Nearly 30 years ago, a student -- a big, rough-hewn guy sitting in the back of the class -- raised his hand and asked, more or less out of nowhere, "So, what do you think of the Vietnam War?"
In the early '80s, Vietnam was still present in the lives of many -- like my college roommate's, for example, who survived a year in the infantry and came home intact, but hadn't yet managed to leave Vietnam entirely behind.
Or in the lives of the family of the halfback on our high school football team, David Connell, who became an Army officer and was killed in Vietnam. I, myself, had laid eyes on that lovely country in 1972, but from the comfortable distance of several miles and the safe vantage point of the deck of the USS Bainbridge.
During the decade after the war, I'd also read a lot of books about Vietnam, including Frances FitzGerald's Fire in the Lake and David Halberstam's The Best and the Brightest, books that, even before the war was over, carefully took into account the long history of conflict in Vietnam and considered how little we knew about who was fighting whom and why.
And I was familiar with the work of soldiers and journalists who'd seen the war up close and come home to write good books about it, books like A Rumor of War (Philip Caputo), If I Die in a Combat Zone (Tim O'Brien), and Dispatches (Michael Herr). Nobody depicts the squalor, misery, and (usually) the futility of war better than these fine writers.
So here was a war that was misconceived from the beginning, that was executed with flawed and brutal tactics, that resulted in the deaths of nearly 60,000 Americans and millions of Vietnamese, and that accomplished essentially nothing. I provided my student with some careful, measured version of this answer.
He said, "I was just wondering what you thought. Two of my brothers got killed over there."
Two! Now, 30 years later, his brothers are still dead, while the blunderers and perpetrators of Vietnam -- Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, Henry Kissinger, Robert McNamara, the rest of "the best and the brightest" -- suffered no real consequences for their failures, mismanagement and corruption, and most of them eventually rehabilitated their careers to semi-respectability.
This is the context that occurred to me a few days ago when I came across on the Internet an open letter from Tomas Young to former President George W. Bush and former Vice President Dick Cheney. He'd posted it last week to mark the 10th anniversary of the Iraq War.
Young joined the Army two days after 9/11 to fight the forces that attacked us from their base in Afghanistan. A classic victim of Bush's tragic bait-and-switch, Young was sent to Iraq, rather than Afghanistan, and was shot through the spine five days after he arrived.
Paralyzed for years, he was the subject of the 2007 documentary "Body of War." In recent years his health has deteriorated, and now he's in hospice care. He says he doesn't have long to live.
Young is angry about what happened to him, and he hits Bush and Cheney hard. From the beginning of his short Army career he was willing to suffer, and even die, for his country, but he regrets being tricked into losing everything in a war that was unnecessary, unwinnable and ill-advised from the beginning.
He challenges Bush and Cheney to muster the moral courage to face up to the suffering and destruction they're responsible for.
Young wants them to "pay the consequences." This is unlikely, however. Not much has changed since Vietnam. Men like Bush and Cheney are protected by their wealth, their connections and their pedigrees, as well as by our traditional unwillingness to hold leaders like these to account for their blunders and malfeasance. Why are we so reluctant?
In the meantime, it's our soldiers and their families -- the real patriots -- who suffer. Search the Internet for "Tomas Young" and you'll see what I mean.
(John Crisp teaches in the English Department at Del Mar College in Corpus Christi, Texas.)