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Thirty years on, a stir of echoes

War and a White House bid have roused the ghosts of Vietnam.

March 01, 2004|Reed Johnson | Times Staff Writer

When Errol Morris' documentary "The Fog of War" opened in theaters in December, Judy Muller intended to snub it. Not that she was blase about the movie's subject, former U.S. Defense Secretary Robert S. McNamara. On the contrary, she was "outraged," Muller says, when McNamara issued his mea culpa-ish yet self-justifying memoir about Vietnam in the mid-1990s. As the daughter of a Navy officer and the ex-wife of a former Marine lieutenant stationed in Danang, Muller also had an intimate personal connection to the Vietnam War and its painful domestic repercussions.

But when Muller, an Emmy-winning ABC news correspondent and USC journalism professor, later relented and went to see "Fog of War," she experienced a different sort of shock to the system. There on the big screen, in a file-footage scene showing McNamara arriving at a Pentagon conference room, was Muller's late father, Jack Mansfield, a Navy captain who in the mid-1960s served as deputy secretary to the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff. Though the scene passed by in a flash, it haunted Muller.

"I was so shaken by the image of my dad, the ghosts that didn't stay settled," she says. "It was very much Hamlet's ghost for me."

In recent weeks, Muller and many other Americans have been reminded, yet again, that the Vietnam War, though long over, is far from dead. Decades after the conflict ended in a bitter and humiliating defeat for the United States, the contorted feelings and deep social conflicts that Vietnam laid bare are being resurrected in movies, revisited in the 2004 presidential contest and debated in newspapers and across the World Wide Web with renewed heat.

For many of those who experienced the war firsthand, and for millions of others on the turbulent home front, Vietnam remains a generation-defining experience. And like a jungle pathway, the deeper one ventures into the heart of that experience, the more complex and unpredictable the trail may become.

"It's a tar baby," says Tobias Wolff, author of a highly acclaimed memoir about his Vietnam service, "In Pharaoh's Army," describing what it was like for him to write about the war. "I guess we'll never stop telling [the story of Vietnam]. We can't help seeing it as a template, when people's characters were disciplined in a moment of risk, of crisis" -- or not, as the case may have been.


The persistence of memory

The reemergence of Vietnam in the nation's consciousness is occurring on multiple fronts. Last year's U.S.-led war to depose Saddam Hussein, and the rebuilding process that has followed, has set Republicans and Democrats feuding over whether Iraq is "another Vietnam." Antiwar liberals have hurled the Q-word, "quagmire," at conservatives, who've accused their opponents of undermining the war effort and sabotaging troop morale in the same way that the tie-dyed protesters who smoked dope, burned their draft cards and fled to Canada supposedly did 35 years ago.

Vietnam also has moved to the front lines of the 2004 presidential contest, as two Vietnam-era veterans, President George W. Bush and Democratic front-runner Sen. John Kerry, have traded rhetorical fire over their wartime service records.

While the president's advocates have been defending him against allegations that he shirked part of his Air National Guard duty, Kerry partisans have been trying to defend their man against accusations that he betrayed his fellow veterans by protesting against the war after returning from Vietnam as a decorated hero. An apparently doctored photo of Kerry sitting next to "Hanoi Jane" Fonda at an antiwar rally heaped fuel on an already combustible exchange.

Despite the political acrimony that still surrounds Vietnam, the actual reasons for the war are slowly receding from view, particularly among younger Americans. "The American family is split between those who lived through Vietnam and those who didn't and don't get it," says Muller, adding that her own daughters can't understand baby boomers' obsession with the war. That generation gap may be giving rise to a more abstracted idea of the war, in which issues of personal conduct -- loyalty, bravery, honor -- take precedence over questions of whether Vietnam was justifiable in the realpolitik calculus of the Cold War.

Jerry Lembcke, a former chaplain's assistant with the 41st artillery group in the central highlands of Vietnam and now a professor of sociology and anthropology at College of Holy Cross in Worcester, Mass., says that over time popular attention to Vietnam has come to focus heavily on the individual combatant rather than on larger political and military themes. For many Americans today, Lembcke suggests, the mental image of the war isn't McNamara and his best and brightest cohorts plotting domino theories but the Vietnam veteran, usually depicted as a psychologically crippled figure, who served his country honorably, then came home to be screamed at or spat upon.

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