Memorial Day memories

It’s been nearly 30 years since U.S. troops pulled out of Vietnam, but for American combat veterans of that war, memories remain fresh, often disturbingly so.

We were reminded of that this week, when two Vietnam vets came into our offices to express their anger and hurt because of a cartoon strip that appeared in our May 10 issue. One of those vets, retired Maj. Ole Quiberg, of Chico, wrote an essay in response to the offending cartoon. You can find it, along with a reprint of the cartoon, on page 13.

Major Quiberg’s anger and dismay are understandable. The cartoonist, Ted Rall, who was at most a child when the war was being fought, clearly wanted to make a statement about the controversy surrounding war-crimes allegations made against U.S. Sen. Bob Kerrey. His strip, however, comes off as a cheap shot from someone who doesn’t know what he’s talking about. It takes a horrific and complex situation and from it distills a facile, simplistic set of indictments. Correct in some particulars, it’s terribly wrong overall.

We’re sorry it upset Major Quiberg and anyone else who shared his reaction, but we’re glad that it compelled him to write his heartfelt essay, which we are happy to publish. That essay, in turn, has made us reflect once again about the Vietnam War, right in time, appropriately, for Memorial Day.

As Major Quiberg mentions, reminding us of something we shouldn’t need reminding of, the soldiers who went to Vietnam did so because their country asked them to go. Not because, as Rall suggests, some “right-wing wack jobs” in Congress or the White House or at the Pentagon asked them to go, but because their country did so.

In that sense, they were only the implementers of policies for which all Americans were responsible, even those who disagreed with and opposed the war. The soldiers were the hands of a body politic that chose to go to war. As cynical and devious as the process may have been that got us into that war, and no matter how each of us felt about the war at the time, the process was ours. Collectively, we were a democratic nation that chose to go to war in Vietnam. That’s what makes Rall so grievously wrong: He fails to accept responsibility, choosing instead to cast blame.

The soldiers who fought in Vietnam were no different than those who fought in World War II. Yes, the war was different. The conditions were different. Many Americans questioned the costs of the war. As a society, we became deeply confused about it. But to blame the soldiers who risked their lives daily and saw horrors most of us can’t even imagine is plain wrong. It’s time for such blaming to cease. As Major Quiberg so rightly states, we need to honor our Vietnam veterans, honor the Vietnamese people, and finally heal the wounds of that terrible war.