“Are you all right, Sir?” the woman asked, as she saw me crying. She had more than half a dozen middle-school youth with her in tow.
“I’m okay. Thank you,” I replied.
Becky and I were about half way through the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington, D.C., one day this week, when tears began streaming down my face. Becky remarked how the long, scar-like depression in the earth that is the monument was deepest at the point where it recorded the most names, in the middle and high point of America’s engagement in that conflict. Like the American death toll itself, the monument starts out shallow and narrow, and deepens before it turns and narrows again, to the tiny end point, where someone indeed had to be the last American to die for a tragic mistake. Something about the shape and color of that dark marble scar in the earth mirrors the wound that the war left in ourselves and our country.
Why was I crying? I wondered. I had never served there. Though I got my regulation Selective Service card, like all my peers (that was before I even knew about Mennonites and conscientious objection), I missed the draft for Vietnam by two years. Nor did I know anyone personally who had served and died there. I have since met veterans of the war, but obviously their names will never be on that monument. War stories are written and recounted by survivors. Yet there came back to me memories of the times that some childhood peer had told me that their brother or their father had died there. I either quickly changed the subject or found someone else to play with. The news was too monstrous for a child to face, let alone respond to adequately. Forty-five years later, I do not remember their names. Maybe it was for persons un-known or forgotten, deliberately perhaps, that the tears came. That also shows how, even with a draft, the war did not touch all of society equally. Then, as now, my scholarly, white collar middle class family and friends had options unavailable to poorer, blue collar folks and people of color. That’s worth lamenting, too.
Though I missed the draft, if anyone had told me, at the ripe age of eight or ten, that I would likely be sent to war in Viet Nam, I may well have believed them. From the nightly news and magazines like Time and Life, we got to know the names of Vietnamese cities like Quang Tri, Danang and Hue because our boys were always defeating the Viet Cong and the North Vietnamese there. We were assured that we were winning, that there was “a light at the end of the tunnel,” because the body counts of their dead and missing were always higher than ours. Now we know that those figures were often invented and imaginary. But after so many years of defeating the VC and the North Vietnamese in Quang Tri, Danang and Hue, again and again, practically every other week, you couldn’t help wondering how many more years of victory this war would require, how many more years of victory we could take, and whether you’d survive when it became your turn to also go fight and win there. Had Congress not begun de-funding the war on Nixon’s watch, and had Nixon not begun his process of “Vietnamisation,” (turning the war over to the South Vietnamese, with American weapons and training—basically how the war stated twelve years earlier), I would be much more surprised today that I, too, had not gone to Viet Nam and become a name on that wall. Or someone who came to put those flowers and that card that I saw, in memory of a beloved comrade in arms, just below his name. Maybe it was the lifelong burden of his or her grief, more than forty years later, that started the tears flowing.
My third grade teacher, Mrs. Renkin, told me to expect as much. “Many boys like those in this class have grown up to serve their country, to fight and to die for our freedom,” she told us one day, “like boys I went to school with, who died in places like Anzio, Normandy, or Guadalcanal.” She added, “And when it comes your chance, all you boys should be proud and willing to do the same, like our boys now dying to defend our lives and liberty in Viet Nam.”
“That’s easy for you to say, Mam,” I thought to myself. I knew better to say it out loud though, because I was already convinced that she had it in for boys, and gave girls preferential treatment. I’m not sure that my conduct in her class gave her much reason to change her preferences. But that got me to wondering when and why the willingness to kill and die became the price for life as a male. So who decided, and when, that I was born to be expendable? More than forty years later, I wonder if there was some burden of grief she carried from World War II or Korea.
Now I embrace the expendability of this life for the kingdom of God, and even find freedom in that, but with the promise that, in losing this life, I get an even greater one. And I am much more assured of the worth of God’s kingdom, than I am of the cause we were supposed to be defending in Vietnam. We now know that all three presidents who prosecuted the war (Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon), plus at least one of their Secretaries of Defense (Robert McNamara) knew that the war could not be won. They simply did not want to be the first American president to lose a war, nor did they want their party to be accused of being soft on Communism and “losing Vietnam” the way the Democrats had been accused of “losing” China in the late 1940’s. As though any other country were ours to lose. So they kept sending in the soldiers, either escalating or de-escalating the deadly assembly line, to stay in power and to postpone the day of reckoning until the next administration came into office. In effect, so many of the names on that dark scar of a wall were there for protecting someone’s political hide.
As that suspicion turned to realization, my generation lost the faith that the previous generation had: that our leaders always leveled with us, like FDR with his fireside chats; that our country always wore the white hat and rode to war only to rescue the innocent and to restore justice; and that, being so virtuous and powerful, we would always prevail over the evil other. That narrative seemed to have fit the previous wars of living memory, according to all the movies starring John Wayne and Audie Murphy. And many of the teachers, Scout masters, sports coaches and even some pastors and priests from that generation kept reminding us of it. But many of us were beginning to think otherwise, and to feel betrayed. And afraid. You couldn’t tell all your peers or your coaches or teachers about the loss of your faith in the iron-clad innocence and virtue of your country and its leaders, without risking some serious consequences, the least of which was being called “coward” or “traitor.” Families and friendships broke up, jobs were lost, even (we later found) phone lines were tapped, mail was opened and taxes were audited during the Johnson and Nixon administration, if you were prominent, vocal and active enough against the war. Maybe it was that loss of faith and innocence that came back to me in the form of tears.