The Forgotten Warriors

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A nation begins to understand, as the Viet Nam vets wait for their parade

Among the Monumbos of German New Guinea anyone who has slain a foe in war becomes thereby "unclean "... [He] must remain a long time in the men's clubhouse . .. He may touch nobody, not even his own wife and children; if he were to touch them it is believed that they would be covered with sores. He becomes clean again by washing and using other modes of purification.

—Sir James George Frazer, The Golden Bough

Americans have always been good at homecoming ceremonies, the public splashes with which victors are cleansed: "The men will cheer, the boys will shout/ the ladies they will all turn out/ and we'll all feel gay/ when Johnny comes marching home."

After Kilroy crushed Tojo and Hitler, and sailed home en masse, all the nation came down to the docks: to wave the flag, to weep, to gather its own back into the American embrace.

Nothing was too good for those wonderful guys. The mere uniform made a man a hero: He could hardly pay for his own drinks. Congress stuffed his pockets with benefits. He joined the proud brotherhood of the "ruptured duck," the eagle that everyone wore in his lapel to prove he'd been in it, had done his part. The awful memories of combat and carnage were bathed away in the great national wash of relief and welcome. Hardly any Americans thought much then, or even afterward, about Dresden blasted, Hamburg gone, Hiroshima and Nagasaki reduced to radioactive powder. All of those American firestorms had, of course, consumed innocent civilians. But, the ceremonies said, never mind, evil went down for the count. Ego te absolvo. You boys did what you had to do. Where were you anyway—the Bulge? Anzio? Tarawa? Iwo? Say, that must have been tough. Tell me about it. Let me buy you another one.

The troops who went to Korea got a muted version of the welcome. But then came America's longest, strangest war. From that one, in Viet Nam, the boys came home alone, mostly one by one. Sometimes they would arrive in the middle of the night, almost as if they were sneaking back. It was an abrupt, surreal transition—36 hours earlier, they had been in Nam, humping through that alien place with too much firepower and confusion and moral responsibility on their backs. Then they were plucked out of their bizarre yearlong excursion, set down in commercial jetliners, the stewardesses passing among them like sweet American hallucinations, Hefner visions, and dropped out of the sky back into an America that had turned ugly. In Seattle, some pus-gut in an American Legion cap used to greet the boys by spitting at them. "Losers!" he screamed. "Candy-ass losers!"

A trooper would head for the bar and order a beer. "You got ID?" the bartender would demand. Well, it was the nation's first teen-aged war. An adolescent might be old enough to look upon (even to perform) horrors that would make Goya turn away. But back home, he was not old enough to drink. And in a day or two, if the soldier stayed in uniform, a fellow American would ask some stunning, stopping version of: "How many babies did you kill?" For many Viet Nam veterans, the moment of return, that bleak homecoming, was the beginning of a long rage.

The brick buildings of the Sepulveda

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