They all come to touch the stone: the parents, children and siblings of dead loved ones; former combat mates; former war protesters. They touch the stone and place their simple flowers and shed a tear side by side. Silently, through shared experience, comes union.

This is not an exclusive process, for we all are survivors of Vietnam: those who were called and those who were not; those who volunteered and returned for second tours and third tours, and those who burned draft cards or went to Canada; those who were too old or too young, and even those who were unborn at the time of the Gulf of Tonkin. College students now go to the wall, and the archives, to study and probe for the many meanings of the word Vietnam .

The triumph of the Vietnam experience, if there is one, may be that the nation itself is a survivor. Today we prepare to celebrate a glorious Fourth of July in combination with the centennial of the Statue of Liberty. Some say that the nation has never been so prosperous, so united and so confident of the future.

In Sacramento on Monday, an elected member of the California Assembly sought to have a fellow elected member expelled from that honorable body for being "a traitor" for his political protest of the Vietnam War nearly two decades ago. The inclination is to be outraged and condemning of this effort to unseat a respected and effective member of the Legislature. Rather, let us strive to understand the twisted residual rage that fueled such an act, exercised in the name of patriotism. The effort failed, but 36 members voted to expel Assemblyman Tom Hayden (D-Santa Monica). What motivated those 36 after all these years? Is reconciliation so easily abandoned to political whim? Or does so much hate remain?

Abraham Lincoln sought answers, too, as American spilled the blood of American in 1865. In his second inaugural address Lincoln said: "Both read the same Bible, and pray to the same God; and each invokes His aid against the other. It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God's assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men's faces; but let us judge not, that we be not judged. The prayers of both could not be answered. That of neither has been answered fully."

Not even Lincoln had the answers, but he knew what America had to do: Bind up its national wounds--with malice toward none and with charity for all.

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