There’s a small, but long-running dance between me and City Weekly President and Executive Editor John Saltas. Every three months or so, Saltas asks whether I’ve read Bao Ninh’s The Sorrow of War, a book he loaned me almost three years ago. Frankly, I’m surprised Saltas hasn’t asked me that question lately.
Of course I’ve yet to read it. Not that I don’t want to. Given the time, I’d crack it open. It’s just that, since 9/11, I’ve yet to make it all the way through Mark Huband’s Warriors of the Prophet: The Struggle for Islam. Now, given the latest row between presidential candidate Sen. John Kerry and Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, I feel even less inclined to brush up on America’s ill-fated adventure in Vietnam.
This is a war that refuses to go away. Even today, faced with the challenges of international terrorism, health-care costs only millionaires can afford, and a Medicare budget that threatens to bankrupt taxpayers, a contentious core of die-hards insists on arguing whether or not Kerry really took fire in the Mekong Delta. In deference to Saltas, a man who respects most war veterans regardless of political stripe, he ain’t one of those die-hards. My boss simply believes understanding the current political conscience in this country is impossible without a thorough understanding of Vietnam. To paraphrase William Faulkner, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”
Both Saltas and Faulkner are right. But the generation that lived through this war tends to believe younger upstarts know only Marlon Brando’s speaking lines in Apocalypse Now. Not true. Voyeur-like, I’ve seen people weep at the Vietnam Veteran’s Memorial in Washington, D.C. And Ninh’s book aside, I have read Michael Herr’s Dispatches and Stanley Karnow. We all know the stats: More than 60,000 Americans lost their lives, and lots more committed suicide or became homeless afterward, over a war for which their was no excuse. Like Richard Nixon said, “Rarely have so many people been so wrong about so much.” And don’t forget the people of Vietnam, who lived and died through it all because one nation with its myopic Cold War attitude never heard of Dien Bien Phu.
For all its confusion and tragedy, perhaps the only lesson Vietnam taught us is that the only country worth fighting and dying for is your own. Then again, those who lived through that era might say I’ve no right to say anything about the war at all. But if Vietnam is the war that refuses to go away, at some point we have to let go of it.
Call Kerry an opportunist for showing his medals. What really puzzles people of my generation is that the Swifties would be selfish enough to drag this election back to a place it doesn’t belong. Add another item to the great list of tragedies the Vietnam War brought down on our heads: Almost 30 years after its end, it still consumes our time, energy and thoughts when we could be focused on the future. With all due respect to Saltas, I’ll read Ninh’s book one day. But I could read all the books in the world and still never understand the Vietnam War’s bizarre grip on our national psyche.