The year for remembrance of wars past

NINETEEN eighty-five seems to be the year in which we are determined to understand, once and for all, our past wars. Politicians, historians, and journalists are all working overtime to reconcile us with our enemies, in the case of World War II, or reconcile us with ourselves, in the case of Vietnam. Every possible combination of forgive and forget (or forgive and don't forget) is being urged upon us as we gather 40 years later, and 10 years later, at tribal rituals of remembrance -- from parades, like the one for Vietnam veterans in New York, to graveside ceremonies, like the one at Bitburg.

Wreaths are laid, memorial walls are visited -- everything is done to remind us. But remind us of what?

It is as if, in the midst of today's troubled peace, we are taking time-travels to old battlefields to explain to ourselves why we fought then, and why we should fight or not fight new battles in Central America (or wherever) now.

Through a combination of nostalgia and rigorous recollection we seek perspective. From the Normandy beaches to the Ho Chi Minh Trail, firepower explodes on our living room screens, accompanied by the intermittent wisdom of commentary. An older Morley Safer journeys back to Saigon. The voice of Edward R. Murrow is replayed from blitzed London.

But rather than consoling our hearts, all these acts of retrospection are proving more emotional, more confusing, than anybody could have foreseen. In the spirit of the New Patriotism, one heads out to one commemorative ceremony or another with a bouquet of flowers, a bugler, and a color guard -- what could be simpler? -- and runs into a devastating cross fire of contradictory feelings.

Just the opposite effect to what we hoped for! On these neatly rounded anniversaries, we crave for neatly rounded lessons.

But what is the ``lesson'' of Vietnam? Pick your multiple-choice answer:

1. The lesson is that of the quagmire, every Vietnam correspondent's favorite metaphor. We should never again allow ourselves to be sucked into a war so remote from our national interests -- a war in which we have no business.

2. The lesson is that communism is our enemy -- it is always our business, and it must be confronted with military force wherever it plays the aggressor if we don't want all the dominos to topple some sad day.

3. Forget all the pros and cons! The real lesson is the soldier's elementary wisdom: Never get into any war for any reason without doing everything that needs to be done to win it.

When the Vietnam war started, most Americans supported it, voting for Lesson 2 or 3. By 1975, most Americans felt it had all been a mistake, voting for No. 1. Now there is perhaps less of a consensus than ever, except for the decent instinct that, right war or wrong war, we should respect the soldiers who suffered the consequences.

Vietnam is always going to be our great ambiguity, but what about the other anniversary, World War II? Those, we keep saying, were simpler times, and surely 40 years provides enough distance to read the ``lesson'' here.

Trouble is, by contrasting it with Vietnam, we have made World War II look almost too simple. World War II was a just war -- maybe the last of the just wars, or so we keep saying.

If only Right and Wrong could be so clear again! If only our wars since then -- or in the future -- could be a ``crusade,'' as Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower called World War II.

In 1985, our repulsion for war -- especially World War III -- seems to vie with our passion to purify ourselves in the case of past wars.

But Eisenhower, as president, also knew that the best of wars is the worst of political solutions. In World War II, as in every war, young men were killed in quantity. The artifacts of civilization -- cathedrals, factories, homes -- were reduced to rubble. The social fabric was rent in ways beyond measuring. Greed, the third army on every battlefield, fed upon exorbitant profits; in his farewell address President Eisenhower found it imperative to remind us of that.

As a military man stepping down from civilian power, he understood that our attitude toward past wars influences our decisions about present and future wars, and so, at the end, he took his retrospection with a certain proper dread, as we should too. Unless we are so cynical as to assume that history offers no political alternatives to brute force, we will find every war ambiguous.

No neat ``lessons.''

But as our thoughts and emotions swirl, one clarifying distinction can be made:

In this year of anniversaries it is important to honor the soldiers.

In this year that also marks the 40th anniversary of the Atomic Age, it is important not to honor war.

A Wednesday and Friday column

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