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“Few of Us Who Were There Can Claim Innocence”

ISSUE:  Summer 1977
Winners and Losers: Battles, Retreats, Gains, Losses and Ruins from a Long War. By Gloria Emerson. Random House. $10.95.

VIGNETTES. Friezes. A tableau of men with ashen faces, the prop wash blasting dust into them, trying to heap bloody bundles into a medevac chopper. Sketches of frightened Vietnamese, mistrustful, dignified, discarded, charred. Taped interviews with vets Where They Are Now, exploring the souvenirs they carry deep within themselves. Varying mixtures of pride, bitterness, vacancy. A widow remembers that she had had a premonition—her husband “always got the raw end of the deal”—and wasn’t really surprised when the telegram came; she did, however, surprise Manchester, New Hampshire by refusing the military funeral the Army had planned, telling the Secretary to keep his flag, and asking that all donations for flowers go instead to Another Mother for Peace. The father of a draft evader, at first outraged at his son’s “cowardice,” at last comes to understand him, attends a gathering of war resisters” parents, and has someone shake his hand for his own courage. Someone asks a museum guard at a Brooklyn exhibit of gory and striking war photographs what he thinks of the dozens of pictures surrounding him, and he answers that he doesn’t know, he hasn’t seen them yet. In this collection of human interest stories, Emerson hopes to bring her readers face to face with those arresting images. To have been in a war, she comments elsewhere, “does not mean you understand the memories of it,”

The album is striking first of all for what it says of the person who kept it. Emerson was a New York Times combat correspondent between 1970 and 1972, receiving that assignment after several requests for transfer from the generally softer chores of London and Paris. Earlier, in 1956, she had briefly visited Saigon and found herself taken with the country and its people; she knew 14 years later that she would not like what waited for her but, like so many of us, she had to go to see what all the fuss was about, to try the experience on for size,

The war apparently changed her as she had not expected. Though she had seen bloodshed in Northern Ireland and Nigeria, in Vietnam her own countrymen were involved, their motives were more complex and more cleverly concealed, and the means of destruction horribly more potent. There was nothing, as there had been in the World War II newsreels that she had seen as a schoolgirl, to encourage a belief that career military officers were “grand and stoical men, made of superior stuff”; none of the natives gave her the exciting feeling that Belgians had many years before when they told her of the gentleness and humanity of American soldiers. The Vietnam war was especially brutal because deceitful, and its brutalizing effects all the more frightening to behold. Emerson resisted that numbness. The emotional pitch and calloused sensibilities of combat were supposed to become normal, other correspondents—the men—told her.”In time you’ll see.” They lied, writes Emerson, and quotes without dispute the conclusion of her Vietnamese interpreter: “There is an acute lack of forgetfulness in you about Vietnam, we think.”

The inability to “overcome” that dreadful experience provides driving force to Emerson’s book, shaping the task of researching it and giving it what unity it has. How on earth, she asks, ban the rest of us seem to overcome it? The book is a journal of her efforts to blow on the embers of the war, to reawaken that sense of being lied to that can be healthy and that for a time she shared with plenty of other citizens.

Not so any longer. As she reconstructs the scores of interviews it took several years and thousands of miles to compile, she appears forlorn, quixotic, a moral gadfly that most tails quickly swish off. For many of the people to whom she talks, she is an excuse to relive old times of closeness and common purpose; yet the exhilaration of the antiwar movement is gone, leaving only posters on bedroom walls and a placard in the corner. For others, she is a nuisance, pestering an elderly country judge who feels no contradiction in claiming at the same time to be against violence and yet willing to do whatever his country commands. When a simple funeral director who served on the draft board of a small Kentucky town protests that none of the local boys killed in Vietnam were draftees, she cannot convince him of this self-deception. She tells a hulking former infantryman that he should take the skull he shows off in his den and bury it in the backyard. “Cyclops” laughed.

Winners and Losers, highly readable and widely-acclaimed among former Vietnam reporters, is at least a short-term failure all the same. Emerson’s medium is the Sunday Supplement feature article; she does not explore any of the reasons for the obtuseness, the absence of guilt she finds—not for the first time—so remarkable in Americans. The book is thin soup intellectually, pleasing but unpenetrating, the result of a haphazard search for colorful detail. On occasion earnest narrative does make for writing that moves to action, and Americans usually pay attention to such journalism. Emerson wants badly to capture that attention; her failure to do so is by no means her fault. She jabs at complacency never punctured or too quickly rediscovered rather than at the outlines of the Huston Plan or the fat content of the hot dog. Emerson asks us to muckrake our collective conscience; most Americans are too busy to bother. Those who read the book will have already received the moral message it carries.

The rest justify the remark that Americans are people who have dropped the past and cannot remember where they left it. The war was indeed a “flash of lightning,” in Arthur Waskow’s phrase, illuminating the evils of the system and the errors of assumption of which we might otherwise have remained blissfully in the dark. But thunderstorms pass. Thus the richest value of Emerson’s book may be its reminder that no consciousness will be raised until it becomes historical. Just as we tend to our own affairs instead of concerning ourselves with “goals for Americans,” we are too convinced of the benignancy of the American past to feel it worth worrying about.Winners and Losers is important for its testimony, its contribution to the sources that historians will use when— soon we may hope—they revise the high-school and college textbooks that slide easily over our wasting of Vietnam. Meantime, it is perhaps mistaken to think of the war as a matter of winners and losers, gains and losses. In truth, there are only survivors, only standoffs. We should not expect people who have not had the disheartening experience of the war to partake of those feelings or even to understand them, and surely it would be a mistake to see the war as another Munich analogy, containing “lessons” that we can apply willy-nilly to the future.

What we can and must do is share our experience as process, pointing out that minds must quicken, critical awareness must sharpen, and the past reach its own terms in our understanding. Although it is a mistake to see history in the framework of the present, or to view the present as replication of the past, we can try to understand the present and prepare for the possibilities of the future from the endless perspectives the past offers us. That detachment is often ironic. My lecture on American concepts of manifest destiny in the 1840’s fell on the same day that North Vietnamese troops entered Saigon.


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