The Vietnam War Still Haunts Us

History rhymes once again, thanks so much.


Washington was so nice and quiet this Memorial Day weekend, the calm before the summer storm of the presidential campaign.

The Vietnam Veterans Memorial, finished 30 years ago in 1982, was the somber focal point for the nation's capital.

The stark design by a young woman, Maya Lin, not celebratory but mournful, honored the names on the wall. The sense of being a wailing wall is the central element, perhaps inspired by the Temple's Western Wall in Jersusalem. Each is equally cherished, not arranged in a hierarchy of loss.

The nearby memorial for World War II—a bombastic, hail-fellow-well-met meditation in marble and water—looks like another country.

[Photo Gallery: Memorial Day Around the Nation.]

The elegiac writing, a litany of nearly 60,000 names of the war dead on the wall, sounded a cri de coeur into the spring air, louder than usual. Rolling Thunder, a huge gathering of veterans who roar into town on their Harleys, sounded softer than usual.

They are getting older now, the marked and scarred men of this generation who fought a lost war, America's only lost war. The Vietnam War tragedy still comes back to haunt us, as it has in wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. History rhymes once again, thanks so much.

[See a collection of political cartoons on Afghanistan.]

Have the living, who came home, made their peace with that war? Because the nation sure as shooting has not. An unwinnable war is an affront to our national story.

Distinguished journalists Marvin Kalb and Deborah Kalb have co-authored a sage book, Haunting Legacy which explores the effect of the Vietnam War on every subsequent president's foreign policy choices, up to Barack Obama. The father and daughter team have compared the war to Banquo's ghost roaming the White House.

I was here in Washington that summer, a WRC-TV news intern by day and a waitress by night, riding a bike up and down Wisconsin Avenue, so sure I could climb hills at any hour. I played a lot of tennis, too, on the public courts on Quebec Street.

A college girl—make that "woman"—who felt life was a lark to be lived. The summer of 1982 was the best and brightest I remember. I stretched it into working for Sen.William Proxmire, a Democrat of Wisconsin.

[Read the U.S. News debate: Was The Iraq War Worth It?]

Proxmire's paid interns wrote speeches on joining the Genocide Convention, about as close as we came to bloodshed. Now a constitutional law professor, Jonathan Turley and I talked about these things as we opened the morning mail from Milwaukee and Madison.

We were then the same age as some of the names on the wall when they died in a "some corner of a foreign field,"—or jungle, or hospital. But hey, Vietnam was history.

Probably a young man, Columbia University senior Barack Obama, thought so, too. As the Kalbs point out, President Ronald Reagan, mindful of Vietnam at this time, did not risk a conflict with troops abroad even when hundreds of Marines died in a barracks bombing in Beirut, Lebanon.

Sanguine that no war lay ahead, our troubles were few and our dreams there in fields in front of us.The softer sadness of yesterday called us to connect past and present. The writing is on the wall.

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