Vietnam Veteran’s Memorial
This is an excerpt from a paper I wrote at the end of 2007 about the Vietnam Veteran’s Memorial in Washington D.C. I care that we all pay attention to that war, because it happened, because it is happening, because it will happen again, and because it is never simple. War is never a simple mistake.
I didn’t talk much about the Wall or the design in the paper, just about the letters that were left there: Women write to dead strangers who might have been their husbands. Sons write to fathers who never held them. Foreigners write to Americans. Pacifists write to soldiers. There are no bodies buried at the Memorial, but many choose this place to commune with their dead. THIS IS THE RESULT OF WAR, the letters tell us, THIS IS THE ONLY MEASURE OF THE INCALCULABLE COST OF HISTORY. The letters do not bring a cohesive political conclusion, or demonstrate what should have been done instead of what was.
The only absolute statement that the letters leave historians and Americans is one of grief and love. I found it fitting that in the last lecture before I turned this paper in, we talked about the reasons why men fought. In a history class, one studies the dates and the debates, the decisions of powerful men and the opinions of the masses. But the individuals involved in war experience the tangible side of the abstract outlines available in history books. One Veterans writes: “We crept “point” together and pulled “drag” together. We lay crouched in cold mud and were drenched by monsoons. We sweated buckets and endured the heat of dry season. We burnt at least a thousand leeches off one another and went through a gallon of insect repellent a day that the bugs were irresistibly attracted to…You got a bronze star, only to walk into a booby trapped bunker and suddenly you had no face or chest.”
In all the whirling patterns of cause and effect that study reveals, nothing is a simple as the fact that dear friends and dear kin died. The Vietnam Veterans Memorial, however it should have been designed or however the war should have gone, means so much to many. Medals and monuments cannot bring back the dead, but they can bring consolation and healing to the living. At last, some of the dangling hearts that were denied their homecoming ceremony can grieve and exhale and let go. At the end of Larry Powell’s photographic tribute to the veterans, there is a single question, small and black on its own page: “Is war over simply because it ends?”