This article originally appeared at www.ncronline.org written by | Jan. 20, 2015
As the commemorator-in-chief, Kicklighter states that his goal is to “help the nation take advantage of a rare opportunity to turn back to a page in history and to right a wrong, by expressing its honor and respect to Vietnam veterans and their families.” But which wrong does he have in mind? Kicklighter doesn’t say.
Is it the wrong that will never be righted by a glossy Pentagon exhibit? The wrong that veterans suffered when they returned home with high rates of depression, alcoholism, heroin addiction and suicide? In 1969, Max Cleland, a triple amputee, pleaded with a Senate committee for programs to treat veterans overwhelmed by emotional problems. A decade later, when I came to know this good man when he was head of the Veterans Administration, he went before the same committee with the same unanswered plea.
Bobby Muller, whose combat wounds put him in a wheelchair and who became a leader of Vietnam Veterans Against the War, regularly sought help from congressional committees and Johnson and Nixon hawks whose anticommunist policies started the war and kept it going. I was an ally of Muller. In 1981, he told me: “A lot of these people don’t even have the politeness to respond. They’ve forgotten us so quickly.”
W.D. Ehrhart, who as an 18-year-old Marine began 13 months of ground fighting in 1966, had the Johnson-Nixon war-makers in mind in a July 4, 1989, essay in The Philadelphia Inquirer:
Not once — in all these years — have I ever heard a single high-level policymaker of the Vietnam war apologize for what he did, ever admit he made a mistake, ever show the slightest sign of remorse for all the havoc and misery, the shattered lives and shattered families and shattered nations left gasping in the wake of his decisions. … They asked my friends and me to get down and dirty in the rice fields only to abandon us under fire. We did the killing and the dying, and then they left us to find our own way back while they went on with their honorable lives as if nothing at all were out of order.
Little of the damage done to veterans — a high proportion of them minorities or from low-income families who couldn’t dodge the draft as did the privileged and connected — George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, Dan Quayle and Pat Buchanan — can be corrected by commemorations and vague calls for “honor and respect.” If the words of veterans like Cleland, Muller and Ehrhart mean much, let the 50th anniversary of the war be a day of apologies — ones long overlooked and long overdue.
[Colman McCarthy, a former Washington Post columnist, directs the Center for Teaching Peace in Washington.]