Christmas in Vietnam

HOLIDAY season in a war zone: 1968. I was at a base camp, one of half a million American men and women stationed in Vietnam.

Christmas in a war zone is bittersweet. Spirits lift, feelings of optimism and friendship are welcomed and embraced; but at the same time there's the constant realization of being in a combat zone, and with it an ineffable, terrible loneliness.

We were separated from those we loved and detached from the daily events in American life that made 1968 one of the most tumultuous years in recent United States history. We were at war.

Like the majority of Americans in Vietnam, I was involved in combat support operations. I'd arrived in March 1968, six weeks after the major Tet offensive. And, while Vietnam was the focus of news, much that was outside played - and preyed - upon our emotions.

Soon after arriving, I heard a broadcast of President Lyndon Johnson's surprising declaration, ``I will not accept the nomination of my party as your president.'' Did this mean, somehow, peace was nearer at hand?

In April, I learned with shock, sadness, and pain of Martin Luther King's assassination, and felt frustration at the slow beginnings of the Paris peace talks in May - which would take almost seven years. And I felt enormous shock - again - when Bobby Kennedy was assassinated in June. That summer, I read about the political conventions in Miami and Chicago, of Yippies and hippies, and of more numbing violence.

Hope was renewed in the fall when President Johnson declared a halt to the bombing of North Vietnam, but that hope was replaced by disappointment when Richard Nixon, not Hubert Humphrey, was elected president. And then it was Christmas. Bob Hope, Ann-Margret, and Rosey Grier came to our base to entertain us. Thousands attended, but what I remember most were the surrounding hills ringed with guards, weapons at the ready, for an attack that never came.

On Christmas Eve the people with whom I worked got together and set up an artificial tree with tinsel, ornaments, and paper cutouts. We sang carols, exchanged inexpensive gifts. And our first sergeant managed to come up with trays overflowing with cold cuts, salads, fresh fruit, bread and rolls, and cake.

Christmas Day itself was quiet. Wherever possible throughout Vietnam, it was a day of rest. Worship services were held, and the mess halls served a dinner from half a world away: turkey, corn-bread stuffing, cranberry sauce, sweet potatoes, and apple pie. The Red Cross passed out gift packages put together by volunteers back in the States.

For those few days at least it was a time of peace.

Many years have passed. I often think back. But the holiday image I carry is not of a sunbaked Army base, visiting VIPs, or mess-hall tables in a combat zone incongruously laden with food. Nor is it the image of lonely servicemen, or a sad people whose land was being systematically destroyed. It is, instead, an image from late Christmas Eve. On that night, when one more religious than I might have sought a star to lead the way, on that night I sat outside my bunker and looked up toward the moon.

It was the era of our earliest Apollo spaceflights; the moon landing would not come until the following summer. But I knew from news reports that three men were silently, peacefully circling the moon - the first men ever to travel so far into space. I knew that three days later, those same men would splash down in the Pacific.

And I was overwhelmed by the realization that it was easier to send those three men to the moon and get them back safely than it was for me to get home - and for my fellow servicemen to get home, for the war to end, and for people somehow to live at peace.

If, almost 20 years later, a frustration remains, it is this: I don't see that things have changed much.

Even after this month's summit in Washington, I continue to ask: Have we learned the lessons of our past? Is there an end to the violence we do upon ourselves?

At a time of peace, at this season of peace, these remain sobering thoughts.

James G. Lubetkin is vice-president of Edward Howard & Co., a public relations firm in Cleveland.

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