From whom will forgiveness come? The United States is now a trade partner with unified Vietnam; the people we bombed mercilessly seem to have forgiven us. What do so many Americans have to confess that requires this hejira across the continent to a glistening black rock stretching across a hill in Washington, DC?
The Vietnam Memorial is the most visited monument in the United States.
Just that very fact, all by itself, merits a lot of thought. What is it about this stark edifice, described as a black gash in the earth, that draws so very many people? Why do they come?
• Do they come for healing?
What powers can this stone possess, designed by a Chinese-American woman and thought of as an "eyesore" when first unveiled? What gave this abstract monument the magnetism that draws these pilgrims, each carrying their own secret wounds, to this place?
• Do they come for closure?
Vietnam was the war we all wanted to forget. GIs debarking from their tour of duty, visions of horror still fresh in their minds, were rarely afforded a hero's welcome. In all our haste and determination to forget about Vietnam and get on with our lives, we find it is the one thing we can not forget: More than a mere historical event, more than a vague memory, Vietnam got under our collective skin in ways we still cannot fathom, even after all these years.
The first person I ever knew of who died in the Vietnam War was George Meister. I didn't know George personally. He was the oldest of 12 Meister kids. My pal Kay, all of five feet tall on her tippy toes when we were in the seventh grade, was Meister #6. Somehow she had been saddled with the daily chore of filling up a shopping cart to feed their huge family, and sometimes I helped her push the cart home, and we'd chatter like pre-adolescent girls. Kay was a fun, happy kid.
But then her big brother died in Vietnam.
I remember sitting in class one day, a few weeks after we'd heard about George, when Kay passed me a note: "LBJ is a BUMB!" Kay wasn't great at spelling, but she couldn't stop thinking about that bumb and his war. She couldn't stop remembering the brother she'd never see again. Kay Meister was never an altogether happy kid again. Kay survived Vietnam, but her childhood didn't.
I don't doubt for a second that Kay Meister has been to The Wall.
When I think of the Vietnam Memorial, I usually think of George Meister, a young man whose life ended so tragically early. I think I'd like to look for his name on The Wall someday if I have the chance.
Decades later another George, this one a Bush, decided to bomb the crap out of Iraq specifically because Saddam Hussein had given him an excuse to "cure" us of the so-called "Vietnam syndrome," a perceived national unwillingness to go to war. I guess Grenada and our covert wars in Central America just didn't do the trick, and Iraqi citizens paid the price. I wonder if our restoration to military glory is worth the blood on our hands.
There were plenty of victims of the Vietnam War whose names do not appear on The Wall – victims whose lives were changed, even if only temporarily, by the circumstance of war. The tentacles of Vietnam invaded and choked what should have been precious memories. Example: For me, the moon landing in 1969 was a huge high point in a dark era; the event was awe-inspiring and miraculous. I ask my dear husband, "What did you think about when you saw men on the moon?""I couldn't have cared less," he replies. "Man on the moon? Big deal! I was afraid I was about to be drafted and sent to 'Nam; I was contemplating suicide."
Here is a man who would kill himself before he'd be put in the position of having to kill others. That's one holy hell of a terrible conundrum to put in the heart and mind of an 18-year-old boy.
That's it: That was Vietnam. Eighteen-year-old boys weighing the pros and cons of enlistment, life in Canada, or suicide. That is a piercing dilemma at a tender time in the life of a man, and millions of young men faced it – often without even the essential luxury of having someone sympathetic to talk to about it.
It was an era of strong opinions. Which side are you on?
My brother saw that he would be unable to avoid the draft, so he enlisted in the Navy. In his misery he turned to drugs and began a struggle against addiction that continues to this day.
Anybody who lived in America in the 60's and early 70's was, to a greater or lesser degree, wounded by the war in Vietnam. My sister's children, far too young to remember the war, moved from Air Force base to Air Force base during their father's tours of duty, never understanding that his life – and their family – was at grave risk throughout. Just think: A bullet takes a different trajectory, or a bomb explodes at a different moment, and they are fatherless babies. Today they'd be making a regular trek to DC to touch his name, carved into that imperious stone, and wonder about the father they never got to know.
But it didn't shake out that way. Their dad will be attending his son's wedding in January.
They lucked out.
By the time those babies were waiting for Daddy to come home, I was in the streets with thousands of others, protesting for an end to the war and learning to fear and distrust the U.S. government. My faith: another small casualty of the Vietnam War.
The Pentagon Papers revealed the political corruption and cynicism with which the war began and escalated, and further eroded public confidence in the country of which we all really wanted to be proud. And, after we finally declared peace and pulled out of Vietnam, so many scandals and betrayals of public trust ensued that it truly seemed that our national karma had come back to bite us on the butt – again and again.
At last count, it's still going on. Will any President of the United States ever be trusted again?
If you count up all the dead, most of the victims of that war are not listed on the Wall.
Conspicuously absent are the names of the Vietnamese who died at our hands. We never bothered to count up their dead. The wall that bears all those names would scarcely fit on that hill in Washington DC. I guess the Vietnamese can build their own wall, now that they're doing business with the world in this here global economy. I hope they'll be able to ho-ho-Ho Chi Minh all the way to the bank.
(And for what it's worth – and that's a helluva lot – the United States would be doing a lot better in today's global economy if so many of our dollars hadn't been poured into the destruction of southeast Asia. We could have housed the homeless, fed the hungry, given our children a first-class education and helped others, but we built bombs instead. Vietnam was a bad deal all around, unless you happened to be an arms merchant.)
I didn't deliver the bombs that killed Vietnamese men, women and children. I didn't coldly plot atrocities of war in secret. I didn't pull the trigger that deprived a family of their father, or son, or daughter. But I paid taxes that supported the government that did these things. They (we) killed mercilessly, secretly, indiscriminately – for no reason, no damned reason at all. Even when our political "leaders" knew the whole effort in Vietnam was utterly futile, they persisted in decimating the people and the land of tiny countries – for no damned reason at all. And we let them. That is a heavy burden of guilt we Americans all carry together.
Forget about Vietnam? Not as long as we have memories. Not as long as we feel the shame we so richly deserve.
So yes, it is understandable that The Vietnam Wall draws so many visitors. So very many of us were profoundly touched by that war, in ways big and small. Perhaps visitors find solace in the memorial, in its mute eloquence. It speaks of a loss – and a guilty secret – we all share.
Update – March 14, 1998:I finally made my way to the Vietnam Memorial, and I found George Meister's name: Panel 26E, Line 48. I touched the engraved letters, imagined my childhood friend's fingers running over them, tears flowing. His was one of the earlier ones; so many others lost their lives after George made the ultimate sacrifice on September 10, 1967.
But what really got to me was the Women's Vietnam Memorial, which is at least as moving as The Wall, possibly the most touching tableau in the entire park:
Three women are depicted, each in a deeply personal struggle. One is frantically administering CPR to an almost-lifeless soldier, looking tenderly in his face. Another woman is holding the first nurse's elbow as if to steady and assure her; she is looking up as an invisible helicopter is arriving to take the soldier away for healing – or burial. Her skyward gaze is so intense I involuntarily turned my head to see what she was looking at.
A third nurse is on her knees, cradling a helmet, surrounded by sandbags. The figures are life size – a moment of abject horror struck in bronze.
I didn't expect this elegant monstrosity. At the sight of it my jaw dropped and the tears began. Nearby a group of teenagers posed, smiled, goofed for the camera ... but the nurses remained frozen in hell behind them.
Lucky kids, oh you fortunate children, to have no concept of these horrors. Turn around, young ones, look – feel – LEARN.
As I got up and put my headphones back on, the local rock station was playing one of my favorite tunes, "Life During Wartime," by the Talking Heads. Life goes on ... for some of us.
Update – March 31, 2004: I mentioned my brother's battle against addiction. He lost that war in 1999. The Iron Man of our family, he never saw his 50th birthday. His name is not on The Wall.
Update – May 2, 2005: I am amazed at how often I still get responses to this article. It underscores my original thesis, that the pain of the Vietnam conflict continues to haunt us deeply. Members of George Meister's family have contacted me, including a younger brother who was only two years old when George was killed and never got to know his brave big brother, and an even younger sister. I think of them often. Imagine: today, nearly forty years since their beloved one died, they sit down and Google his name.
It's true. We will never forget.
Update - August 29, 2007: Vietnam was bad. As far as I can tell, Iraq is much worse in so many ways. I wonder how many decades/centuries we will atone for what we are doing there now. If we attack Iran, as the Impeachee-To-Be so desperately wants, we will certainly not be able to make things right with the world in our children's lifetimes. Vietnam still wracks the national conscience; Iraq will mark us for generations.
In less than two weeks it will be 40 years since George Meister was sacrificed in Vietnam for God-Knows-What. My heart goes out to his still-grieving family.
Update - January 6, 2010: It happened again. A niece of George Meister found this article and sent me a note. A new generation remembers the loving relative they never got to meet. Multiply the Meister family's tears by a few millions, and you begin to tally the cost of our wars.