It is 40 years since what we call “the fall of Saigon” and we are still struggling with memory. Forty years since the North Vietnamese reunified their own country and we still don’t know what to make of it. The military is trying to find as many heroic stories as it can to somehow recast the whole war as heroic. Anti-war activists are jumping on their anti-war horses to make sure that doesn’t happen. Most people just want to think about something else, everyone is confused and meanwhile, memory persists.
Cultural language betrays the confusion and often, wittingly or unwittingly, perpetuates it. “Remembering” veterans, usually means thanking them for their service, without considering if that is what they want. “Never forget” is a sign of loyalty but it is hard not to hear in it as well the veiled threat of blood feud. And in a particularly provocative moment during a Smithsonian documentary about the power of the Vietnam Memorial, the narrator spoke in hushed tones about “memories that refuse to die.”
As a nation we avoid the topic of that wretched war, or pay it only the most glib and superficial attention. At the same time, we are, evidently, haunted by zombies. The dead are not just the 58,000, plus the unnumbered war-related casualties since 1975. The dead are also the national shattered pride, betrayed ideals, and denied responsibility. These dead are like the shrouded figure who walks in uninvited, sits on a stool by the fire, and stamps the floor from time to time with its staff, demanding tribute.
Veterans themselves do the best with memory, though as I watch I see how much it costs them. Veterans are clear about remembering: they just do it. They honor the ones who died by bringing their names to mind, or calling them aloud, or visiting them at The Wall. They do it loudly, like Rolling Thunder, or they do it quietly, like Mark when he posts a picture on Facebook, but they do it. I deeply admire that. There are people in my life who died young, but I have no community in which to honor their short lives, no yearly ritual by which to pay my respects, no community of grief.
Those directly affected by war become its curators – they are the ones to decide when it is time for it to be over. In Vietnam they tell us it is over for them and that helps. But it isn’t over for us. The memories refuse to die because we have not been able to put them to rest. There is as yet no context large enough to contain what we lost in those years. Will we be able to create the new world that is meant to arise, phoenix-like, from the ashes? Those of us in the Vietnam generation have 10 years before the 50th anniversary of our tragic withdrawal from our tragic involvement. Let that be enough to allow the shrouded figure to receive its due and the dead at last to rest in peace.