Los Angeles Times

Thirty years on, a stir of echoes

When Errol Morris' documentary "The Fog of War" opened in theaters in December, Judy Muller intended to snub it. Not that she was blasé about the movie's subject, former U.S. Defense Secretary Robert S. McNamara. On the contrary, she was "outraged," Muller says, when McNamara issued his mea culpa-ish yet self-justifying memoir about Vietnam in the mid-1990s. As the daughter of a Navy officer and the ex-wife of a former Marine lieutenant stationed in Danang, Muller also had an intimate personal connection to the Vietnam War and its painful domestic repercussions.

But when Muller, an Emmy-winning ABC news correspondent and USC journalism professor, later relented and went to see "Fog of War," she experienced a different sort of shock to the system. There on the big screen, in a file-footage scene showing McNamara arriving at a Pentagon conference room, was Muller's late father, Jack Mansfield, a Navy captain who in the mid-1960s served as deputy secretary to the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff. Though the scene passed by in a flash, it haunted Muller.

"I was so shaken by the image of my dad, the ghosts that didn't stay settled," she says. "It was very much Hamlet's ghost for me."

In recent weeks, Muller and many other Americans have been reminded, yet again, that the Vietnam War, though long over, is far from dead. Decades after the conflict ended in a bitter and humiliating defeat for the United States, the contorted feelings and deep social conflicts that Vietnam laid bare are being resurrected in movies, revisited in the 2004 presidential contest and debated in newspapers and across the World Wide Web with renewed heat.

For many of those who experienced the war firsthand, and for millions of others on the turbulent home front, Vietnam remains a generation-defining experience. And like a jungle pathway, the deeper one ventures into the heart of that experience, the more complex and unpredictable the trail may become.

"It's a tar baby," says Tobias Wolff, author of a highly acclaimed memoir about his Vietnam service, "In Pharaoh's Army," describing what it was like for him to write about the war. "I guess we'll never stop telling [the story of Vietnam]. We can't help seeing it as a template, when people's characters were disciplined in a moment of risk, of crisis" — or not, as the case may have been.

The persistence of memoryThe reemergence of Vietnam in the nation's consciousness is occurring on multiple fronts. Last year's U.S.-led war to depose Saddam Hussein, and the rebuilding process that has followed, has set Republicans and Democrats feuding over whether Iraq is "another Vietnam." Antiwar liberals have hurled the Q-word, "quagmire," at conservatives, who've accused their opponents of undermining the war effort and sabotaging troop morale in the same way that the tie-dyed protesters who smoked dope, burned their draft cards and fled to Canada supposedly did 35 years ago.

Vietnam also has moved to the front lines of the 2004 presidential contest, as two Vietnam-era veterans, President George W. Bush and Democratic front-runner Sen. John Kerry, have traded rhetorical fire over their wartime service records.

While the president's advocates have been defending him against allegations that he shirked part of his Air National Guard duty, Kerry partisans have been trying to defend their man against accusations that he betrayed his fellow veterans by protesting against the war after returning from Vietnam as a decorated hero. An apparently doctored photo of Kerry sitting next to "Hanoi Jane" Fonda at an antiwar rally heaped fuel on an already combustible exchange.

Despite the political acrimony that still surrounds Vietnam, the actual reasons for the war are slowly receding from view, particularly among younger Americans. "The American family is split between those who lived through Vietnam and those who didn't and don't get it," says Muller, adding that her own daughters can't understand baby boomers' obsession with the war. That generation gap may be giving rise to a more abstracted idea of the war, in which issues of personal conduct — loyalty, bravery, honor — take precedence over questions of whether Vietnam was justifiable in the realpolitik calculus of the Cold War.

Jerry Lembcke, a former chaplain's assistant with the 41st artillery group in the central highlands of Vietnam and now a professor of sociology and anthropology at College of Holy Cross in Worcester, Mass., says that over time popular attention to Vietnam has come to focus heavily on the individual combatant rather than on larger political and military themes. For many Americans today, Lembcke suggests, the mental image of the war isn't McNamara and his best and brightest cohorts plotting domino theories but the Vietnam veteran, usually depicted as a psychologically crippled figure, who served his country honorably, then came home to be screamed at or spat upon.

In the decades since Vietnam, stories about veterans returning home and being spat on have attained a potent cultural symbolism. Yet Lembcke believes that the actual number of such incidents was far less than the popular perception. After researching the phenomenon and writing a book, "Spitting Image: Myth, Memory and the Legacy of Vietnam," he questions whether such events ever occurred at all, let alone frequently (though at least one veteran, in a 1998 letter published in The Times, insists that they did). What's significant about such reports, Lembcke says, is that they have been used to discourage and discredit opposition to subsequent U.S. wars, including the 1991 Persian Gulf War and last year's invasion of Iraq.

"I think Vietnam changed this country's narrative," Lembcke says. "It changed this country's sense of what it is, from a country of hope and a country that saw itself in a progressive way to a country that sees itself in defeat and explains that defeat through stories of betrayal and loss on the home front.

"We're a nation of avengers now. We're searching for the enemy within to explain and justify why we lost that war. It's a search for an alibi. And of course, just in March and April of last year, the reinvocation again of all the spat-upon [Vietnam] veteran stories signaled that in many ways, for the American people, this war in Iraq is still somehow about the war in Vietnam. We're still trying to regain something that was perceived to have been lost 30 years ago."

All for oneThe gradual distancing of the Vietnam War from its controversial historical and political context can be detected in current presidential campaign rhetoric. Sen. Kerry has spoken of Vietnam veterans as constituting a "band of brothers," a bipartisan gesture aimed at uniting men who served in the war under one banner, regardless of whether they're Democrats or Republicans.

But the phrase "band of brothers" also echoes the title of the 2001 HBO miniseries about a close-knit U.S. infantry unit fighting in Europe in World War II. Executive-produced by Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg, and first shown within days of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, "Band of Brothers" eschewed politics, emphasizing instead the heroic spirit of comradeship under fire and the noble nature of individual sacrifice.

" 'Band of brothers' — it's a kind of intriguing invocation, too, because the point of 'band of brothers' and the point of the show is that it's not about policy — policy is put way in the background and you're fighting for your platoon or your squad or your friends. It's depoliticized," says Leo Braudy, a USC professor of English and art history and author of "From Chivalry to Terrorism: War and the Changing Nature of Masculinity."

Braudy says that other recent Hollywood films including Spielberg's "Saving Private Ryan" (1998) and Ridley Scott's "Black Hawk Down" (2001), based on the deadly predicament of U.S. troops forced to fight their way out of the streets of Mogadishu, Somalia, in 1993, largely avoid politics in order to highlight more universal ideals of friendship, courage, empathy and loyalty under duress.

Probably, the Vietnam War can't so easily be rid of its political taint. But John Hurley, a Vietnam veteran and national director of veterans affairs for the Kerry campaign, thinks that the recent renewed attention to the war, and the conduct of those who served in it, may signal Americans' willingness to finally finish reckoning with Vietnam's contentious legacy. Hurley recalls once asking another Vietnam veteran how he'd managed to cope with his wartime experiences. "You look for a cupboard to store it in," the man replied.

"I think the rest of the country is coming to the same conclusion: They're finding a place in the cupboard to store it," Hurley says of the Vietnam era.

In Hollywood, Morris' film isn't alone in reviving Vietnam's ghosts this Oscar season. "The Weather Underground," a best-documentary nominee, charts the rise and fall of the radical leftist group that violently opposed the war. Last fall, the PBS documentary "Watergate Plus 30: Shadow of History," which was made to coincide with the 30th anniversary of the Watergate break-in, suggested how the Vietnam War tore apart the fabric of American society, letting other national demons out of the bag during the late 1960s and early '70s.

For Muller, seeing "Fog of War" brought back a host of uncomfortable personal memories. Her brother was an antiwar activist at the University of Oregon; she herself took part in a protest march at the Pentagon, to her father's chagrin. Around the family dinner table, Muller usually tried to play peacemaker.

Her father also felt conflicted about the war, or at least about the way it was being waged, Muller says.

"He hated McNamara. He hated him for not letting the military either fight the enemy or pull out. He hated the limbo that led to the slaughter." Today, Muller says, she wants to believe that her father "didn't know what McNamara knew" — that the Vietnam War had become unwinnable. "I want to believe that he was a hero."

Thirteen years ago, at the start of the Gulf War, there were predictions that the Vietnam era would finally be laid to rest, along with exhortations to support the troops fighting in the desert, lest the nation relive the rancor of the '60s.

But Vietnam has come back. How long it sticks around this time, Muller says, may hinge on "whether the people running the country have an institutional memory that is personal."

"As long as we're living, the boomers — I know everybody's sick of us — but as long as we have a memory, I think these questions will go unresolved for us," Muller concludes. "Because there is no expiation."

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