Today marks the 35th anniversary of the fall of Saigon. But to many of us, even those who never fought, the war never ended. To forty-somethings like myself, who were born at the tail end of the baby boom, Vietnam was the defining event of our childhoods. We were too young to be drafted. But our adolescence was framed by Walter Cronkite’s authoritative voice announcing the war’s weekly death toll; I can still see the weekly casualty figures projected on a screen behind Cronkite’s round head.
The Vietnam War didn’t end for us when American troops withdrew in 1973. It didn’t end when North Vietnamese tanks stormed Saigon in 1975. Like a disease, the war lingered for years. I grew up amid the ashes of defeat, recrimination, the overpowering shame and despair that America had lost a war and lost its way.
Now Vietnam is happening all over again. The names and places have changed, and so has the context. Instead of stopping Communism, it’s now stopping terrorism. But we still see broadcasts of American troops warily patrolling foreign lands. We still talk of counterinsurgency and winning the hearts and minds of the locals, even though we know deep down that they don’t like us and they never will. Already the recriminations have begun over who started the war and why. Whether U.S. troops leave Iraq and Afghanistan next year or in 10 years, those wars will haunt us for decades.