Women, children and old men slaughtered in a free-fire zone. Shame, denial, anguish over tainted American heroism, the doubting of accounts from "the other side." Here we are again, so many decades later, back on the ground in another Vietnam horror-scape, this time with former Sen. Bob Kerrey. It's like one of those nightmares in which something chases you until you wake up, and the second you close your eyes, there it is again.
Our responses to this always forgotten, always familiar scenario are by now no less familiar. There's the invocation of the "tragedy" of Vietnam--by which no one means Vietnam, the land or its people--but "Vietnam," an American war that somehow went drastically astray. There's the breast-beating, and then the breast-beating about the breast-beating, in all of which the Vietnamese are "mere shadows," as the scholar and former antiwar activist H. Bruce Franklin puts it in "Vietnam and Other American Fantasies." They are, he says while discussing "Dispatches," Michael Herr's classic down-and-dirty journalistic account of the war, merely "hobgoblins in America's bad trip."
Above all, our postwar version of Vietnam has largely been restricted either to the experiences of American "grunts" on the ground in a relatively brief period when our casualties soared or to fantasy POWs still imagined to be in prisons somewhere in Southeast Asia--a mythology devastatingly dismantled by Franklin in a previous book "MIA or Mythmaking in America" (and reprised in a chapter of this collection). In popular culture, the replay button has been hit again and again as Americans watched a stripped-down version of a lost war that, depending on your dating, lasted from 1945 or 1954 or 1961 to the fall of Saigon in 1975--if, that is, you don't toss in the Cambodian horrors that followed or the Chinese-Vietnamese war that was linked to it or the three decades of loss and revenge fantasies that are part and parcel of our lives. (Even that "greatest generation" World War II film, "Saving Private Ryan," is a distinctly post-Vietnam fable, focused as it is on a patrol of grunts extracting an MIA from behind enemy lines.)