Military history is fascinating, albeit more to some than to others. For a handful of Americans, it's not enough to read about Bunker Hill or Bull Run. They need to get out in the mud and shoulder a musket while wearing authentically scratchy woolen underpants and feel what it was like to be there when the hot lead flew. Bully for them. It's not my bag.
Still, the war re-enacting hobby seems a little less quaint and eccentric when the war in question is a living memory — a never-ending trauma, in some cases — for tens of thousands of soldiers who had to fight it.
Last month, Genaro C. Armas of The Associated Press wrote a widely circulated feature story on Vietnam re-enactors, and it didn't take long before veterans reacted. Something bothered them, and it wasn't necessarily the re-enacting.
Vietnam veterans far too often feel they have never been thanked for their service, much less received the proper help for injuries and ailments they suffered in that service. One veteran whom I frequently correspond with, reflecting on the nearly 40 years since his 14 months in Vietnam, noted the recent hoopla surrounding the four-decade anniversary of Woodstock. He was in Vietnam and missed the free-love fest. "One time I was told by another that they did not like that war. My reply was I did not like it either," he wrote, the conversation still vivid.
That's not to say some aren't trying to provide recognition. U.S. Rep. Emanuel Cleaver announced he would hold an event, possibly with '60s-era celebrities, to honor Vietnam War veterans.
A USO-style celebration 40 years late? Cleaver acknowledged that too much time had passed. And maybe that is exactly why these efforts, however well intentioned, feel so shortsighted. We’re years too late, playing catch-up with guilt-fueled attempts to make amends. Obviously, it would have been far nobler to do the right thing in the first place.
But what, really, is the right way to honor Vietnam vets today? As the AP story reported, the Vietnam war re-enactors claimed that their hobby was a way to honor those who served their country in Vietnam. But the re-enactors, however meticulously they tried to re-create the jungles of Indochina in the woods of Pennsylvania, could not possibly mimic the experiences of the men and women they so wish to honor.
If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, what is the effect of duplication that leaves out what is most relevant, most traumatic? Or worse, that offends so many of whom it intends to praise? As one Vietnam vet pointed out on a message board, those intent on play-acting Vietnam obviously will never know what it feels like to wipe the brains of your just-blown-up buddy from your own helmet.
Comments from other vets were equally harsh and poignant: "I saw a lot of kids die for absolutely nothing, and I don't want to see punks playing war games." "What's historical about killing millions of Vietnamese? Not to mention a generation of young Americans?" "What would YOU do if a Vietcong child was running up to you yelling, 'Hey Joe' and you can clearly see the grenades he's wearing? Would you shoot or watch your whole squad get blown to hell and gone?"
Meanwhile, back in the all too real world of those who served, note that the standing committees of the Vietnam Veterans of America include: Agent Orange/Dioxin and Toxic Exposures, Homeless Veterans, POW/MIA and Veterans Incarcerated.
The real-time problems these committees address are no re-enactment. Wouldn't joining efforts to make troubled vets whole go further in honoring the veterans, rather than half-witted simulations of events many would rather forget?