Unforgettable Vietnam and its Burdens: Twenty-Five Years After the War’s End

Unforgettable Vietnam and its Burdens: Twenty-Five Years After the War’s End

The afterlife of the Vietnam War has lasted longer now than the war itself. Time makes new wounds. A host of legends clamor to make the disaster mean something.

First things first. Symbolic Vietnam ought not to obscure the existence of the actual Vietnam, or rather, actual Vietnams, places and people who make up a country that lives apart from metaphorical meanings in American minds. It is reported, I hope accurately, that President Clinton wants to visit the actual Vietnam during his last year in office. Such a visit would surely be healthy for Americans and probably also for the Vietnamese. Americans may not be the most ethnocentric of peoples but we are surely not the least ethnocentric either; nothing begins to make a territory real to the American consciousness—that blur at once parochial and ethereal—than for it to become, for one shining moment, the object of the cameras and scribblers that accompany an American president on tour. For all our decades of argument, grief, “healing,” and highly selective memory since the last American soldier switched off the light at the end of the tunnel; for all the symbolic deployments of one or another “Vietnam” as markers of American manhood, or treachery, or error, few Americans know more than a cliché or two about the place that three American presidents found to be worth devastating in the name of historical good. It would be useful for the media to devote to Vietnam one ten-thousandth of the attention lavished upon greatest hits lists. At the least, we owe some of our precious attention to the society of living Vietnamese.

The actual Vietnam is, of course, the place where some two to three million Vietnamese died in an unwarranted, disgraceful war, and where much physical injury persists. Although there is plenty of blame to distribute, surely the moral statute of limitations on American responsibility has not run out. In particular, there are the many victims of Agent Orange and other gruesome weapons of war to whom the United States owes assistance. There are also the here-and-now Vietnamese working in often miserable factories making shoes for Nike and other American companies. Their well-being ought to be a matter of interest to an American president looking for legacies.

So some knowledge of the actual Vietnam would be fitting. Odds are that the uses and misuses of symbolic Vietnam will continue. It is probably inevitable that memories of unique events, especially traumatic ones, harden under the pressures of history into precedents and prototypes; people will go on fighting over the meanings of huge histories they barely begin to understand. One intellectual stratagem is to revive the great game of dominoes. In a tendentious new book that received deferential reviews last fall but royally deserved the thumping it got from Eric Alterman (Dissent, Winter 2000) Michael Lind defends the war as an unavoidable move in an indisputably righteous and ret...