Vietnam Memorial: Scars From an Unjust War

I’m a staunch pacifist, but I love war memorials. There’s something about giant granite or marble slabs honoring the heroic dead that produces stillness in my heart.

Over spring break, I had the opportunity to go to Washington, D.C. for a day. It’s impossible to cram much of the historic city into the few hours that we had, but we walked through the National Mall and saw the big monuments. I walked past the Washington Monument. I stood on the spot where Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke about his earnest dream for America. I read the words of Lincoln and felt small as I walked along the pillars of the World War II pavilion.

None of these created the quiet sadness that the Vietnam Memorial did.

The Vietnam Memorial stands alone, a short walk from the other monuments. A black granite slab sits built into a small hill, and the names of the Vietnam dead — as well as those missing and unaccounted for — are carved into the wall in the order that they wereUS_flag_reflexion_on_Vietnam_Veterans_Memorial_12_2011_000124.jpg lost to us.

In one moment, I felt the weight of humanity wash over me.

The average age of the people killed on the American side of the war was 22. As I approach my 22nd birthday, the weight of that number hung even heavier on me. Twenty-five percent of these men were drafted and had no say in whether or not they’d join the war front. They weren’t inherently patriotic or duty-bound. They just lost the luck of the draw.

I ultimately think the Vietnam War was unjust. While I would never support the degradation of those who served, staring at the wall carved with dead men’s and women’s names solidified how needless and cruel such violence is. Too many people die in these conflicts that have no obvious moral root. Like the Korean War, the Vietnam War was another proxy war for the Cold War. Communist and anti-Communist forces fought and died in a false battle for ideological supremacy.

In those wars, neither side truly wins. Leaders of nations watch and direct the carnage and decay of human life and dignity, claiming to seek justice — either for the proletariat or for American ideas of social justice and development. We sent our sons to die for a cause they didn’t necessarily believe in because we had to prove our national worth in bullet holes rather than diplomacy.

As I walked silently along the wall, I read the names of the dead and wondered how many more men and women will die in wars with no winner, no victory. How many more men and women will die because those directing the hand of violence find plenty of enemies, but few victims and even less humanity.

I’m haunted by the cries of soldiers who have yet to die.

 

Photo Credit: By Mariordo (Mario Roverto Durán Ortiz)Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=17836175

Originally printed in the Daily Mississippian

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2 thoughts on “Vietnam Memorial: Scars From an Unjust War

  1. Holly,

    I viewed the Wall almost 20 years ago and it was an experience I cannot put into words.

    I am a Vietnam Veteran, drafted in 1967 because as you said, it was the luck of the draw. I was attending Metropolitan State College in Denver, Colorado part-time and working full-time at a wholesale office supply warehouse for $1.35/hour. It was the best job I could find with a 1-A draft classification and I couldn’t make enough money to support myself and pay for school full-time which would have given me a 2-S classification and made me temporarily exempt from the draft. No company would hire you until you showed your draft card and if it was 1-A, they didn’t see the benefit of hiring and perhaps having to train someone when they knew they weren’t going to be around for long. The draft was ingeniously skewed toward the poor and the uneducated. Sure enough, on August 5th, the fateful “Greetings” letter came and my life was changed forever.

    I was an UH-1 assault helicopter crew chief while in Vietnam and was later assigned to maintain two OH-6 observation helicopters. This voluntary move would later prove to save my life as the likelihood of surviving multiple missions on an assault helicopter decreases exponentially with time. While in the Army, I served honorably and I was awarded the Army Commendation and Bronze Star medals.

    I lost many friends and comrades-in-arms in that police action and to this day I see no real purpose to the whole affair. Upon release of the Pentagon Papers, it became clear to me and to many like me that we need to keep a closer eye on those that embroil us in these senseless conflicts especially when using media hysteria, ideological constructs and blind patriotism as motives. Except for one very friendly airline ticket agent, I was generally looked down upon when wearing my uniform. It was a different and difficult time.

    Four years ago I suffered a heart attack even though I had been a competitive triathlete for many years and still swam about a mile a day, four days a week. I was diagnosed with ischemic heart disease and after quadruple bypass surgery I was told I had contracted Type-2 diabetes. Up until this time, I had not even entertained the idea of hanging-out with former veterans or telling old war stories. I had firmly placed my service in a dark closet in the back of my mind, a chapter in my life, to be forgotten forever. However, I was told by a coworker that I may be eligible for VA benefits since I was a veteran and that I probably contracted my heart disease due to exposure to Agent Orange, a defoliant used in Vietnam.

    I went to the local VA here in Alabama, and the disdain for my service was immediately brought back to the surface once they discovered why I was there. Few words were exchanged as the VA counselor filled in the blanks on the government form and an icy chill filled the room There was no doubt how this man (a career military retiree) felt about processing another Vietnam draftee suckling from the government teat.

    Later, as I visited the VA Hospital in Montgomery to verify my condition, (apparently civilian doctors are not to be trusted) the magnitude of what our more hawkish leaders had wrought came to bear. The hallways were lined with similarly-aged, raggedly-dressed veterans, some in old wheelchairs held together with duct tape, and many others on wooden crutches stood among those more fortunate, like me. I have to tell you, I was stunned to see this many people who resembled the homeless (perhaps many were), waiting for care. It was a definite wake-up call for me.

    We often see on the news how veterans are receiving new technological limbs to replace those lost in conflict and how they have a multitude of support networks raising money and offering assistance. These former young veterans are shown running races, climbing mountains and doing all these amazing things. These are not the veterans I saw at this hospital, I can assure you. The veterans I saw in this hospital won’t ever be on that memorial and once they are all gone, the only gratitude they will receive is relief from those who no longer have to support them.

    Thank you for your gracious and heart-felt thoughts. They made me feel better.

    Like

  2. Holly,

    I viewed the Wall almost 20 years ago and it was an experience I cannot put into words.

    I am a Vietnam Veteran, drafted in 1967 because as you said, it was the luck of the draw. I was attending Metropolitan State College in Denver, Colorado part-time and working full-time at a wholesale office supply warehouse for $1.35/hour. It was the best job I could find with a 1-A draft classification and I couldn’t make enough money to support myself and pay for school full-time which would have given me a 2-S classification and made me temporarily exempt from the draft. No company would hire you until you showed your draft card and if it was 1-A, they didn’t see the benefit of hiring and perhaps having to train someone when they knew they weren’t going to be around for long. The draft was ingeniously skewed toward the poor and the uneducated. Sure enough, on August 5th, the fateful “Greetings” letter came and my life was changed forever.

    I was an UH-1 assault helicopter crew chief while in Vietnam and was later assigned to maintain two OH-6 observation helicopters. This voluntary move would later prove to save my life as the likelihood of surviving multiple missions on an assault helicopter decreases exponentially with time. While in the Army, I served honorably and I was awarded the Army Commendation and Bronze Star medals.

    I lost many friends and comrades-in-arms in that police action and to this day I see no real purpose to the whole affair. Upon release of the Pentagon Papers, it became clear to me and to many like me that we need to keep a closer eye on those that embroil us in these senseless conflicts especially when using media hysteria, ideological constructs and blind patriotism as motives. Except for one very friendly airline ticket agent, I was generally looked down upon when wearing my uniform. It was a different and difficult time.

    Four years ago I suffered a heart attack even though I had been a competitive triathlete for many years and still swam about a mile a day, four days a week. I was diagnosed with ischemic heart disease and after quadruple bypass surgery I was told I had contracted Type-2 diabetes. Up until this time, I had not even entertained the idea of hanging-out with former veterans or telling old war stories. I had firmly placed my service in a dark closet in the back of my mind, a chapter in my life, to be forgotten forever. However, I was told by a coworker that I may be eligible for VA benefits since I was a veteran and that I probably contracted my heart disease due to exposure to Agent Orange, a defoliant used in Vietnam.

    I went to the local VA here in Alabama, and the disdain for my service was immediately brought back to the surface once they discovered why I was there. Few words were exchanged as the VA counselor filled in the blanks on the government form and an icy chill filled the room There was no doubt how this man (a career military retiree) felt about processing another Vietnam draftee suckling from the government teat.

    Later, as I visited the VA Hospital in Montgomery to verify my condition, (apparently civilian doctors are not to be trusted) the magnitude of what our more hawkish leaders had wrought came to bear. The hallways were lined with raggedly-dressed veterans, some in old wheelchairs held together with duct tape, and many others on wooden crutches stood among those more fortunate, like me. I have to tell you, I was stunned to see this many people who resembled the homeless (perhaps many were), waiting for care. It was a definite wake-up call for me.

    We often see on the news how veterans are receiving new technological limbs to replace those lost in conflict and how they have a multitude of support networks raising money and offering assistance. These former young veterans are shown running races, climbing mountains and doing all these amazing things. These are not the veterans I saw at this hospital, I can assure you. The veterans I saw in this hospital won’t ever be on that memorial and once they are all gone, the only gratitude they will receive is the relief from those who no longer have to support them.

    Thank you for your gracious and heart-felt thoughts. They made me feel better.

    Like

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