Vietnam: Separating warrior from war

THE United States is beginning to put the turbulent memories of Vietnam into perspective. After an initial phase of collective silence in the late 1970s, the nation was swamped by waves of movies and reports about the war in Southeast Asia and the many problems American veterans faced in reintegrating themselves with society.

While many Vietnam-era veterans still face serious challenges, the nation has begun what one analyst calls the ``long, steady healing process.''

Indications of this include the willingness of many communities to publicly commemorate, not only the veterans of Vietnam, but also those who fought in another undeclared war in Korea. Course materials on Vietnam are now routinely taught in many universities and even in some high schools.

``Vietnam was a desert experience for an entire generation,'' says John Wheeler, president of the Project on the Vietnam Generation, a non-profit group that studies the generation that came of age during the Vietnam era. As a result, he says, it has been tough to put the war, and the events associated with it, into perspective.

For example, many positive aspects of the environmental, women's, and civil rights movements have tended to blur together with the tragic combination of war, political assassinations, and scandals that marked the late 1960s and early 1970s.

Sorting out and emphasizing the positive developments of the era is one of the goals of Mr. Wheeler's group, founded last year and housed at the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of American History.

Today, says Wheeler, there's greater willingness among Americans to distinguish between the controversial events of the period and the personal sacrifices and accomplishments of the Vietnam generation (defined as those now between the ages of 32 and 49).

Experts in veterans affairs say a major turning point was the 1982 dedication of the National Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C. Critics of the project, who together with advocates have dubbed the black granite structure simply The Wall, said the design was too negative and would not aid in healing the rifts in society caused by the war.

But advocates of the memorial, such as Jan Scruggs, who led the group that obtained funding for it, contend it has been beneficial. ``Americans still debate the war, but the service of veterans is no longer the subject of scorn. People have separated the war from the warrior,'' Mr. Scruggs recently told a group of reporters here.

One illustration of this is the growing number of state and local Vietnam veterans memorials being built around the country. At least seven state memorials - scattered from Portland, Ore., to Albany, N.Y. - are scheduled to be dedicated in events related to Tuesday's Veterans Day celebrations. Another three county memorials as well as a school district memorial will also be unveiled.

Indeed, the country appears to be in the midst of a veterans memorial building boom.

According to a new survey conducted by the Project on the Vietnam Generation, at least 143 Vietnam veterans memorials, ranging from modest plaques in high schools to full-blown monuments, are completed or planned in 45 states, Puerto Rico, and American Samoa. It's estimated that $20 million has been spent so far on these projects.

Most of these memorial efforts are led by Vietnam veterans and have relied primarily on private and corporate support.

``We wanted a symbol of healing and reconciliation,'' says Robert Waechter, a Vietnam veteran who led the move to establish a local Vietnam veterans memorial in Kansas City, Mo. The memorial, dedicated last May, is a park with a series of pools and fountains arranged in growing then diminishing sizes: ``to symbolize America's increasing involvement, then de-escalation of the war.''

The last pool is a divided reflecting pool, ``symbolizing the divided attitudes which remain'' about the events of the period.

Some of the new memorials are additions to existing war monuments. Others are new monuments dedicated to combatants from several recent wars, such as the new state memorial in Oklahoma City that recognizes veterans from all US wars fought since World War I.

The move to build Vietnam memorials highlights an ongoing debate over how to honor veterans of the Korean War. Last month, Congress authorized construction of a national Korean War memorial to be built in Washington, D.C., or its suburbs.

While many of the new Vietnam memorials are traditional combinations of stone and statue, some contain the unique imprint of the ``social enlightenment'' of the Vietnam era.

Two of the new monuments recognize the role of women, and a move is underway to add a statue of a woman to the national monument here. (The monument includes statues of three male soldiers and a flagpole in addition to The Wall.) Four of the memorials incorporate blacks in their design, including a statue in New Castle County, Del., which portrays a black soldier carrying the body of a white comrade.

Not everyone is pleased with the move to build memorials. Indeed, some critics label them ``tombstones.''

Partially to address such concerns, some of the proposed projects are designed as so-called living memorials: education centers that teach about Vietnam and counseling centers for veterans and their families. The proposed state memorial in Rhode Island would include a speakers bureau with teams - each composed of one veteran, one Southeast Asian, and other members of the public who were affected by the war - that would visit schools and teach about the war's impact.

Some experts say the move toward building monuments reflects the growing distance felt by many Americans from the war.

Dr. William Hochman, a professor of history at Colorado College who has studied how wars are portrayed in literature and textbooks, says writing about Vietnam is beginning to ``recede into the more traditional treatment, with a focus on strategy and mobilization. What's left out is the agony and the personal experience.''

In one book, for instance, Dr. Hochman found that the growing unpopularity of the war was mentioned, but the reasons behind this were never fully explained. ``Writing on the war is very detached and abstract,'' says Hochman, who worries that lessons learned in Vietnam may be lost if such trends continue. Vietnam-related courses, however, are still popular on many college and university campuses.

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