Peter Pringle's America: Victims, losers or heroes?

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The Independent Online
ANEWSPAPER stand at Tim's Grocery Store at Eagle Bay, in the remote forests of upstate New York, is overflowing with the heroes and victims of war. On the front of the Adirondack Express, from whose pages spring stories of rural wholesomeness and national pride, there is a local hero, Air Force Lieutenant Malcolm Blue.

The navigator of a Liberator bomber, the young Blue was shot down on his first mission over France on 2 June 1944. After the war, Governor Thomas Dewey of New York was on hand for the dedication of a memorial - a plaque on a giant pine at Seventh Lake - which reads: 'This tree, created by God and old when our country was born, fine and clean and straight-grained like the boy himself.'

But the imperative to remember is not confined to the Normandy invasion. This year, Memorial Day, which originally honoured those who fought and died in the Civil War but which includes all veterans of foreign wars since then, has come in the same week as the anniversary of D-Day. So who, or what, to recall? And how to remember them?

Among the tales retold in the press are two from that other, more recent foreign entanglement, Vietnam - bitter reminders of which still burden Americans. The heroes of that war have too readily become victims.

Consider the case of Sam Brown. He was a hero to many young people in the Sixties, not because of his actions at the front but because he became a leading anti-war protester. Last November, he was nominated by President Clinton to be the next US ambassador to the Conference on Security and Co-operation in Europe. Not a high-profile job, but a worthy one.

But because he opposed the Vietnam war, conservatives in Congress do not want him as ambassador, or any kind of envoy, for the United States. They have vigorously fought his nomination and refused to provide the necessary votes in the Senate for his confirmation. Mr Brown has been called a dangerous radical - even today, as though no time had passed between then and now. As though an act once seen as un-American eternally remains so.

'The Sam Browns of this world,' said Senator Robert Smith, a Republican from the conservative northern state of New Hampshire, 'are the people who throughout the Cold War opposed what we did to fight Communism.'

Senator Smith accused Bill Clinton of continuing to 'surround himself with the type of people he protested with in the golden years of the anti-war movement'. And, the senator added: 'It is having a devastating effect on the quality and effectiveness of our national security policy.'

Such is the onslaught against Mr Brown that the Clinton administration has all but given up hope of the Senate approving him, but may still send him to Europe anyway, in some semi-official capacity, as plain Mr Brown.

The second Vietnam story concerns the suicide last month of Lewis Puller, who lost both his legs and parts of his hands in the summer of 1968 when he stepped on a booby-trap mine. Amazingly, he lived. Though he was confined to a wheelchair, he made an extraordinary recovery and became a lawyer at the Pentagon. Then he wrote a book about the struggle to put his life back together that won him the Pulitzer Prize and is among the classics on the war and its aftermath. The title of the book, Fortunate Son, recalls his father, a marine-general who retired in 1955 as the most decorated soldier in the history of the corps.

In facing up so bravely to the challenge of his monstrous disfigurement, Puller became a hero of survival as well as of war and a source of strength for the other 300,000 Vietnam vets who came home wounded. Many of them suffered, like Puller, from drugs and alcohol problems. In his final days, his marriage also fell apart.

When Puller turned his gun on himself he became an instant victim in the public's eyes. Although there are no accurate statistics, the number of suicides among wounded veterans is reportedly higher than that among the population in general. Invariably, they are classed as victims - the 'losers'. But that is often not how their friends see them.

Puller's grieving comrades have objected strongly to him becoming a stereotype in death: the damaged veteran unable to live with the demons of war. The vast majority of Vietnam veterans overcome the trauma of war and become successful businessmen, professionals, even politicians. One friend, the journalist Terry Anderson, points out that there are three times as many Vietnam vets in the US Senate as their numbers in the general population would suggest.

At the time of his death, Lewis Puller was working on a living memorial to the 2 million men, women and children who died in Vietnam - the construction of several schools in Quang Tri province, the poorest in that country. He had already raised sufficient funds to begin and his friends will finish the job. A dignitary will dedicate the schools. In this way we should remember them.

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