The Boomer is dawdling over a mug of coffee at his favorite breakfast place, ready to be late for work, so I ask him why he can’t seem to put his ass in gear and get his day started and he says, Vietnam.
Oops! That’s a black magic word.
Baby boomers know what the word means, in all its definitions. But you may not have the privilege of being a boomer. You may not know more than Vietnam is a country in a far corner of the world where the United States chose to make one of its longest and least profitable wars.
So here we go, says The Boomer, explain it all to me.
I mean, The Boomer says, there are things everyone else understands about life that I don’t understand at all. Some things commonsensical to other people are mysteries to me. Like why wars happen. Why did Vietnam happen and why did it happen in the 1960s when I was young and itching to start life with a bang?
Why, The Boomer says, did the fabulous 1960s sweep me up into war?
I don’t suppose, I say, pouring my own coffee, you want to hear the usual rot about our stopping the stinking Commie rats on the far frontiers of the American Way?
No, he says. I want an explanation why I had to go over there and do the god-awful things I did. I want to know why now, a couple of generations later, none of what I did over there and the buddies who died there means anything at all.
Because the Vietnamese are our pals now? I ask him. Most Favored Nation trading status and U.S. tourists going over there to gawk the lovely countryside we tried to bomb and burn to ruin and eat the great local food we tried to starve those people out of? That what you mean?
Is that really what the war was all about? The Boomer asks. Killing enough of them until they became our friends and trading partners? Until we could make a lot of money together?
I think you’re being romantic and stupid, I say to The Boomer. We’ve fought a lot of wars and only every now and then does one of them turn out a success. Like World War II ending German/Italian fascism and Japanese imperialism. The Vietnam war was one of those many that just didn’t work out for us, that’s all. Don’t sweat it.
The Boomer shoves aside his coffee mug. Today’s the day I came home from that war, he says. It’s my fiftieth anniversary.
Ah, I think, that’s why he’s in this mood. But I say, So what? Lots of men and women can say the same. You want us to declare a national holiday for your anniversary? Get real, Boomer, and forget all about it.
Yeah, I guess that’s what we ought to do, he says. We killed three million Vietnamese in that war for just 57,000 of our own dead. Plus the dead soldiers from South Korea, Australia, New Zealand, Thailand, Cambodia, Laos and the Taiwanese mercenaries.
I do a calculation on my smartphone and say, That’s a kill ratio of fifty to one. We should’ve won that war. Why didn’t we?
But we did win the war, says The Boomer. We’ve just forgotten why.
How did we win a war we lost? I say, confused.
By discovering how stupid we are about war, he says. We Americans like war. We might even love it. We’re always ready to make war. We’re just not very clever about choosing which wars to make or which enemies to go after.
How does that mean we won the Vietnam war?
Here we are, you and me, says The Boomer, brooding over morning coffee and wishing to hell we hadn’t gone to that place and done the things we did there, and left those people in misery and ruin. But those folks over there, the Vietnamese, are doing business with us today and welcoming our tourists and all those other normal things countries do for each other. And we haven’t got the sense of shame in us to apologize to them for what we did in Vietnam.
So that’s how we won the war? I say. By having no shame?
The Boomer glances at his watch. Going to miss work today but so what? It’s my fiftieth anniversary of the war and my private holiday. Tomorrow, I’ll do something else about the war.
I’ll apply some black magic, says The Boomer, and forget about it.
Now I am confused. But what about the shame? I say.
© 2016 Steven Hardesty