"The giant Vietnam Generation, now taking control of major institutions, cannot meet the future without understanding the haunting legacy of our Vietnam past. It is time to listen to each other's stories, find ways to talk about disagreements and move beyond the Vietnam-rooted divisiveness that still characterizes so much of our national life. We owe it to ourselves. We owe it to our kids and grandkids."
-- Marc Weiss
a generation has passed, but still the Vietnam War haunts us. Two of the more notable books of 1996, 22 years after the war's official end, are Robert MacNamara's semi-mea culpa, "In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam," and Paul Frederickson's "The Living and the Dead," the author's anguished attempt to come to terms with the former Secretary of Defense and what he did and didn't do during the war. The Internet is crammed with people excoriating Bill Clinton for his avoidance of Vietnam service. During the election, Bob Dole compared his World War II record with White House peaceniks who had "sacrificed nothing." After years of ducking conservative assaults, anti-war activists, led by David Harris and his new book, "Our War," have begun to reclaim their right to participate in the debate.
Two weeks ago, Marc Weiss, the creator of P.O.V., a PBS documentary series, launched a Web site in conjunction with the broadcast of the Academy Award-winning documentary on Maya Lin, the architect of the Vietnam Memorial in Washington, D.C. Entitled "Regarding Vietnam: Stories Since The War," the site encourages Americans to recall their personal experiences of the Vietnam era and how those experiences resonate today. Veterans and non-veterans alike post their stories, feelings and opinions: click on a "listen" button and you can hear songs written by veterans. And, of course, there is "dialogue" -- a chat board covering such subjects as "postwar trauma," the war's "impact on family relationships" and "searching for survivors."
The response has been encouraging, says Weiss. "What I find most gratifying is that people are dialoguing respectfully, disagreeing without flaming each other."
The site has attracted both writers who lived through the war, and younger people seeking to understand how it affected their lives. Pulitzer-prize winning journalist Sidney Schanberg wrote, for example, that because of Vietnam, "as a person I'm an optimist. As a journalist, I'm warier." "I am 30 years old and after viewing this website I realize the importance of speaking about Vietnam," wrote Joel Hernandez. "As part of the Post War Generation, we are in this together."
One of the hottest discussions concerns the anti-war movement. "I think that the time I and others spent fighting (protesting) against the war helped in some way to shorten the war. I am proud of what I did and understanding of those who fought. I cannot accuse those who fought," wrote Jed Proujansky. Jim Riddle angrily disagreed: "I believe that these self-righteous protestors cost many lives and extended the war."
Providing a site for dialogue among people with deep differences was a key motivation for Weiss. "Most chat groups on the Web consist of like-minded folks," he says. "We want to create a model where people with differing views can discuss some of the deep, emotional and divisive issues of our time, like race or abortion."
Participating on the Web site can be a deeply moving experience. I was surprised by how much long-suppressed emotion came surging up as I wrote my piece. Writing it brought home a simple fact: One can deny or ignore or suppress the pain of Vietnam, but one can never erase it.
"I asked [a brigadier general] what Vietnam meant to him," wrote Joe Galloway, a correspondent for U.S. News and World Report. "He replied 'Everything. It is the filter through which I see the world. Isn't it the same for you?' I nodded yes."
How was your life affected by the Vietnam war, even if you did not fight? How has it influenced your politics, your relationships, your feelings about the U.S.? Or do you think we are making too much of the "Vietnam syndrome"? Join the discussion in Table Talk.
| One man's experience
Laotian peasants were the first people I'd ever liked as a group. Honest. Gentle. Sincere. Above all, funny. They didn't work as hard as most folks. And there were no people you'd trust more in a pinch.
So it was more than a shock to interview that first Lao rice farmer who, with a sadness deeper than pain, described hiding from U.S. bombers for years on end. And all the rest: the little boy missing a leg, the girl with napalm wounds on her breasts and vagina, the man who wept as he described seeing his grandmother blown apart before his eyes. Innocent peasants, who did not even know where America was, hunted like animals, the victims mostly children and old folks. The guerrillas lived deep in the forest. They knew how to hide.
What hurt most was knowing that as I talked with these refugees, hundreds of thousands of others were being bombed that very moment. Sweet, kind, decent people were alive at that moment who would be dead by morning.
I remember most their eyes, eyes that I still see late at night, or when I shave. Expressive eyes, warm eyes, eyes filled with love. And something else. Or rather, without something else. Something missing.
I did not return from Indochina the same person who left. I not only distrusted my leaders, in the media and the military, but the human animal in general. For in those peasants' eyes I had seen the effect of something so dark and sick and deep in the human psyche that I would never again fully trust my fellow humans, nor find ultimate meaning in human purpose.
And yet I had also seen incredible strength, warmth and courage in those eyes a capacity for love and transcendence that coexisted with human pathology. That glimpse opened the door to other dimensions of existence, ones that I was only to grasp 25 years later, in the stillness of a meditation hall, as the sun was setting, when something broke and, finally, I discovered a peace within that I would never find in the world without.
What are the lessons of Vietnam? I would tell our descendants that it teaches us to trust ourselves, not our leaders; to find comfort in the spiritual, not the political realm; to identify more with other living beings than with nation, race or gender; and to remember that human affairs play a small part in the mystery of existence. And that in this realm it is necessary to resist social injustice and environmental blindness, because it is both morally right and in our self-interest. We thought we could destroy Vietnam without destroying ourselves. We were wrong. And until we acknowledge that wrong, things will never be right again.
Fred Branfman lived in Laos from 1967-71, serving for two years as an educational advisor with International Voluntary Services and then working to expose the U.S. secret air war against Laos as a freelance journalist. He was co-director of the Indochina Resource Center in D.C. from 1971-75, often visiting the region and helping to expose U.S. bombing of Cambodia and the mistreatment of political prisoners in South Vietnam. He is the author of "Voices From the Plain of Jars."
Mickey Mouse welfare
"It's a lot of money for what apparently was a mistake."
-- Executive compensation expert Graef Crystal on the estimated $90 million severance package for Michael Ovitz, who quit as Disney's No. 2 after one year on the job. (From "Ovitz to Leave Disney After Rocky Year as President," in Friday's Los Angeles Times)