From the 2012 Archives
(Originally posted 3/30/2012 , titled “On The Occasion of the 30th Anniversary of the Dedication of the Vietnam War Memorial,” first published as a Guest Editorial for the Eugene, Oregon, Register-Guard, May, 2008.)
As I reflect on Monday’s Memorial Day ceremonies [5/26/08] at Springfield [OR] Memorial Gardens, especially the dedication of the new Vietnam Veterans’ monument, I can’t help remembering that era that was so difficult for returning soldiers. One of my [then] husband’s wartime anecdotes reveals the crux of the problem.
It was 1968. As the planeload of troops, including my husband, headed back from their tour of duty in Vietnam neared the United States, the word was: ditch your uniforms and don civilian clothes as soon as possible or risk being targets for angry war protesters taking it out on – you.
The protesters, it seemed, saw in the returning GIs only U.S. foreign policies they abhorred, motives they judged and statistics they questioned.
War-weary soldiers, thinking they were headed back to the haven of homeland, stepped instead from the mud and blood of Southeast Asian jungles into a hostile political jungle.
They came back to a fast-growing culture of contempt for all things military with its own “collateral damage”- them.
The streets and campuses of the United States were a new and unexpected kind of front line.
Soldiers – and sailors, marines, airmen and merchant marines – had become point men for the collective anti-war angst.
After dodging bullets and bombs over there, over here they had to dodge the spit and spite of an anti-war body-politic unable to distinguish war mongers from warriors.
Rage against the “military industrial complex,” the decade’s cause celebre, had trickled down fast to the war’s unwitting and literal foot soldiers, most of whom had responded to duty’s call – or the draft – as best they could, as most soldiers do. With honor. Perseverance. Life and limb.
And other Americans, perhaps in the passion of youthful protest, confusing politics with people, now trampled on the soldiers’ service like they trampled on the flag in city after city, rally after rally.
Many veterans, like my husband, quietly tucked away their uniforms and medals, avoided talk of the war and got on with civilian life, reminiscing saved for friends, loved ones or no one.
Other veterans, bone-wearied by the battle for the homeland, the battle in the homeland – or both – wandered away from patriotism, war buddies and Memorial Day ceremonies for a while.
And a few, though physically back, left something crucial of mind and spirit in the literal and figurative war zones of the Vietnam era. They became the “missing in action” of another kind.
America, however, having survived the unruly brand of 1960s protests and, perhaps, having matured some, has begun in recent years to mend the ragged ends and pieces of how Vietnam veterans were treated.
Vietnam veterans’ memorials, like that recently unveiled in Springfield (Oregon), rise now in many towns near monuments honoring veterans from less controversial wars before and after.
Ceremonial speeches reveal deeper understanding about the nature of war, especially war that is not black and white waged against enemies who are not clearly defined, and about the cost of the freedom to protest, a cost paid in the proverbial and very real blood, sweat and tears of soldiers and their families.
And in more and more cities and towns, a special point is made of welcoming home those who served in Southeast Asia and who were not received back in the same grateful spirit in which we have welcomed veterans of all other wars.
As I reflect on Monday’s ceremonies, especially on the importance of apologizing and making amends it seems a fitting time to renew dedication to the compassion that must temper passion and commitment that must follow conviction lest enmity trump empathy and another war begin.
Beneath all the red, white and blue, the ceremony and circumstance, the wreaths and tears, Memorial Day is about a bit of time to pause and reflect and renew, a more crucial time, perhaps, than we give credit, to gather, remember and honor – and to change, if need be.
And this year, to say, one more time, with gratitude, “Thanks, Vietnam veterans.”
Post Script: I’ve always thought this song epitomized that era, in particular, 1968-1971, the years I attended the University of Oregon and two older brothers served overseas, one in Korea, the other in Vietnam. In many respects, it epitomizes what’s been going on in this era, as well.
UPDATE: another “memorial” to Vietnam veterans, those still MIA, in today’s news: