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Perspectives Differ as Vets Remember 2 Wars

May 26, 1988|JOSEPH N. BELL

We spent a recent weekend with friends at their Big Bear home, and as always happens on such occasions, there was a good deal of time for talking. These are people we had seen before only in the context of the frenetic pace of normal life, and there had been little time for reflective talk. So there were surprises--I'm sure for all of us--when we had the luxury of time to explore one another.

The other couple is a generation removed from me. I was aware the man had fought in Vietnam but knew little more than that. In the normal course of conversation, I dropped in some World War II stories, something that is almost reflexive for most of us who were involved in that war. Then it occurred to me that my friend should have equal time, so I asked him about Vietnam.

When he parried the questions, I attributed his reluctance to modesty and kept boring in, a little mindlessly. Only then did I realize that the subject was really painful to him.

He talked about his experiences there finally--and some of his feelings about them--in the camaraderie that developed over the weekend. But they had been put away in some deep recesses of his memory, not because he didn't acquit himself well (he did) but because those memories were mostly unpleasant. The reasons were clear when he finally did talk about them.

I thought about that a lot on the way home. When World War II veterans get together, the talk invariably, at some point in the evening, touches on those glory days. Yet, we were involved in killing every bit as much as the people who fought in Vietnam. Many of us who swap those stories interminably--and I'm certainly one of them--detest and deplore war as a means of resolving the disputes between men and nations and systems. So why the difference? Why has World War II become folklore and Vietnam almost anathema to those who were there?

The obvious difference--and probably the most accurate one--is that the public supported World War II almost without reservation, while it was deeply and bitterly divided over Vietnam. Even though a soldier in combat has the tunnel vision of survival and is scarcely concerned with the big picture, the feelings of "back home" were programmed deeply into all of us.

The men and women fighting World War II took into combat the exhilaration of an almost holy cause. Our mission was clear and so were the reasons we were about it. Once we got into combat, we lived by tunnel vision too, but the clarity of the cause was always in our bellies.

Vietnam soldiers, by contrast, took confusion and bitterness into combat. They weren't sure why they were there, nor was the country that sent them. There was apparently a feeling of futility, of a bum rap. And so the tunnel vision became an end-all for these men. Without the clarity in their bellies, the combat experience became all there was, an end in itself. No wonder it frequently took drugs to carry them through. Our narcotic in World War II to survive the absurdity of men killing one another was the near-unanimous glory of our cause. The soldiers in Vietnam had to find something else--and did. And many of those who had no other resources to draw on turned to real narcotics.

I sometimes wonder what these people think about when they have to listen to World War II veterans swapping war stories. Maybe they can just close it off.

I wonder, too, how these stories are heard by the young in our midst. Do they make war seem logical, reasonable, even glorious?

One of the abiding affirmative qualities of Americans is their sense of humor. During my time in the Pacific in World War II, I saw examples again and again--like the crude sign on a Guam hilltop that said "Tokyo 2145 m., Des Moines 3420 m."--that made me glad I was American. Now, it seems to me that most of the World War II stories we kick around reflect that kind of humor. From the perspective of 40 years (my God, has it really been that long!) the absurdities have emerged, to be talked about and laughed over.

They get better, too, which long-suffering wives who have learned how to tune out the stories might discover if they tuned back in. We all have half a dozen favorites that we dust off periodically. And over the years, the dusting-off process invariably reveals new facets of the stories that either had been forgotten or never happened at all except in the enthusiasm of creative conversation. My grandfather did that with his Civil War stories. He would sit on his front porch and rock and embellish so his listeners found new stories in old ones every time he told them.

That all seems innocuous enough, but is it? The Vietnam veterans who don't sit around swapping war stories saw war naked, without the window dressing of public support and glory. They don't remember it as being very funny.

The question confuses me. For those of us who lived through it, World War II was a singular and substantial experience that played an enormous part in shaping the person who emerged. Because the experience itself--not the war, but the experience--was generally affirmative, we talk about it endlessly. I'm not sure that is good, but I'm pretty sure it isn't going to change.

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