We were kids, a fact our elders used against us when they told us to go to war.
It was our duty, they said. The government wouldn't lie to us. Serving our country would make men of us. We didn't know what war was, but we would find out.
And we did. And few of us will ever forget what have commonly been called "the lessons of Vietnam."
Lesson Number One? Everything our elders told us about Vietnam was a lie. There's no need to list particulars. If you grew up in the shadow of Vietnam, you have your own list, lessons you were forced to learn and will never forget.
Vietnam defined us and the way we look at the world, as surely as World War II defined our elders' view. But Vietnam is no longer the inescapable, defining topic is once was. People our age have grown weary of it. It's ancient history to young people. Maybe they don't want to know. Or maybe they know enough about Vietnam to not want to hear any more about it.
Who can blame them? Didn't we do the same thing ourselves, until the war became impossible to ignore? Who wanted to believe that we'd been lied to? That all those men and women died for nothing? And who, today, wants to remember those facts when we've got plenty of new ones staring at us every day?
But hold on. One government institution is working very hard to rescue the war's history from the shadows. The New York Times reports the Pentagon is planning what it's calling a 50th anniversary commemoration of the war, a $30 million extravaganza set to officially launch next year. Its purpose, according to the project's still-under-construction website, is "to honor veterans and provide the American public with historically accurate materials suitable for use in schools."
Times reporter Sheryl Gay Stolberg describes the web site as depicting "a war of valor and honor that would be unrecognizable to many of the Americans who fought in and against it."
She's right. The site pays homage to Vietnam vets in the blandest conceivable way, with boilerplate photos of vets receiving medals. It's dreary and predictable, a press officer's idea of "honoring" old soldiers.
What's missing from the site are the voices of those old soldiers, the valorous and the damaged, not to mention the voices of the generals who sent those old soldiers into battle, the voices of the politicians who sent them to Southeast Asia and most especially the voices of the men and women who called out the generals and the politicians and fought against the war on the home front.
What's missing is the truth of the war, a truth that can only be reached for and realized through a multiplicity of voices.
According to a statement by the general in charge of the project, (who, tellingly, refused to directly answer questions by the Times) the commemoration will provide "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."
Tom Hayden wants to right a wrong too. Hayden, one of the country's earliest and most outspoken opponents of the war, has mounted a campaign that's attracted more than 500 scholars and anti-war activists opposing the Pentagon's role in the commemoration:
"All of us remember that the Pentagon got us into this war in Vietnam with its version of the truth," he told Stolberg. "If you conduct a war, you shouldn't be in charge of narrating it."
It seems to me that, in trying to "turn back a page of history,," the Pentagon is trying to re-write it. Or perhaps it's taken a page from George Orwell's 1984, the page that describes the Ministry of Truth's greatest weapon: the memory hole, down which any evidence of inconvenient reality was dropped, destroyed and forgotten.
We're the country's elders now. We have to do a better job of it than our elders did for us. They let their belief in the system they'd fought for blind them to what was happening. We thought we could see more clearly than they could, and history has proven us right.
But what's it worth if stand back and let the Pentagon hijack that history and provide an official version of that history, courtesy of "historically accurate materials suitable for use in schools"?
Maybe, like the old song says, we won't get fooled again. But what about our children and grandchildren?