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Urban Rhythms

Right and Wrong

By Wiley Hall III | Posted 3/6/2002

Early in the big battle depicted in the new movie We Were Soldiers, a young officer is struck by enemy fire. It is Vietnam, 1965. The soldier falls back into his comrade's arms, writhing in pain. Cradled in the lap of his weeping buddy, the wounded soldier looks up into the heavens (really the hovering camera). Suddenly, a look of inner peace sweeps over his face. He states clearly and heroically, "I'm glad I could die for my country." Then he closes his eyes as the music swells.

Two decades ago, I would have gagged and stormed to the exits. Even today, I find it hard to believe that I could sit there with a straight face and watch a movie that romanticizes one of the ugliest conflicts in U.S. history.

Put those words into the mouth of a dying soldier on the beach at Normandy during Saving Private Ryan and I might cringe, but at least I'd hold down my lunch. But Vietnam! Vietnam was a war that turned us against ourselves, second only to the Civil War in its divisiveness. Vietnam was a war that seemed, at least to some of us, to cast the old red, white, and blue in the role of the bad guy. Even our soldiers were divided. Mouth that patriotic claptrap during a battle in Vietnam and your buddy might drop you in the mud to die.

The death scene described above was one false moment in an otherwise moving film. And even that scene wasn't as jarringly cornball as it may sound. We Were Soldiers is based the book We Were Soldiers Once . . . and Young, a firsthand account by Lt. Gen. Hal Moore and journalist Joe Galloway of the first major battle between U.S. soldiers and units of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam. Therefore, I have to assume that a dying soldier may have said that, or something like it. Who knows what I would have said in the same circumstances? Maybe something similar, although "Ouch!" comes to mind.

The fact is, I no longer harbor the kind of adolescent outrage that I once held about the Vietnam War. I've grown up and moved on. Most of those on the left side of the great divide have grown up as well.

Would that I could say the same for those on the right. Many of them seem stuck on stupid.

Vietnam taught us--or should have taught us--two great lessons. Those on the left unfairly blamed ordinary soldiers for the policies of the government. Burning the flag was an infantile thing to do, but spitting on returning veterans was vile. Over time, we have learned to distinguish between the valor of the soldiers who fought in Vietnam and the deceit and treachery of the politicians who put those soldiers in harm's way. It would have been nice if the right had learned its lesson as well--that there is a difference between loving one's country and loving the individuals who happen to be in power, that questioning authority is not treason. But I am not sure the right has learned anything at all.

Time and again, conservatives have demonstrated that their attitudes haven't changed much from the "America, love it or leave it" and "my country, right or wrong," mode of the '60s. Just as in the past, they have a very narrow, egocentric definition of "my country." We got a taste of this early in the war on terrorism, when White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer warned the press that raising questions about Bush administration policies gave comfort to the enemy. We got another from those unnamed sources within the administration who suggested, under cover of anonymity, that John Walker Lindh's liberal parents were responsible for his decision to run off and fight for the Taliban.

The makers of We Were Soldiers left the conflict on the home front out of their movie. Anyway, the anti-war protest movement was in its infancy in 1965, when the Ia Drang Valley battle took place. But if you are of a certain age, you can't avoid bringing your own context into the theater with you.

Still, as I watched the movie, I gave little thought to the lies and follies of LBJ and Tricky Dick. I found myself rooting for the young U.S. soldiers--men only a little older than I was then--doing their duty and excelling against incredible odds. Several people in the theater sobbed. I sobbed too (although, needless to say, mine were manly tears).

It was only after the movie that I thought about the lessons of Vietnam. They were soldiers. Once. And young. They were our soldiers. We have to salute their valor. We have to honor their sacrifice. I understand this now.

But those on the right do not seem to understand that as citizens, as parents, we have an absolute duty to hold our officials accountable for the policies that put our young men and women in harm's way.

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