Few events in American history cast so long and dark a shadow as the Vietnam War. Others were more catastrophic; the Great Depression and the Civil War, for instance.
But the Depression, heartbreaking though it was, did not really divide the country, and its anguish was replaced by the glory and unity of World War II. It all seemed worth it, as prosperity and freedom followed the fears of the Thirties.
The Civil War, although it killed almost half a million Americans, did result in the freeing of the slaves and the preservation of the Union. Even white Southerners can cling to the “romance” of the Lost Cause and the nobility of people like Robert E. Lee.
But in looking at the Vietnam conflict, it’s difficult to find much to think well about. Despite the death of nearly 60,000 Americans and the expending of endless treasure, the Communists eventually triumphed (after U.S. troops pulled out), and the nation went through a decade or more of self-doubt.
The war ended the draft, which is a mixed blessing. There’s no longer the threat of compulsory military service, but the volunteer armed forces have proven to be extremely expensive, and some people worry that the practice insulates us unduly from the consequences of war.
But that’s all pretty academic. The Vietnam War legacy is in Garden Grove this week with the arrival of “The Moving Wall” exhibit, a half-size replica of the Vietnam War Memorial. It will doubtless bring back memories of the war to many who lived through those trying years.
The Vietnam War was the war of my generation, people born during the baby boom years of 1946-1964. If not a veteran of that time, many of our era sweated out the fear of being drafted, or seeing a boyfriend, brother or friend called into service.
Without the patriotic hoopla of the Second World War, there was little in the way of psychological or emotional support from society for those drafted, especially as opposition to the war mounted.
So those who did go to war in that time not only had their lives interrupted, but faced the threat of death or disfigurement. All without the praise and honors that soldiers of previous generations were accorded.
Garden Grove boys and men left the suburbs, served in a strange land 10,000 miles away, and – if they were lucky – returned with nothing worse than emotional scars.
Forty-one men from this city didn’t return at all, and many more came back with wounds or injuries they would carry with them all their lives.
A lot of myths are associated with the war. That America was defeated. That Viet war veterans are likely to be crazed or drug addicts. That Americans lacked the resolve to keep up a prolonged, frustrating struggle.
The truth is that America was not defeated militarily. The North Vietnamese Army successfully invaded the south two years after U.S. forces left. Most Vietnam veterans came home to become respected valuable citizens, many rising to positions of high leadership.
While the war in Southeast Asia was not a success, it did contribute to a rebuilding of American military might that would win three more wars. Despite the continuing violence in Iraq and Afghanistan, those conflicts can fairly be seen only as victories, at least for the present.
The notion that all wars after Vietnam would be “media wars” has proven to be false, or at least overstated. Public disenchantment with our wars hasn’t ever stopped them.
Even if Americans grow weary, they can’t bring themselves to just retreat and call it a day.
That same built-in desire to “get the job done,” whatever the cost, is what our Vietnam veterans showed then, and what makes America still – despite our present disappointments – the leader of the world.
It was all part of the great American parade, and those who served at Saigon and Khe Sanh and Hue and Cam Ranh Bay all deserve an honored place in the procession.