The Vietnam War Still Hasn't Come to an End POW*MIA YOU ARE NOT FORGOTTEN


America "can't seem to forget" the war in Vietnam, th novelist and journalist Jack Fuller wrote ten years ago, but it "doesn't know what exactly to remember," either.

"From time to time, politicians have proclaimed that we have finally put the war behind us," Mr. Fuller, who served in Vietnam, added. "But we have always proven them wrong."

Well into a new decade, and approaching a quarter-century since the height of American involvement in Vietnam and the wrenching national debate on the war, Mr. Fuller's observation still rings true.

Politicians keep attempting to lay the ghost ("The specter of Vietnam has been buried forever," President Bush proclaimed following the Persian Gulf war) only to see it reappear, like some weird and unwanted relative popping out of the country's attic to intrude on our political, cultural and emotional life.

In this year's presidential campaign, the sporadic debate over Bill Clinton's and Dan Quayle's Vietnam-era draft histories has reawakened memories not so much of the war itself, but of the sharp rifts it helped create between generations and between Americans of different social classes.

It has been largely obscured in the racket of partisan rhetoric, but surely the cogent truth is that however they managed it, both Mr. Clinton and Mr. Quayle escaped going to Vietnam, along with the vast majority of their contemporaries who had comparable educational and social standing, while the fighting was largely left to young men without college degrees who were drafted out of farms or working-class or poor neighborhoods.

(One suspects that those who were caught on the wrong side of that divide know perfectly well that Mr. Clinton and Mr. Quayle were together on the opposite side -- Mr. Quayle's claim to have "worn the uniform" notwithstanding -- which may explain why the issue has so far seemed to have so little effect on voters' decisions.)

With the Clinton draft story still filling the front pages, a different sort of Vietnam echo sounded last month from Washington, where a number of former Nixon administration officials agreed (and Henry A. Kissinger vehemently denied) that the United States might indeed have abandoned American prisoners when the final U.S. military withdrawal occurred in 1973.

The facts remained hazy -- more so because the disputed cases hark back to the secrecy-shrouded war in Laos, where both the United States and the Vietnamese Communists carried on combat for many years while officially denying their involvement.

The U.S. bombing campaign in Laos (which went on uninterruptedly from 1964 to 1973, surely the longest major air offensive ever carried out) and the presence of sizable North Vietnamese forces were both open secrets, widely reported in the press. But while the broad outlines of the war could not be successfully concealed, details were hard to come by -- and still are.

False cover stories were regularly employed, even in internal government documents, to avoid acknowledging the scope and exact nature of U.S. military actions in Laos.

For that reason, a good deal of the information in official records, including information about American casualties, is ambiguous or suspect, making even more difficult the task of establishing just what did happen to the several hundred airmen lost 20 or more years ago over the steep mountains and thickly jungled valleys of a remote and undeveloped land.

At issue, of course, is not just the question of what may have happened to the missing men but what the American government knew at the time, and whether there were strong enough doubts to call for a different U.S. response at the time of the POW release in early 1973.

Appearing before the Senate Select Committee on POWs/MIAs -- latest in a long line of congressional panels to investigate the issue of missing Americans in Southeast Asia -- two former Nixon administration defense secretaries, Melvin Laird and James R. Schlesinger, acknowledged the government did have grounds to suspect some prisoners may have been left in Laos. (If so, it remains unclear why they or other senior officials, including top military commanders, kept silent at the time.)

The next day Mr. Kissinger, President Nixon's chief adviser and negotiator on Vietnam, furiously disputed his former colleagues, denying that any prisoners were abandoned "by the deliberate act or negligent omission of any American official."

Mr. Kissinger, his bass voice throbbing with indignation, was the picture of an outraged man of honor -- a part he has played many times before -- but his posturing was not entirely convincing to a Washington that has come to be somewhat skeptical about Mr. Kissinger's honesty or candor.

The new Senate hearings were sure to heighten long-standing public suspicions on the MIA issue, though in fact nothing in the testimony or the still-sketchy documentary records has yet come close to confirming the more lurid popular fantasies of a vast and treacherous cover-up conspiracy in Washington while hundreds of forgotten POWs languish in jungle slave-labor camps.

What was striking about the hearings, though, was their validation of the idea, bequeathed in large part by the nation's experience of Vietnam, that the American government could even be credibly suspected of such a cynical and cruel betrayal.

Here were senators, cabinet officers and other high officials seriously discussing the possibility that a president and his senior associates deliberately wrote off American military men known or strongly suspected to be in enemy hands at the time, and that in the entire defense and foreign-policy bureaucracy not one single official stood up to blow the whistle on that callous deception.

This notion of the character and moral qualities of American institutions is itself an echo of Vietnam. That war, in which a nation supremely self-confident about its own power unexpectedly found itself unable to prevail over an army of "peasants," as Mr. Kissinger once contemptuously called them, left a legacy of shattered myths and, with them, a gravely damaged faith in our leaders, our institutions and our beliefs.

The fact that Vietnam continues to divide and confuse the nation this many years afterward is a measure of just how deep the wounds were.

The debate, in the end, has turned out to be not just about the unknown fate of the missing-in-action or about the reasons for the American military failure or even about the war's implications for subsequent defense or foreign-policy decisions. Vietnam had do with America's fundamental vision of itself. Not alone, of course, but in conjunction with other events and social changes of the era, the war forced the country to ask what kind of society, what kind of people, we truly are. Those questions, along with the ones about some young men's anguished choices and other young men lost long ago in a distant backwater of the war, still await answers.

Arnold R. Isaacs, who covered Vietnam for The Sun from 1972 to 1975, is the author of "Without Honor: Defeat in Vietnam and Cambodia." He teaches the history of the war at Towson State University.

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