The 50th-anniversary commemoration of the Vietnam War should be a time of reflection and redemption, when a grateful country pays a long-standing debt to veterans who nobly fought in the conflict but camehome to scorn and spit. But if a Pentagon bureaucrat has his way, the Viet vets will be denied their rightful honors once again.
In 2008, Congress authorized the secretary of defense to "conduct a program to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Vietnam War" to "thank and honor veterans of the Vietnam War," "pay tribute to the contributions made on the home front," highlight technological advances during the war and "recognize the contributions and sacrifices" of U.S. allies. The Defense Department also was charged with coordinating, supporting and facilitating "other programs and activities of the Federal Government, State and local governments, and other persons and organizations in commemoration of the Vietnam War." The proposed budget for the commemorations was $100 million, which was less than the amount spent on the World War II and Korean War commemoration efforts. For example, the 1984 commemoration of the Normandy landings alone cost $38 million.
The commission charged with executing this mission sought a commemoration that would be in keeping with the spirit of the intent of Congress. The idea was to have a series of commemorations that would begin in 2009, 50 years after the July 8, 1959, Viet Cong attack at Bien Hoa killed Army Maj. Dale R. Buis and Master Sgt. Chester M. Ovnand, the first two names on the wall of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. The commemorations were slated to continue until 2025 and the 50th anniversary of the fall of Saigon.
According to a source familiar with the workings of the commission, it proposed a series of events to take place at various locations around the country to maximize opportunities for aging Vietnam vets to attend them. The events were designed to combine symbolism with substance and were chosen carefully, with input from an interagency group of historians. One planned event was to take place in the fall of 2011 to commemorate the 1965 battle in the la Drang Valley, dramatized in the film "We Were Soldiers." The event was to be held in Auburn, Ala., home of retired Army Lt. Gen. Harold G. "Hal" Moore, who commanded the troops in the fight. Gen. Moore is emblematic of the veteran population in more ways than one; he is in poor health, and members of the commission fear he may not be available to attend the event.
According to the Department of Veterans Affairs, 300 Vietnam vets are dying every day, and as our source asked, "Why are we waiting to get this started?"
Enter Michael L. Rhodes, director of administration and management at the Pentagon. His office has been given oversight over the anniversary commission, which he has downgraded to a "planning staff." Mr. Rhodes has made meaningful work by the commission next to impossible and has sought drastically to scale back the planned commemorations. According to an August action memo prepared by Mr. Rhodes for Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates and obtained by The Washington Times, he urged Mr. Gates to reject the proposed commemoration program and adopt instead a "targeted" $30 million program. The memo describes the new approach as "a dignified and meaningful DoD Program of national recognition [that] need not be tied to the full timeframe of U.S. military involvement" and that will "provide nation-wide participation, while utilizing the resources involved in the most effective manner."
Mr. Rhodes' plan cuts the time frame of the commemoration down to 2015-18 and inexplicably features a kickoff in his former home of Honolulu, which is not exactly a resource-effective location. Hawaii is inaccessible for most veterans and is in a time zone where most Americans could not watch the event live on television.
In May, the commission met with representatives of 60 veterans organizations to solicit their views.
They had hoped to create an advisory board with representatives of officer and enlisted ranks from each of the services. Our source said Mr. Rhodes would allow only one veteran, at most. The commission had planned to meet in October with representatives of 200 museums, libraries and educational institutions to help coordinate efforts and fulfill the mandate from Congress to work with other entities. The week before the meeting was to be held, Mr. Rhodes ordered it canceled and further ordered that no other outreach efforts be undertaken. Our source also said Mr. Rhodes ordered that information on the website be cut back so as not to set "unrealistic expectations."
The 50th anniversary of the Vietnam War is too important to be left to someone with Mr. Rhodes' limited vision. This effort requires high-level attention to fulfill the bipartisan mandate from Congress. It needs an executive agent, preferably a Vietnam vet, who is enthusiastic about the mission and will not turn it into a shabby token commemoration. The Obama administration has a bad enough reputation among veterans without signing off on this ill-advised plan. Whether the White House was involved in this affair or not, it surely will take the blame. Failing action from the executive branch, Congress should intervene to make sure the anniversary commemoration is undertaken in a way that fulfills its intent. The Vietnam generation deserves better than stripped-down, pro-forma honors. Its veterans were spit on once - they must not be treated that way again.
James S. Robbins is senior editorial writer for foreign affairs at The Washington Times and author of "This Time We Win: Revisiting the Tet Offensive" (Encounter Books, 2010).
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