Remember Tet? Watching Your Life Become History

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I went to Hiroshima. I was surprised by the vigorous, flashing, neon normality of the city. Nuclear apocalypse had come and gone. How could it have left so little trace?

There is, of course, an elaborate museum of the disaster. I found its walls decorated with grisly photographs from August 1945, and crayon drawings that children had done to depict the blast and horror. The Japanese bring schoolchildren by the thousands to see the museum, that they might remember. One bright-faced little boy smiled at me (I was obviously an American) and, practicing his English, chirped: "Murderer! Hello!"

I remembered this the other day when I was talking with a college student about Vietnam. I mentioned the Tet offensive. I was astonished (though I should not have been) to realize she had never heard of Tet. I remember every minute of Tet, in early 1968, when the entire South Vietnamese countryside erupted with the Communist offensive and when, back in the States, you could see the war turning 180 degrees and becoming, suddenly, a disaster in the minds of the men who had made and supported American policy. The light at the end of the tunnel went out.

And now it is 25 years — a quarter of a century — since April 1975, and the surreal days (long after the Americans had cravenly "Vietnamized" the struggle and said good-bye) when Hanoi's regular army came down from the North like a guillotine. I am trying to find the right image: The fall of South Vietnam at the end of April 1975, was like the demolition of Pruitt-Igo three years earlier, when that vast imbecility of social engineering (a huge high-rise housing project for the poor in St. Louis) was at last rigged up with dynamite and reduced to rubble, the ritual suicide of the highest, most expensive hopes. Vietnam was the Pruitt-Igo of American wars. Both had been designed by the same mentality.

April 1975, the end of the American role in Vietnam, was ignominious and indelible — the last choppers lifting off the American embassy roof, Marines hammering the fingers of desperate Vietnamese trying to cling to the skids, and then the millions of dollars' worth of helicopters being pushed off the flight decks of carriers into the South China Sea to make way for more incoming helicopters. "Numbah Ten," as they said in Vietnam, the rout of the Dollar People.

The memory recedes at generational warp speed. Those who remember, remember. But a senior in college now was born three or four years after Saigon fell and changed its name to Ho Chi Minh City. I see the black POW-MIA flag still flying (though frayed) above a post office or police barracks in Massachusetts. No one raised an outcry of political correctness when John McCain referred some weeks ago to his North Vietnamese jailers as "gooks" — the feeling being, I guess, that his years at the Hanoi Hilton earned him a pass.

Memory is made of a weird elastic. World War II may be fresher now in the public mind than Vietnam. "Saving Private Ryan" brought it back, along with Tom Brokaw's book "The Greatest Generation." But in the next week, because of the anniversary, Vietnam will zoom close again in its vividness for those of us who remember it. To the young, it might as well be the Punic Wars.

Robert Frost wrote a poem called "Out, Out —" in which a boy using a buzz saw to cut stove wood is momentarily careless and cuts his own hand off, and then dies of shock. The others in the farmyard are stunned. But Frost ends with an interesting chill: "And they, since they/Were not the one dead, turned to their affairs."

We, because we are not the ones dead (the ones on the heartbreaking Vietnam memorial wall), have long since turned to our affairs, which since then have been moving at a blinding velocity. I sometimes wonder what the furious acceleration in the rate of change in our lives does to the faculty of memory and to the moral meanings we are capable of absorbing from our experience. It is now exactly a year since Colombine (so long ago), which shares the marker with Oklahoma City, ten thousand news cycles gone.

History is a firehose. I expect that any day now, we will enter a period of '90s nostalgia. We will recall Bill Gates and the high old times of the NASDAQ as if they were yesterday.