WHEN PRESIDENT CLINTON LIFTed the trade embargo last week and finally ended the Vietnam War, he did it with an uncharacteristic absence of emotion, like a priest who had said a few too many funeral masses. Of course, the president knew no more about this war that he avoided than the living know of the dead. He was the least likely politician to say its benediction, but he did, and with political skill and no small measure of moral courage.
Clinton's solemn promise -and political fig leaf - was to continue pursuing "the fullest possible accounting for our prisoners of war and our missing in action." It's a moving and wonderful thing, his keeping faith to the last man. It's the draft dodger enshrining the ethics of the combat soldier look out for your buddy, no matter what. Clinton wants to be true to the families who still don't know.
War is many things, but unfortunately it's not a careful bookkeeper. It wastes lives and treasure like a spendthrift heir. War doesn't add up. The ledger doesn't balance. The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Washington is there for a reason: thousands of American dead from other wars are still missing, dead in unmarked graves, drowned, burned, vaporized, lost-unaccounted for. But Vietnam's different. We lost.
And so we see those extraordinary images of Americans digging up Vietnam looking toy the remains of any comrades in arms-digging in the jungle, in the rice paddies, digging for the last signs of our lost boys. for the last shreds of our lost honor, digging even in Vietnamese cemeteries, right through the bones of the beloved departed of Vietnamese families. As we were often told during the war, the Vietnamese don't place such a high value on life as we Americans do, so that's not a problem.
Ten years after the peace treaty I returned to Vietnam to revisit the actual battlefields of the war. I went from the Chinese border in the north to the Mekong River in the south, from the DMZ to Laos, the only American in the whole place. I had set my heart on going back to Hill 10, a nondescript battalion base west of Da Nang. the center of my own war. The air smelled just like I remembered, thick sweet odors of sugar cane, dank muddy smells, the stink of human excrement. I saw birds. I hadn't remembered any birds. Children herded ducks and rode buffalo. Other children passed by on the way to school. I recognized nothing. My old base, frozen in my memory as it had been during the war, was gone. Everything had changed.
On the path to Hill 10 I met a woman, Dong Thi Son, whose husband had been in the Viet Cong. We talked for a while and she told me her husband had been killed in the war. it became obvious that he had probably been killed by my men-maybe even by me. She never found his body. Most likely it was burned or buried by a bulldozer in a mass grave.
For years we disposed of the enemy dead like so much garbage. We stuck cigarettes in the mouths of corpses, put Playboy magazines in their hands, cut off their ears to wear around our necks. We incinerated them with napalm, atomized them with B-52 strikes, shoved them out the doors of helicopters above the South China Sea. In the process did we take down their dog-tag numbers and catalog them? Do an accounting? Forget it.
All we did was count. Count bodies. Count dead human beings. Count the sons and fathers and brothers, the daughters and mothers and sisters, of real human beings. That was our fundamental military strategy. Body count. And the count kept going up and up.
Dong Thi Son never got an accounting, never learned what happened to her husband, knew only the date he never came home to her and their four children. I had to tell her that I had been part of her husband's death. It was hard, because in battle the man you kill doesn't have a name. He's not human. He's an enemy. An abstraction. That word, "enemy," is more powerful than guns and bullets, than artillery and jets. It's what lets us pull the trigger, push the button, fire the rockets, drop the napalm. It's what makes war possible. But now I knew this abstraction's name and his widow was walking beside me.
So I told her. She listened, paused and looked out over the rice paddies. Then she replied: "But that was during the war. The war is over. Life goes on."
She understood how much American families want to know the fate of their relatives. That's the irony. The Vietnamese understand better than anyone. That's why they let us dig in their cemeteries, even though they know that thanks to us, they'll never find their own MIAs. The men and women we tried to kill and who tried to kill us understand what we went through far better than do Americans who weren't there. The more contact we have with them, the better.
Wars need to end. After a while, you forget why they started and it doesn't even matter. Atrocity breeds revenge breeds more atrocity The cycle can go on for decades, even centuries, as Bosnia and Ireland, Pakistan-India, the Middle East, make all too clear. The ending of a war should do what the funeral service does: help the living. But Vietnam never ended, not really. Our war just kept going on, right there on TV, year after year.
The images poured out: the Zippo lighter just about to ignite the thatch roof, the young naked girl screaming in the road, the wounded marines on a tank, the miniskirted singers full-bore into "Proud Mary." The bodies in the ditch in My Lai. The helicopter leaving the embassy roof. Finally, all of us veterans touching the wall at the dedication of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. That memorial, with its names and its reflective otherworldly black surface, was the true accounting of the cost of war. It was a bill of sale.
I used to get angry about Vietnam, about whether it was right or wrong, about which side did this and which that. I don't anymore. I don't want to keep the war alive. I care about Vietnam for the people I knew and loved there, for their heroism and for their very human cowardice, for the way it extended our moral spectrum out beyond visible sight.
But it's hard to let go. Like Confederate veterans, we fought bravely and nobly in a Lost Cause. That rankles and bruises and itches: it works its way under the surface like buried shrapnel. You're supposed to go to war for the right reasons, fight well and win. That's how it was for our fathers in World War II. We fought with the same courage and self-sacrifice, we shed real tears, bled real blood. And nothing changed-except us, we changed. And for what? What was that black wall in Washington for?
It was for nothing. It was all wasted -all the blood and treasure and high technology, all the bravery and USO shows and letters home, all the families waiting for that telegram they dreaded, all the lost potential of so many young men and women who never came home. "I never knew a man," Graham Greene wrote in "The Quiet American," "who had better motives for all the trouble he caused." That was us. We meant well, we were brave, we believed our leaders would use those qualities well, and they didn't.
Most of us were teenagers when we went to Vietnam. We weren't the children of doctors and lawyers and professors and the politicians who sent us. They went on to college and cushy jobs. The war wasn't even a blip in their lives. The war, Michael Herr wrote, was what we had instead of happy childhoods. Yet for every damaged soul now sleeping on Venice Beach, there were others who grew up in Vietnam, learned values like courage and loyalty, hard work and sacrifice. We saw those lessons in each other's eyes. If our count didn't care about us, then we cared about each other. We built our own memorial, shed our own tears, made our own fullest possible accounting. And then we got on with it. We've grown up. We're parents and grandparents now. One of us is vice president. Today's soldiers think of us as antiques. When I did "China Beach," the young actors saw Vietnam as a historical costume drama, like wearing togas or powdered wigs.
We'll never forget. But it's time to stop rooting in that rag-and-bone shop of our hearts. It's time for old soldiers, old enemies and old draft dodgers to make peace together. No more blame. No more excuses. Life has gone on, and the war is over. Finally.