Long Time Gone

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This is, of course, the title of a David Crosby song featured on the eponymous 1969 album Crosby, Stills and Nash. And more than just riffing on the title of my colleague Mark Thompson’s post from earlier today, it also describes the sensation I had during a meeting held at the Library of Congress for authors and historians as an introduction to the Department of Defense 50th Anniversary Commemoration of the Vietnam War. Yep, 50 years.

Now, to preclude every historian, political scientist and veteran in America writing me personally to tell me when, precisely, the Vietnam War or even America’s participation in the Vietnam War began, this is a congressionally authorized program. Your elected officials decided the dates, not me. Write to them if you want to quibble. Nonetheless, it’s been 38 years since the Paris Peace Accords ended U.S. involvement in the war, and United States troops had been on the ground for a generation prior.

For those of you who weren’t paying attention or who are too young to remember, the war split the American people along generational, race and class lines in a way that no other foreign war had. There were massive peaceful demonstrations, violent riots in the streets, U.S. troops firing on unarmed American civilians and terrorist bombings.  In the end, nearly 60,000 Americans died in the Vietnam War and our nation emerged vastly changed.

As we’re watching two other costly wars begin to wind down, there are comparisons between the two eras to be made. One, certainly, is that today’s social and political climate, so often described as toxic, is benign compared to 1968. Another is that in these current wars, less than 1% of the population is actively serving in the military; without a draft, considerably fewer people have skin in the game. Finally, we can look to the post-Vietnam years for lessons on rebuilding and restructuring our military and caring for our veterans and their families after the war. We didn’t do a very good job then, let’s hope we do it better this time.