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The other 'returnees'

When the 52 hostages got a hero's welcome, 2.8 million Vietnam veterans watched with a certain bittersweet irony. As they carefully explained to talk show hosts, they did not begrudge the hostages a single inch of ticker tape -- no, not one yellow ribbon. But they could hardly help contrasting their own homecoming to an America of a decade before that felt not only indifferent toward her "returnees" (to use the new phrase) but often downright hostile.

It is routine in history for a nation to lack the imagination to sympathize with enemy soldiers. It is rare when a nation feels so antagonistic to its own young men who believed they were fighting for that country.

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The word that occurred again and again with the hostages was family. It was, everybody said, as if a lost member of one's own family were returning.

The Vietnamese veteran was distincly not made to feel like a member of the family. He was almost a black sheep -- the member of the family everybody pretended didn't exist.

In some circles service in Vietnam has counted for as much of a social handicap as a prison record.

We have been insatiable in our loving curiosity about the hostages. Nobody has been able to give us too many of those details that supply character identification, as if we owed each and every one of them our exclusive attention.

Vietnamese veterans, when thought of at all over the years, have been treated as a collective statistic, and a rather ugly statistic at that. So many victims of Agent Orange. So many drug addicts.

The whole episode of the hostages was commonly described as a national humiliation. But it was a humiliation, as nobody has failed to note, that rallied us around the flag and made patriotism popular again for perhaps the first time since World War II.

The Vietnam war was a humiliation that had an opposite effect. Instead of patriotism it produced national excesses of guilt and shame. The Vietnam veteran became a double scapegoat. He reminded doves of their moral distaste for the whole adventure; he reminded hawks that Americans had lost their first war.

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As the '70s went on, we came to accept the Vietnam war as one of our most catastrophic mistakes. In retrospect we are likely to recall that we saw it as a catastrophic mistake earlier and earlier. In the end, one may wonder who, at any time, supported the war in Vietnam -- and how in the world did President Nixon ever get elected on a hawkish platform?

But the Vietnam veteran cannot revise his past like this. He was there: it's on the record. After more than a decade of nonconfrontation, it is time for the rest of us to put Vietnam on our record too, for surely it belongs there. We must ask ourselves harder questions than we have asked so far.

Those who deplore the Vietnam war as a singularly mad war, singularly full of atrocities -- a case of genocide -- should ask themselves in all seriousness: What is a same war? What is a clean war? Those who deplore the Vietnam war as an unparalleled military bungle should ask themselves: What was the last war that could be defined as a victory?

It is tempting to say: Let old wounds heal. But the Vietnamese war remains peculiarly unassimilated in our history, just as the Vietnam veterans remain unassimilated in our lives. Since those nights when the Vietnam war wasm our evening news, there has been the occasional brilliant and agonizing book to bear witness -- "Winners and Losers" by Gloria Emerson, "Fire in the Lake" by Frances Fitzgerald. But mostly we have allowed ourselves to see the Vietnam war only in the faces of Hollywood actors -- Robert De Niro, Chris Walken, John Savage, Martin Sheen.

The Vietnam veteran has been America's invisible man -- the truly silent generation.Yet who else can spit out this lump in our craw? "The vets must speak," Peter Marin has argued in Harper's, "-- both for our good and their own, " for the "re-creation of ethical life."

If, by some odd cause-and-effect, the return of the hostages gets us talking about the Vietnam war, at last, the event will have served a valuable, if painful, second purpose. Then, after all these years, perhaps the Vietnam vetera n can come home too.

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