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 were 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