(Published on The New Yorker website)
From time to time during the American war in Iraq which began in 2003, aging Vietnam veterans wearing baseball caps and khaki jackets emblazoned with pins, patches, and the names of their units gathered at the small commercial airport in Bangor, Maine. A few older vets of more noble wars were sometimes among them, frail men from the Second World War and Korea, as they assembled in the passenger lounge to greet returning troops when their planes touched down for refuelling. Bangor would be the arrivals’ first contact with American soil since they left for the zone of combat.
At the gate, the Vietnam vets usually formed two lines—as an avenue of welcome, of course, not a gauntlet. They were giving something that many of them felt they had not received decades earlier. . .
Through the years, our varied ways of thinking about the Americans who fought that war, which ended ignominiously forty years ago this week, have been characterized by tension between a sense of virtue and a sense of shame. Americans cannot agree amongst themselves on what happened there, on what might have happened had we done one thing or another differently, or on what would have happened if justice and morality had prevailed.