FOR THE World War II generation, this year's series of 50th anniversary commemorations compellingly evoke memories of bloody battles fought in faraway places -- and of lives lost and lives spared. For that generation, the anniversaries and the names associated with these commemorations -- Pearl Harbor, D-Day, the Battle of the Bulge, Midway, Okinawa, etc. -- call to mind times of supreme triumph and tragedy. They recall countless heroic and selfless individual acts of courage and sacrifice, even in the face of likely death, by ordinary men who were fighting for a cause in which they believed.
This is not to say that everyone who went to war in that generation was courageous and selfless. Human nature is not such. But it is true that an extraordinary number of ordinary men and women willingly volunteered in service to their country -- and thereby volunteered to die -- in a war they believed had to be won to preserve freedom and certain universal values. Whether volunteers or draftees, most of them performed in the same courageous way.
With that in mind, the 50th anniversary commemorations provide the nation with an opportunity to say thank-you to those who won the war and to pay homage to those who did not return.
For the baby boomers, these commemorations stir deep emotions that we don't often express. These emotions relate to our own war, which though not as costly in terms of lives lost, was costly enough, with over 58,000 American deaths. Like World War II, Vietnam certainly produced its own share of heroism and courage on the battlefields. But if the threat to America's vital interests in our fathers' war was as stark as black and white, Vietnam was nothing if not multiple shades of gray. The national interest in fighting the Vietnam War with American combat troops was not so apparent or readily agreed-upon, particularly by those called upon to do the fighting. And even many people who asserted that the United States indeed did have vital interests at stake in Vietnam disagreed about strategy and tactics.
The debate about whether Vietnam was the wrong war, at the wrong place, at the wrong time rages to this day, 20 years after the last helicopter departed from the last Saigon rooftop. Former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara's new book "In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam," in which he now states that the Vietnam War was "terribly wrong" and that he and other senior officials knew it early on, provides new fodder for the Vietnam debate. History ultimately instructs, and Mr. McNamara's book no doubt will become another important component of history's instruction materials.
Regardless, however, of anyone's opinions today -- in retrospect -- about the wisdom of the objectives or conduct of the Vietnam War, there is no gain saying that many young Americans of my generation were confronted with painful choices: some volunteered to fight because they believed duty called; many were drafted and served honorably; many accepted various student and other deferments; some fled to Canada before being drafted or after being inducted; others went to prison proclaiming their convictions, rather than be drafted. Many, like me, joined the Army Reserve, where we served out our six-year commitments, but never got closer to anything resembling the fighting in Vietnam than fighting the mosquitoes and snakes in the swamps at Fort Polk, La.
Even if there were now widespread agreement in hindsight that our mission in Vietnam was ill-conceived and wrong (I'm not suggesting there is or ought to be such agreement), I believe that many of my generation who did not serve in Vietnam still harbor doubts about the individual choices we made at the time, despite what we may say publicly, or even privately. I believe many of us wonder whether our individual actions really reflected strongly held views about the rightness or wrongness of the war and its moral implications, as many proclaimed, or did such choices instead reflect a lack of personal courage on our part? We now wonder how readily we would have marched off to war like our fathers, if the rightness of our country's cause had been less ambiguous? How much less ambiguous? Finally, we question whether we should have said to the less fortunate (i.e. deferment-less) members of our generation: "Well, if you have to go, then so should I."
Being deprived of the moral clarity which confronted our fathers in their war, we were left to grapple with profound "what-ifs" about how we would have responded in less ambiguous circumstances. We can never answer definitively these nagging "what-ifs." I doubt if Mr. McNamara's book will provide the necessary cover to resolve our doubts. We can only live life on a going-forward basis -- which brings me back to this year's 50th anniversary commemorations.
These solemn commemorations give my Baby Boomer generation the opportunity to show our respect and, above all, gratitude, for the sacrifices of the war generation. When my father came home from the war after serving in Europe, he stowed away his Army uniforms, patches and other war paraphernalia. For many years, he was not much interested in talking about the war and the horrors he witnessed. Now he and some of his fellow soldiers are passing on their physical and mental remembrances.
But beyond the opportunity for final thank-yous, this season of commemoration is also a time when we baby boomers are of an age to understand that no two generations face the same challenges. While we can never know how each of us would have responded to the particular challenges and circumstances confronted by our fathers -- including being called upon to fight a war that had to be won for the country's sake -- that is not really what matters now. We can honor the war generation best by drawing inspiration from all that its members accomplished. That should help us understand that opportunities to display courage and leadership in the service of our country may take different forms in each generation. Then, not only will we honor these of the war generation, but also we will honor those of our own generation, especially those who gave their lives in Vietnam.
Randolph J. May is a Washington lawyer.