THIS time the Americans are winning in Vietnam. It is not a war they are winning, but a belated peace. Increasingly, small groups of American veterans of the war in Southeast Asia are returning to Vietnam for short visits - usually several weeks.
While many veterans remain bitter over their harsh war experience, a growing number are going back to meet the former enemy. Several interviewed since their trips report the Vietnamese are not only forgiving, but eager to be friends with Americans.
These are veterans leaving behind what one calls ``time-frozen images'' of old horrors.
A typical comment comes from one Massachusetts veteran: ``I met with my former enemy, and I have respect for him,'' says David Pye, executive director of North Shore Veterans Counseling Services Inc., in Beverly, Mass. ``This visit has helped me put a finality on the battle.''
Both men and women veterans say a return trip has helped them, more than anything else, to shed memories of war. In addition to finding individual peace, several feel they may also be helping, indirectly, to push the United States government toward a revision of its tough Vietnam policy.
Groups from Seattle, Akron, Boston, and other areas have made the trip. Fifteen Massachusetts residents arrived at Logan Airport in Boston in late January after a three week tour of Vietnam. Mr. Pye was among them.
Pye's group of 12 Massachusetts veterans made the trip in connection with the Full Circle Project. Another group will go in May as part of the project sponsored by the William Joiner Foundation for the Study of War and Its Social Consequences, at the University of Massachusetts in Boston. The other three traveller's on Pye's trip were Joiner staff members, also veterans.
``Some of the people we met with were former regular army and Viet Cong soldiers,'' says Bernard McClusky, president of Vietnam Veterans of Massachusetts. ``One man I talked with was in the Viet Cong for 15 years. He said both of his parents were killed during the war. I said to him, `I share your grief.' And we embraced. Believe me, 15 years ago I would not have thought that possible.
``Our group went together to see if we could find healing and recovery from the effects of war,'' Mr. McClusky says. ``It's clear that the Vietnamese feel a strong connection to the Americans, positive ones. We here are still fighting the war, but they are not.''
Judy Tracy was one of three women on the Full Circle trip. A nurse, she worked during her Vietnam years at a refugee center hospital, treating Vietnamese, including many children. ``In that work, I saw the war from inside out,'' she says. ``I know what happened to the civilians in the country, and to our forces.''
Ms. Tracy says she returned from this trip with love for the Vietnamese - and adds that the feeling has never really left her.
``I left there years ago with love for them,'' she says. ``What do we want to hold on to, violence and hate? The Vietnamese are a most gracious people, they have perspective, and they are forgiving.''
Veterans interviewed say they feel that improved US relations with Vietnam would help liberalize that nation and move it away from communism.
In conversation, their focus tends not to be on the brutalities of the Communist government, but more to the point that Vietnamese deserve to be considered as nationalists first.
History shows the Vietnamese fighting for independence from China for nearly 1,000 years, from the French for 100 years, and finally with the Americans.
``The Vietnamese people, as well as their government, distinguish between us [US veterans] and our government,'' says Ed Miles, a disabled veteran. Mr. Miles, who works in Washington for the Vietnam Veterans of America, went back to Vietnam recently. He and others say it appears that nearly every country in the world except the US now trades with Vietnam.
Last year, it looked as if the US Treasury Department would halt group travel to Vietnam by veterans. The department warned a group in Akron, Ohio, that organized travel to Vietnam violated the Trading with the Enemy Act of 1917. The veterans were told such a trip might lead to fines and imprisonment.
So the Akron veterans went to the American Civil Liberties Union. A press conference was held in Washington by the ACLU and veterans to tell the story. The ACLU is continuing in the case, and apparently the Treasury has backed off. Several veterans say they believe the US State Department works with the Treasury to limit such return trips.
A spokesman for the Treasury Department and a State Department source both deny any intent to restrict travel. Individual veterans are free to go on their own (which is very difficult), they say.
``This is a policy from the White House, and the Hill [Congress] wants it that way,'' the State Department source says. ``There are high policy reasons.''
Bush administration policy toward Vietnam is intertwined with its desire to force Vietnam to cooperate in settling the civil war in Cambodia, the State Department source says.
Through their need to find peace in themselves, veterans have drawn attention to current US policy. Several of them hope that if the Cambodian peace process advances this year, the US policy toward will warm a bit after being in the deep freeze for so long.