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Shadows and Mirrors

It is time to try to understand what we made of Vietnam

Vietnam meant so many different things to America. Twenty-five years later, we still can't see it clearly.

April 23, 2000|William Prochnau | William Prochnau is the author of "Once Upon a Distant War: David Halberstam, Neil Sheehan, Peter Arnett--Young War Correspondents and Their Early Vietnam Battles." He made two combat reporting tours to Vietnam

WASHINGTON — In Vietnam, everything we saw was a mirror image, a reflected reality, not quite what we thought it to be. Even the symbolic last helicopter off the U.S. Embassy roof in Saigon--the engraved image of a great and foolish nation humbled--was the next-to-last helicopter.

After the "last" left at dawn, 25 years ago this April 30, a rear guard of 11 uneasy Marines stayed behind, barricaded atop the building. From below, they were engulfed by the wails of those who knew with certainty they were being left behind. At a hastily blockaded door, the final rooftop barrier against the masses we had come to save so many years earlier, a desperate arm smashed through a window, fingers outstretched toward old friends, drinking buddies, chums. A Marine took the arm, wrenched it in a circle against the shards of broken glass. What was a superpower to do? The arm jerked back. The Marines posted one of their small band at the door to wrench each persistent new arm.

An hour passed, and the nervous troopers began making contingency plans for their own possible abandonment. Such was this war.

Then the last whump-whump-whumps emerged out of the morning sun. A giant Chinook, surrounded by a half-dozen black Cobra gunships, approached in the usual low treetop pattern. The Marines, according to David Butler, writing in "The Fall of Saigon," dumped all their remaining tear-gas grenades over the side of the building. One last bit of suppressing fire. Friendly fire against the forsaken. The great rotors of the Chinook, the largest helicopter we owned, sucked the tear gas up into the hull and cockpit, blinding crew and occupant alike as they took off. We went out as unseeing as we had come in.

So now, 25 years have passed. In one of the great ironies, Vietnam seems to have emerged more psychically secure than we have. They are building battlefield parks and tourist attractions and AK-47 shooting galleries to allow Americans, nation of tourists that we are, to relive what we did to them. Fire a round, Yank, and leave a dollar behind this time.

We, on the other hand, have spent our time in a perverse national passion for endless and disputatious post-mortems that have left us seeing our way no more clearly today than we did on April 30, 1975, or the day the American "advisors" entered in force in 1961 or the Marines landed in Da Nang in 1965. We have not achieved consensus on why we were there, whether we should have been there, whether we could or should have won, not even what "win" means. We surely have not concluded that, in a world so changed, we should just let it go away now. I even heard a young man complain recently that his generation didn't have a Vietnam against which to test its mettle, its manhood. His life would be incomplete. Good God.

So we talk endlessly and circuitously about it, until the words all merge into a staccato of bad rap. There isn't an Ivy League college or wannabe, a think tank on the right or left, that hasn't had a recent Vietnam roundtable--and more than one in each of the past 25 years. They are busy rotating the old warriors before they die out and grooming self-certain young academics for the great circle ahead.

One elderly civil servant, now in his 80s, all public memory of a life's service gone except for his role in the war, confided recently that he can still earn a living in Washington just attending these seminars. "Breakfast, lunch and dinner," he cackled about the endless opportunities to reminisce. With honorariums at some, meals at all, "It sure beats Medicare."

Even former Defense Secretary Robert S. McNamara, who swore himself to 30 years of a monk's silence for the crosses he rightly bears, has broken his vow. McNamara the quantifier. The numbers man from the Ford Motor Co. At congressional hearings in the 1960s, he had an aide sitting at his side with a giant briefcase so stuffed with numbers that the "elbow man," as the aide was called, could come up with any figure a congressman requested. Defense Department analysts had a joke about him: McNamara could depend on him, if need be, to come up with the length of the linear foreskin of all the Viet Cong south of the Mekong.

McNamara once sent all his numbers people for a long weekend retreat to produce a "Dow Jones average" of Vietnam indicators that would tell him if his overall market was going up or down. They tried, for one day--and then they drank.

Two plus two is four, and we will win the war. That was McNamara's bottom line. The problem, a CIA official once said, was that McNamara could never get a handle on what "two" represented.

Now he is out there as well, adding to the postwar babble. A couple of books, visits to Hanoi, press conferences. If someone would just explain what the old man is trying to tell us. (Memory: How we laughed, so sure of ourselves, at the decadent old French generals as they rationalized their defeat in the same jungles.)

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