By MARSHA MERCER
It’s the 50th anniversary of a war most people would rather forget. So, with typical American subtlety and restraint, we’ve plunged into public commemorations that will last 13 years.
Yes, you read that right. For the next 13 years, the federal government will join with local governments, private groups and communities across the country in events aimed at ensuring we remember the Vietnam War.
Congress authorized the 50th anniversary commemoration and President Barack Obama signed a presidential proclamation last month, starting the clock on Memorial Day and ending it on Veterans Day 2025.
That’s a long hello to a tumultuous era. By the time it’s over, the oldest boomers, born in 1946, the once-young pups who vowed not to trust anyone over 30, will be pushing 80.
Half a century after the war started, Americans are haunted by the shoddy treatment some who served in Vietnam received when they came home. It was “a national shame, a disgrace that should never have happened,” Obama said in his Memorial Day speech at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.
The president seemed poised to repeat the familiar claim that returning servicemen were spat upon. He didn’t, and we’ll have 13 years to argue about that.
Jerry Lembcke, a sociologist and 1969 Vietnam vet, researched the claims for his 1998 book, “The Spitting Image: Myth, Memory and the Legacy of Vietnam.” Lembcke found not one verifiable instance of spitting and has been trying to convince people ever since.
“Stories of spat-upon Vietnam veterans are bogus,” Lembcke wrote in the Spring 2003 issue of “The Veteran,” published by Vietnam Veterans Against the War. “Born out of accusations made by the Nixon administration, they were enlivened in popular culture (recall Rambo saying he was spat upon by those maggots at the airport) and enhanced in the imaginations of Vietnam-generation men – some veterans, some not.”
Make no mistake, though, even if returning vets escaped saliva, they weren’t routinely welcomed home by strangers bearing bouquets, hugs and kisses.
Honoring Vietnam veterans is the right thing to do, but how? If we’re serious, we will make sure the vets have solid benefits and the finest of medical care. We shouldn’t just pretend we care with pretty words and parades.
Plus, more than 1,600 American soldiers are still missing in Vietnam. New efforts are underway to find their remains. That’s important work.
Vietnam was wrenching, and the commemoration will force us to confront its ugliness. We lost trust in our leaders and institutions, and it never came back. We’ll hear again about napalm, Agent Orange, Lt. William Calley and the My Lai massacre, and other war crimes and atrocities.
The wall at the Vietnam memorial starts low and rises ever higher until it towers over visitors, a graphic illustration of the escalation of the conflict and its toll. The wall is dated 1959 to 1975, but a name of someone who died in 1957 was added later. Every year a few more names of war-related deaths are chiseled in the black granite.
Critics will say the commemoration is a cover for politicians who haven’t served in the military. This is the first presidential election since 1944 in which neither presidential candidate is a veteran.
Emphasis on Vietnam naturally focuses on the presidential candidates. Like most people 50 and younger, Obama, born in 1961, has few wartime memories. Romney, born in 1947, first supported the war and later changed his mind. A May 1966 photo has surfaced, showing Romney, 19 and neatly dressed, picketing a sit-in against the draft by anti-war protesters.
Two months later, though, he received a draft deferment as a “minister of religion” and kept it until February1969, according to the Associated Press. During most of that time he was a Mormon missionary in France. Afterward, a high lottery number kept him from the draft.
From Hanoi this week came news that Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta and his Vietnamese counterpart had exchanged “artifacts” from the war -- letters from an American soldier killed in 1969 and a Vietnamese soldier’s diary.
Artifact is an awfully cold word for someone’s handwritten, heart-felt thoughts.
I hope that commemorative events over the next 13 years remind us that soldiers in any war are young people who love, hope and dream. They fight for all of us. And some never get the chance to grow old.
© 2012 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.