Seeking reconciliation in Vietnam

Increasingly, veterans are returning to Vietnam trying to `reconnect the past with the present.' Today's Home Forum offers insights as to why.

IN 1982, when the Vietnam Veterans' Memorial was dedicated in Washington, few could have predicted its impact or significance to veterans or to the nation. Yet the dedication set a process in motion. Against the reflecting surface of black granite etched with the names of the 58,000 dead, we began again a dialogue with Vietnam.

For many of us, that dialogue had never been broken completely. From assembly lines to board rooms to marriage beds, the smells and sights of Vietnam had often been intruders into the scenes of our everyday life.

Vietnam was where we spent our youth; some would say where we lost it. Vietnam was the place, others would say, where we lost our innocence. At the very least, it was a place, real and symbolic, that still held us.

For most Americans the Vietnam war was an experience of sights and sounds presented through television, magazines, and newspapers. The experience and the filter for it were mediated through the voice of others. When the war ended, the images faded. Vietnam ceased to exist.

This was not so for the soldiers. For us the voices and images remained, seeking an appropriate language, beyond that of dreams, for articulation.

Fifteen years have passed since American disengagement from Vietnam. Now for many veterans it seems the time has come for reengagement, for a new campaign of hearts and minds, a campaign that involves returning to the land where they fought.

The numbers are not overwhelming, but for the past three years there has been a steady stream of veterans returning to Vietnam. The motivations, combat experiences, and ideological leanings of these veterans have been diverse, but for all the simple act of going has been an affirmation.

It is a step that involves risk. To touch down again in Vietnam is to take the first wary step into the silent worlds locked in the reflecting granite of the memorial. To return again is to attempt to crack the wall of silence.

The first time around, most of us went to the war and returned alone. We returned to silence. Talking about the war, about Vietnam as more than a domestic political crisis, made people uncomfortable.

And what could we talk about? Our own efforts, idealism, brave deeds, or malfeasance had no context in either an individual or a historical sense once the war had ended and Vietnam had disappeared from the map.

We had gone to Vietnam for Vietnam, for the Vietnamese people, or so we had been told. And at the ages of 19 and 20, which most of us were, at a time when our futures were vague and our links with parents and adolescence dissolving, Vietnam, the country as well as the war, was the most vivid experience of our lives. It marked our moment of independence, our first enduring action in the world. And yet its final significance was only loss and destruction and silence.

Going back the second time around is an attempt, not to reclaim the past, but to reclaim its significance for us. It is an attempt to reassert through our own action the probity of our purposes. At 19 and 20, entering a first passage into maturity, we were caught between two worlds that destroyed each other. At 39 and 40, entering the second phase of our lives, we seek again to endow these worlds with meaning.

The problems of Vietnam are different today from what they were 20 years ago. Many of these problems are the consequences of the war. The effects of bombing, deforestation, lack of economic aid, are evident to the eye. Visits to hospitals and production centers for the disabled are chastening. Veterans who visit see there an opportunity through assistance to renew and redirect the history of their involvement.

Whether it be simply purchasing a cow for an orphanage, or chickens for a rehabilitation center for drug addicts and prostitutes, these actions take on deep significance. They redefine the contexts of memory, and perhaps redefine the history of the next 20 years. These actions speak, and speak loudly, for who we were and are as soldiers, veterans, and Americans.

Many veterans who have returned have spoken of a national effort by veterans to reforest the demilitarized zone. A campaign to ``plant a tree on the DMZ'' is an intriguing idea. It would mean creating a living memorial in Vietnam for all those who sacrificed.

In other areas individuals and organizations have proposed projects to assist Vietnam in fields such as health and rehabilitation. A veterans' peace corps, though unlikely to be funded by the government, might find more than a few recruits.

Going back, for many, stirs the mind, rekindles the imagination, and reopens the heart to hope. It cannot change the past, but it can reconnect the past with the present, so allowing the silence to be broken. Many veterans sense this intuitively and - as this country moves closer to diplomatic relations with Vietnam - want to claim their place in the process.

The costs of the war were borne on their shoulders and on the shoulders of Vietnam and the Vietnamese. The first overtures of reconciliation have been theirs and those of the Vietnamese. When the time comes for reconciliation, they want and deserve the opportunity to publicly write their own history, an opportunity they didn't have 20 years ago. If this happens, then perhaps an appropriate language may be found to free us from the past and to lead a new way into the future.

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