WASHINGTON — WASHINGTON'S decision to restore diplomatic ties with Vietnam, like the war itself, has revealed bitter divisions in the American veteran community.
For many, especially United States businesspeople anxious to plunge into the promising Vietnamese market, President Clinton's restoring diplomatic relations was a day of reckoning long overdue. But for others, it was a compromise of US integrity for the sake of commercialism.
Ironically, 20 years after they sat in jungle foxholes pointing M-16s at the Viet Cong, many former American soldiers are today among the corporate executives pushing for better relations.
"It's very appropriate for us to help them develop their country - if they develop economically, they'll be less interested in waging war," says Larry Bowles, a former US Navy officer and now director of government affairs for Halliburton & Co., a Dallas-based engineering construction firm.
Mr. Bowles sees Vietnam as a market of 74 million consumers, ripe for US-built roads, bridges, and tunnels.
But other veterans see the commercial motive for renewing ties with Vietnam as morally wrong.
"To let bygones be bygones without demanding that these people account for each American who was ever missing in Vietnam is an outrageous thing - an insult to anybody who would fight for freedom for this country or any other country," says Jeremy Akers, a decorated former marine commander who called in air and artillery strikes during the war.
Mr. Akers, an environmental consultant in Washington, says all the lobbying and high-profile support for restoration of ties drowns out veterans' voices like his own.
'They're just like us'
But Bowles, who was stationed on a US Navy vessel near Da Nang, and spent a tour of duty pulling dead marines from the water and shadowing Russian spy trawlers, says he lost his prejudice toward the Vietnamese later as a member of the Dallas chapter of the Vietnam Vets of America. "Our group worked very hard with the local Vietnamese community, and it was difficult to put a war mask on these people," he recalls. "Once you get rid of the cultural differences, you find they're just like us."
By the 1980s, Bowles was among many advocates lobbying hard for the removal of the US trade embargo against Vietnam. US prohibitions have had "a regional impact on our business. Foreign competitors have practically operated as sole practitioners in many Vietnamese markets where the US would have been their main challenger, and they've been able to use their profit margins to low-ball us in other Asian markets."
Bowles wants to get US government export and investment guarantees so that his company can extend the same or better terms that foreign competitors are offering the Vietnamese.
Like Bowles, Robert Haines makes no apologies for unresolved POW and MIA issues. "Everyone agrees on the goal to resolve them - you can achieve that by being engaged with the Vietnamese. And the more you expose people to democracy and capitalism, the more they will be comfortable with them," asserts Mr. Haines, a West Point graduate. He was an officer in an armoured cavalry unit in 1971 charged with protecting an airfield in Vietnam.
A decade later, when he joined Mobil Corporation, "I'd already resolved my feelings. I felt we should move forward," Haines recalls. As the oil giant's government relations representative in Washington, he has pushed hard to move Mobil into the lucrative Vietnamese energy sector.
But Akers, who was awarded the silver star and multiple purple hearts, says the Clinton administration's decision to renew ties with Vietnam further reduces his diminishing faith in the US government.
"I used to be such a strong believer, I couldn't accept that we left POWs and MIAs behind," he says. "I did not think that our government would ever let that happen. I knew there were remains, but I couldn't conceive that our government could possibly leave living men there. The horror of knowing your country has abandoned you."
Akers, a former Justice Department attorney, has long-shunned veterans' issues. "I've always considered Vietnam vet groups to be cry-baby groups - a lot of people who bound together looking to gain for themselves. And I was strongly opposed to the Vietnam vet memorial - you don't need a monument for doing your duty."
But recently released KGB files on POWS and MIAs coupled with POW searches have left him "completely convinced" of Veteran groups claims. "I owe them a great apology," Akers says, addding "The Vietnamese clearly kept our men as bargaining chips all these years, but they finally got to the point that if we learned about the POWs and MIAs, it would have damaged chances for diplomatic relations.
"I've always hated communism and dictatorships. But a communist dictatorship is against freedom, the human spirit, and everything that is worth anything in life."
Meanwhile, Joe Bangert, a helicopter-door machine gunner during the war, is capitalizing on his military experience these days. Employing his language and aviation training, he now operates a jet-handling company in Hanoi for international firms flying their aircraft in and out of Vietnam for tours and business. The restoration of relations, he says, "finally brings closure to this era of Vietnam as a pronoun for a war."