Mr Christopher's bag of bones

America has restored diplomatic relations with Vietnam, but it still cannot draw a line under the war

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I see that when the US Secretary of State, Warren Christopher, exchanged letters of diplomatic recognition with his Vietnamese counterpart, Nyuyen Manh Cam, on Saturday in Hanoi, Mr Christopher "was presented with the remains of Americans who died in the Vietnam war as part of efforts to account for those still missing". What the news item did not say was whether the Secretary of State had anything to offer in return.

There were something over 2,000 American MIAs (missing in action) in Vietnam, as a result of the war. There were 300,000 MIAs on the North Vietnamese/Vietcong side. While the form of the Saturday ceremonial was doubtless chosen with extreme care and tact, it does seem to have been the wrong way around. Vietnam comes across as saying, in the old catch- phrase from the war, "Sorry 'bout that." No doubt Mr Christopher was careful not to sound too wimpish in reply.

This giving of bones, this presentation of relics more than 20 years after the event (America disentangled its own troops in 1973, two years before the fall of Saigon), this homage to hurt feelings that are probably unassuageable - this will not "close the file". Not for minds that have fed upon defeat and injury, made it into a myth, made the myth into a creed, repeated the creed until its words are drained of sense.

I was reminded by Richard West's recent book, War and Peace in Vietnam, of the question asked by Rambo at the start of his Indochina mission to rescue MIAs: "Do we get to win this time?" Some people have a mentality that is stuck on the redress of past wrongs and mistakes, as if the war were on a tape which could be wound back and - interactively - altered, so that the wrong turning could be avoided, the gooks shot down as they poured through the perimeter fence, victory secured, honour preserved.

"Do we get to win this time?" Well, the first requirement for this replay is: we must have an excuse for getting back to Vietnam, and what better pretext could there be than that one has left thousands of one's fellow soldiers behind, in prison camps? It is a feeling that is bound to go deep: every US soldier who fought in Vietnam and survived would indeed have left comrades behind, in the sense that they were dead. Even if, as was normally the case, their physical bodies were shipped back home, in some sense, in the mind, they would still be lying on the battlefield.

So the lure of the myth came from its way of whispering in the veteran's ear: those dead comrades of yours, they're not dead after all. That was good news to the injured psyche. Then the voice continued seductively: not only are they not dead - you can actually do something for them, you can save them.

And this voice, so far, is speaking only to what is good and generous in the character - the impulse that makes people rush back into a burning building, at risk of life and limb. Or, if this impulse is not exactly good and generous, but more one of despair, the voice can be equally seductive. It tells you to go back into the burning building, there to die - because it would be better to die than to live with the fact of having abandoned, say, your children. Many people do in fact die, do kill themselves, because they are ashamed to have survived such an event, and it is found that such a shame at having survived may catch up with you at any moment of your life.

But there is a third thing that the voice might whisper in your ear, a thing of a rather different character. That old enemy of yours, it says, that old Charlie Cong - you could kill him again if you wanted. You could have another go at him, finish him off properly this time. This time, my friend, you might even "get to win".

This is the lure of the Rambo myth: you can go back to the war, it says, and you can redeem your honour and rescue your lost comrades, and, look! there's even a hidden reward. You will get to kill Charlie Cong again. You will wipe the smile off his lips for ever.

It is notorious that the issue of the American MIAs held up the normalisation of relations between the United States and Vietnam, the process that has now formally been completed. What is not true, however, is that diplomatic recognition was withheld out of respect for the feelings of the Vietnam vets. After all, if respect for the feelings of the vets were so powerful, other things would have been done for them; they would have been much better treated.

No, the Rambo myth was not designed exclusively for consumption by bona fide veterans. It was a piece of popular culture. It appealed to the vicious wishes of a non-combatant mentality - a mentality that can often be more bloodthirsty than that of the professional soldier. Sadism masquerading as concern for mythical POWs - there is a good deal of that in the Rambo culture: how vicious I would be (it says) if I were ever let loose on the battlefield (which, I am happy to say, I won't be).

Some people thought it ironic that Sylvester Stallone, Rambo himself, had spent part of the war years as a ski instructor in Switzerland. I thought it entirely appropriate, a perfect preparation for the character.

One might think that 20 years is a long time for a nation to remain vindictive towards a nation it has wronged and been defeated by. Then one remembers that the Korean war is still officially and in fact unresolved. And one thinks of the current battles in the Balkans, and the way they are elucidated by reference to the Second World War, the Ottoman Empire and beyond. Perhaps after all 20 years is rather a short time in politics.

What's impressive, though, is the different timescales on which people have been working. While those august relations between Washington and Hanoi have been waiting to thaw, actual Vietnamese families have lived through oppression, decided to flee, been picked up in the South China Sea and taken to the States, established themselves in exile, made contact afresh with the folk back home, begun regular remittances, become full US citizens, returned to Vietnam on vacation, set about finding their own "missing in action" family members - in short, created their own diaspora and got on with living. One might think of them as people with a legitimate grievance, but they do not act that way. It is Mr Christopher who acts like a man with a grievance, receiving his sad little tribute of bones in Hanoi.

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