DEFENDING AMERICA
David H. Hackworth
Column 1

IT'S TIME TO DECLARE PEACE

I just returned from my sixth tour in Vietnam. No body bags or Purple Hearts this trip -- only the glimmer of sunshine and some promise of blue skies tomorrow.

The first five tours were Journeys without Joy, during which I saw hundreds of comrades killed and thousands wounded while fighting a mindless war we all knew could not be won. I'd seen the earth scorched with "villages destroyed so we could save them," the land razed by bomb, shell and defoliant, and the people relentlessly slaughtered

The Vietnam War was the biggest made-in-the-USA genocide program since Custer and his military associates wasted the American Indian.

Tour number six was upbeat. The killing has stopped in Vietnam, and now out in the paddies there are no guns, mines or uniforms. The people are frantically digging their way out of the bomb crater into which millions of tons of munitions blew them, working with their water buffaloes and planting rice by hand as they always have.

I traveled from the Mekong Delta's rich rice fields in the south to a booming Hanoi in the north. I was warmly welcomed everywhere by peasants, politicians and ex-People's Army soldiers I used to try to kill and who used to try to kill me.

Once the people discovered I wan a Yankee Doodle Dandy and a Vietnam vet, they gave me an extra ration of hospitality. Despite all the horror that the war inflicted, the Vietnamese people genuinely like Americans. I didn't meet one person, from legless veterans to women who had been scarred by napalm, who carried a grudge about the past. Nor did I meet any we-kicked-your-butt arrogant winners or sore losers from the economic defeat that 30 years of war and harebrained Soviet-style bureaucracy wrought.

Few people talked about the war. But everyone -- from retired Gen. Tran Van Tra, Vietnam's Westmoreland, who found "the light at the end of the tunnel" when his tanks roared into Saigon in 1975, to a peg-legged ex-grunt named An to a pretty little girl called Hein-- shares a common dream for a brighter future.

The 70 million people of Vietnam want desperately to shoot the economic moon like Taiwan, Singapore and South Korea -- neighbors who made money and jetted into the good life of the developed world while the Vietnamese made war. They want to blast out of their Fourth World ghetto, where kids don't have antibiotics or a future and their dads and moms work from sunup to sunset in paddies and sweatshops making an average of $280 a year.

Hanoi has dropped the failed communist economic system that crippled postwar Vietnam. With its own version of our capitalistic free-market economy, Vietnam seems set to blast into the 21stcenturywith all cash registers ringing. But there is one hang-up: ours, not theirs. The U.S. government continues a Cold War mindset, maintaining an economic embargo against Vietnam that keeps its people at the bottom of the have-not pit.

Embargoes are a modern way to punish bad guys without using the military solution, and they work. Embargoes are reducing the level of arms shipments into the former Yugoslavia, making Iraq march to the Gulf War peace accords and putting pressure on Libya to turn over the Lockerbee terrorists. But in Vietnam, the U.S. embargo is economically bombing and strafing the people in the paddles, who were crushed by a war that killed 3 million of their people, wounded 4 million and where 300,000 sons and daughters are still missing. It punishes no one except the long-suffering victims of an un-just war.

Bill Clinton is considering lifting the embargo. The final stumbling block is the fate of more than 2,000 Americans missing in action. It's unlikely that any missing men are still alive in Southeast Asia. I say this after studying the POW/MIA issue for more than a decade, talking to scores of former POWs and investigators. They have not found one shred of evidence to substantiate any of the many loony assertions that Americans are being kept in jungle cages.

During my recent trip to Vietnam and Southeast Asia, I talked to past and present members of the America recovery team and many other experts. These men, who have years of hands-on experience, say the Vietnamese leaders are not holding any- thing back or playing games. If anything, they're busting their tails to clear this final hurdle.

These insiders reinforced my view that all of our missing are dead. I wouldn't make this statement lightly; in eight years of infantry combat, following an ingrained American tradition, I never left a soldier on the battlefield. I still would not in 1993.

Clinton will take a lot of heat from the hate and conspiracy mob if he lifts the embargo and finally ends the war. At 23, he had the guts to say that Vietnam was a bad war; at 46, he stood tall at the Black Wall, the Vietnam War Memorial, facing off the haters and hecklers. The world will know before the autumn leaves fall if he has the right stuff to let the blue skies shine over a people who have endured emotional and economic darkness long enough.