It was, as the 19th century author observer once put it so well, the best of times and the worst of times.

In late April of 1975, the United States, a place Charles Dickens gave little thought to when he penned the immortal opening of A Tale of Two Cities, was going through the final throes of a morality play that had quite literally ripped the very fabric of our society right down the middle.

Those not alive and cognizant of that helicopter lifting off the roof of the U.S. embassy in downtown Saigon, those last few lucky souls clinging to its metal rings and floor rigging and the truly desperate condemned left on that precarious platform reaching into the wind-blown sky for a lifeline that was quickly shrinking in the smoky distance and would never return, cannot relate I am sure.

But that was certainly the worst of times for a nation, this one, which had just lost its first ever war. And then again it might be said to have been the best of times, as well, as for perhaps the first time in human history, a country's citizens had reached up almost in unison and put a stranglehold on its national leadership -- virtually putting a stop to the very same war.

It was the worst of times for a country which had gone as far out on a political limb as humanly possible, dragging tens of thousands of people we used to call South Vietnamese with us, only to extricate ourselves and then allow the branch to be sawed off behind us. And it was the best of times for a generation of Americans who could, just this once, look at themselves as a movement that had turned an entire national consciousness from war to peace.

It was surely a time that had never come before, and to date at least, has yet to ever come again.

Not to have lived at that time in American history, is to never know what really happened to us. And yet, even living through it, we will certainly never know as well.

It took the better part of the last 30 years, really, for me to finally come to grips with what I thought had happened to me and a million or so others who served in any capacity in that war.

There is no one real train of thought that follows that experience. Unlike most of this country's conflicts, the light filtered through the prism of time seems to change my feelings on the subject the farther I manage to get from it.

In the early 1970s, when we were still suffering under the illusion that what we did and what we were doing still had not only meaning, but a chance of success. American right and might was still going to triumph. There was indeed a light at the end of the proverbial tunnel, which was coming up at any moment now.

And those feelings were so strong it caused me and God knows how many others to turn completely against anything or anyone who thought differently -- from the ''hippies'' in the streets to the weak-kneed liberal politicians in Washington, who but for their intrigue and interference and cowardly indecision we would have won.

But as the years passed and the dominoes didn't fall, as we were all assured they would if we didn't have the will to win in Vietnam, things started to change.

It didn't take much more than ten years to discover that winning all the battles is a long way from winning the war. And that it wasn't a matter of winning on the battlefield, which we were foolishly tricked into believing. It was winning the ''hearts and minds'' of a people whose hearts and minds were concerned with little more than producing the next rice crop and holding on to enough of it to feed their families. We tried to instill in a war- weary populace, many of whom knew nothing but killing and dying for generations, a concept they neither understood nor cared to understand.

Democracy is an ideal that cannot be exported, which is a lesson we paid such a high price to learn. It is either home grown or it is nonexistent. And it is certainly not an endless succession of toy-soldier heads of state, who have to be elevated to power on ballots that depend on pictures because the voting populace can't read.

Perhaps we should have considered ourselves lucky that it only cost 58,000 lives finding that out. But any one of those 58,000, if given the opportunity and all the facts, would most assuredly not agree.

I sometimes doubt that if suddenly brought back to life and shown what their sacrifice actually wrought, not only on that land but this one, they would feel very good about the price as well.

We also learned, but from the looks of things ever since, not very well, that a people, no matter where they may live on this globe other than here, must make their own decisions about political structures and economic futures.

I find myself with a much different view of that fateful day the last chopper lifted off the embassy roof in what became, in almost a matter of hours after that departure, Ho Chi Minh City.

I am suddenly a lot closer in mind and spirit to those who screamed us out of that war from every major street in this land than I will ever be to both the men who sent us and those who now, even though they were nowhere to be found at the time, are suddenly such avid supporters of our efforts and valor.

Because, after all, in the final analysis, the demonstrators and the politicians who spoke to and for them way back then, were right. They won their war, even as and probably because we were losing ours.

And actually, their basic struggle was aimed at keeping me and others from ever having to go in the first place.

So, actually, I had then and have now a lot more in common with them than I ever did with the old men who sent me to die.

Uploaded to The Zephyr Online May 3, 2000

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