I hated it, when first I heard of it. I hated that they would dig us a trench in the ground; they would erect a black wall. That would be our memorial. “How like the war,” I thought. “How pointless.” And so, I took no interest in the Vietnam Memorial. Later, I heard that they would cast a bronze statue of the soldiers. “At least,” I thought, “people will know what we looked like.”
On the day of the dedication of the memorial, I happened to be channel surfing, and chanced to come upon the ceremonies. I watched for a while. One thing I had to admit: Our military may not know how to mount an operation, but they do liturgy better than the Catholic Church, and it has the power to move one. The mass display of flags, the precision close-order drill to doleful drums, the lone trumpet crying out “Taps,” and the sudden ‘crack’ of the guns, these can still reach us. I found myself crying. I do not say “I cried”; I found myself crying. I cannot quite describe the experience. So I did what any sane man would do under the circumstances: I changed the channel. And for 15 years, I thought no more about the memorial, or the war, for that matter.
Then in 2007, I found myself in Washington with my son, and like all good tourists, we went to the mall and to the Lincoln Memorial, just a few steps from the Vietnam Memorial. Crowded around its entrance were the vendors selling the insignia of the units that served in the war. I stopped to show my son “my” insignias: the peculiar eight-pointed star (octofoil) with the circle in the middle that stood for the 9th Infantry Division, an arrangement that earned it the title, “The Flaming Asshole”; the sword in the breach for MAC-V, the Military Assistance Command-Vietnam. These symbols I wore. My son showed polite interest. How does one explain these things to the young? The war for them is ancient history, before his time, a chapter in a book. It was neither more nor less real than the Civil War or Troy. Maybe even less real, since Troy had Brad Pitt.
But we were near the memorial; we should see it. We passed the sculpture on our way in. “Yes,” I said, “we looked like that.” Even the bronze color was appropriate; it was our color, smoothing out the differences in race, differences that should have made no difference, but frequently did.
The monument itself is a kind of symbolic account of the war. You descend into it, just as we descended gradually into the war. It begins around your ankles, with low granite panels and you must bend down to read the names. Small panels; just a few names, just a small war. These are the names of the first to die. On other war memorials, the names are filed alphabetically, so that even in death, the soldiers are just as trapped in a bureaucratic filing system as they were in life. But on this monument, the names are listed in the order that they died. They are placed in their proper history, and surrounded by their comrades; each veteran has some panels that are more his than anyone else’s; each mother, each lover, each son and daughter has a place on the wall that is their place in the history. It really is an historical memorial, not a stone filing cabinet of names.
The war rises to meet you. Panel by panel, you descend into the roster of the dead. Soon you are in over your head. “Now I understand,” I thought, “why they dug a ditch.” You look up to squint at the names on the top lines. And you notice something unusual about the names. On other monuments the names are carved into the stone, carefully chiseled deep into the granite and then polished and then perhaps even gilded. But not here. The names are scratched into the stone, barely breaking the polished surface, so that the wounded stone reveals the names. You touch the names; you feel the rough surface. It is like putting your hand into the wound. One wonders how such scratches will stand up to time and weather. Will the names fade, and the memorial become a monument to oblivion? By then, none will remain with any living connection to the names; it might as well say “Septimus Servius Brutus,” for all anyone will know of them; let them fade.
I read the names, as many as I can, and am embarrassed that I remember so few. A sergeant from this panel, a private from that one, a lieutenant over there. For each, I try to say a Hail Mary. I would like to say one for each one there, but I cannot say 58,000 Hail Mary’s; even on a good day, I can barely manage 50. This day, I can’t even do that. There are just too many. And as I read the swarm of names, my eyes lose focus, until I am no longer looking at the names, but at myself standing among them. For the black, polished surface forms a stone mirror, and soon one sees oneself standing among the roll call of the dead, a token, no doubt, of the time when your own name will be called and you must answer, in a loud, clear voice, “Present!” And then the company will be, once again, all present and accounted for. What stories will we tell each other then!
I could not avoid thinking about the new wall that must be built, the wall for the Iraq war, so much like this now ancient war. How many panels will it take, how much stone will have to be polished and scratched to list the names? How similar were the arguments, arguments that so many of us fervently believed? “We must fight them there so we don’t have to fight them here!” “We are making progress; we have turned the corner; there is a light at the end of the tunnel!” “We are training the Vietnamese Army, and as Asian boys stand up, American boys will stand down.” Some Asian boys did stand up, including a single division that held up the entire North Vietnamese army for a week outside of Saigon; they gave their lives to give us time, time that was largely squandered. But there were not enough of them; it had become “our” war, not theirs. We were the foreigners; it was the enemy who shared their race, their language, their history.
So the same bodyguard of lies that led us into the Delta led us into the Desert. And it will have the same end: another ditch, another stone wall, another question, “Why did I go? What did I accomplish?” And, I am afraid, the same sad answers. Those who fought with us will suffer at the end, and with all our power we will be powerless to prevent it. Another group of refugees and no doubt another panicked airlift.
By a strange coincidence, at almost that same moment, as I was reflecting on the connection between the war in the Delta and the war in the Desert, our “Great Decider” was doing the same. His reflections were not mine. He was repeating the Myth of the Premature Retreat that lost us the War We Would Have Won. In this mythical world, a victorious nation, at the behest of Jane Fonda, resigned its victory and embraced defeat; “If only,” they say, “if only we had held out a little longer!” Never mind that we held out 15 years and 58,000 American deaths (the Vietnamese deaths will never be properly counted, but runs into the millions). Never mind that we had more than half-a-million men in a country half the size of Iraq, and had trained and equipped dozens of Vietnamese divisions. The myth says we lost because of possibly the stupidest woman on earth, hankering as we were, no doubt, for more of her pointless movies and useless exercise tapes.
But in truth, we did not lose this serious business because of a stupid woman; rather we lost it because serious men made the business stupid. And America was patient with these men; for 15 years, mothers watched their sons die, and young women—girls, really—reached out in longing for lost lovers, or greeted changed and crippled men that did return. Their men had taken the last train to Clarksville, and it was the last time that many of them saw of their young men alive. 58,000 body bags; I asked, somewhat bitterly, “Was that a no-bid contract?” And still they stayed with the war, these mothers, these girls, until they could stay no longer. In the end, it was neither the antics of a screen actress nor the protests of the college students, but the real grief of real women that brought the troops home, home from a contest that could not be won.
Or rather, it could not be won by us. Such wars are not won by foreigners. As outsiders, we can help one side or the other. But the wars must be won and lost by the people in the country. If Iraq really is a country, and not merely an abstraction of the British Colonial Office, then the Iraqis must by their own arms decide their own fate. We can place arms in their arms, and what can be accomplished by training, or logistics, or the like, we can accomplish for them. But they themselves must win their own battles. And ever was it thus.
This has happened in Iraqi Kurdistan, a prosperous and free corner of Iraq, free because they freed themselves. There have been comparatively few American soldiers fighting in the province, and I suspect that if there were a similar number in Baghdad, Baghdad would sort itself out in short order. And if they will have problems, as they certainly will, they are problems they will learn to deal with by means they will have to choose. In truth, every nation has one of two courses of study open to it: they can study how to defend themselves or they can study how to be slaves.
Kurdistan is successful because we left it alone; Iraq is unsuccessful because we cannot leave it alone; and Vietnam is successful since we left it alone. This is the lesson. The problems that will arise are not problems that can be solved by scratching more names on a stone wall. They are problems caused by men who largely have no comrades on the stone mirror, and who cannot see themselves or their sons among the dead; they avoided the last war; “I had other priorities,” said Dick Cheney, and the Great Decider decided not to make his National Guard meetings. But mostly, it is a war of men who cannot admit a mistake, a tragic mistake. Instead, we had a Harvard-trained MBA distinguished only by his managerial incompetence, and a corporate executive whose smirk is the very face of cynicism. That is to say, the problem is not a stone wall, but stony hearts. I would hope such hearts could be softened in the stone mirror, by a grief that identifies with weeping mothers. As I walked the wall with my son, I imagined, for one terrible instant and without meaning to do so, seeing his name on such a wall. And for that terrible moment, I felt such a pang of grief, and all I could think of was, “What will I tell his mother?”
We need to pray for the dead, if for no other reason than for the sake of the living, and especially those living with daily danger of sudden death, death in a cause that is not our cause, and which in no case can “we” decide, no matter how great our “decider” is, no matter how much blood and treasure we decide to expend. I cannot say 58,000 Hail Mary’s. But what a wonderful war protest it would be if thousands gathered to take some names and pray for each one. Each one with 25, or 50, or 100 names, whatever they could tolerate, each with a Hail Mary for that one soldier. Or, for those who would prefer not to say a Hail Mary, it doesn’t matter; a psalm, a sutra, a surah, or something will do as well, as long as the souls of the dead are remembered, our guilt is confessed, and God is praised. It is too late to gather to prevent the need for a new wall, but not too late to gather to see that there is no need to let the new wall grow any larger, the ditch any deeper.
What wall should we build for the new batch of dead? I suggest a labyrinth, one where visitors would enter and then spend panicked hours among the names of the dead trying to find a way out. Or perhaps we could dig some catacombs and relocate all the dead into the niches. Then we could wander among the bodies of those whom our political indifference and moral obtuseness had killed.
As we climbed out of the wall, the last man to die was at our ankles, as the first man had been. We were facing directly into the Washington Monument, its tall obelisk directing us heavenward. We circled the park to catch the whole view of the memorial, and here we saw that the wall formed a “V” which embraced the whole site in its arms. We left as we came, and passed again the bronze photograph at the entrance.
“Yes,” I said, “that is what we looked like.”
John Médaille is a retired businessman and teaches theology at the University of Dallas. He is the author of two books, The Vocation of Business: Social Justice in the Marketplace and Toward a Truly Free Market: A Distributist Perspective on the Role of Government, Taxes, Health Care, Deficits, and More.