Wars transform nations. Then they end, and as their veterans die, they fade from living memory into history. That is now happening to the Vietnam War, the conflict that dominated both America’s foreign policy and its domestic politics for much of the 1960s and 70s.
Two million Vietnam vets left
Losing the last living link to a war is an important moment in the life of a nation. The death in 1956 of Albert Woolson (106), the last undisputed veteran of the Civil War, was significant enough to be acknowledged by President Eisenhower himself. For Vietnam, the “Woolson moment” is still far off. Of the 2.7 million Americans who served in Vietnam, just under two million* are still alive. But as many are now in their late 70s, their numbers will start to decline rapidly.
For most other Americans, “Vietnam” is ancient history. Heck, even Rambo is 40 years old. The nearest intimation anybody under 50 has of what the war must have felt like, came last year, with the chaotic U.S. evacuation of Kabul. As some with long memories said, it was so eerily reminiscent of the Fall of Saigon in 1975.
But mostly, the Vietnam War has fallen off the radar. Perhaps, this is not so surprising. The martial appetite of those vast legions of armchair generals is sated by an endless stream of content about World War II. As for Vietnam: Communism, which Americans went there to stop from spreading, is no longer a geopolitical threat. Vietnam itself is now an exotic holiday destination for Americans, even a potential ally against China.
Yet there are still doors in time that open directly from here and now into the horror of what the Vietnamese call “the American War.” Pictures, mainly — of that Buddhist monk, self-immolating in anti-war protest, or of that girl, naked and crying because of the napalm that flattened her village and burned her skin.