Another casualty of the Vietnam war was hope. With major Civil Rights legislation and Great Society programs signed into law by President Johnson, the 1960’s were a heady time of hope for progress toward social justice, equality and opportunity for all. But the hope soon faded, like the last note of a bugle playing taps. The war, like a cowbird in a robin’s nest, was eating up more and more of our nation’s energies and resources. In his address to the New York chapter of Clergy and Laity Concerned, at the famous Riverside Church, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., drew this parallel between Vietnam and the abortive War on Poverty: “A few years ago there was a shining moment in that struggle. It seemed as if there was a real promise of hope for the poor — both black and white — through the poverty program. There were experiments, hopes, new beginnings. Then came the buildup in Vietnam and I watched the program broken and eviscerated as if it were some idle political plaything of a society gone mad on war, and I knew that America would never invest the necessary funds or energies in rehabilitation of its poor so long as adventures like Vietnam continued to draw men and skills and money like some demonic destructive suction tube. So I was increasingly compelled to see the war as an enemy of the poor and to attack it as such.” (Read the text of the entire speech, “Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break the Silence,” at http://www.hartford-hwp.com/archives/45a/058.html).
In the late ’60’s and early ’70’s, what social investments military budgets did not de-fund, politics and war-driven inflation killed off. Common wisdom says that we tried lifting people out of poverty and poverty, and the poor, proved incorrigible. But its more evident to me that our short-lived social investments died in the fields and forests of Vietnam long before they could bear any fruit. Whenever a nation sends soldiers off to war, it is unavoidably warring against its own citizens, directly, by putting them in harm’s way, and indirectly, by beating our much-needed plowshares into swords and the people’s pruning hooks into spears. Another monument is needed on which to list the names of all the Great Society programs that died in infancy, and all the people who were condemned to remain in, or fall into, poverty by the war. It should be within sight of the Vietnam War Memorial.
The social, spiritual and personal effects of this death of hope could be seen in the 1970’s, aptly called, “The Me Decade.” With trust and idealism dying agonizing deaths under war and the Watergate scandal, with poverty and inflation increasing, what was left but to tend one’s own garden, pursue pleasure, and “tune in, turn on and drop out?”
It was in this setting (1973), while trading in my dying youthful idealism for the mindless pleasures of the Me decade, that I was stopped in my tracks by the Prince of Peace. He affirmed my anti-war and pro-Civil Rights beliefs and even intensified them, putting them on an entirely new footing, other than a secular humanism. My waning idealism he replaced with a loyalty and commitment to the visions of Israel’s prophets. I enlisted in the anti-violent War of the Lamb. That was in the course of “The Jesus Movement,” which rescued many of my generation from either burning out on hedonism, or selling out to “The System.”
Through Christ I entered that “Revolution of Values” that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., urged on us toward the close of his speech on the Vietnam War. Read the following words and consider their import to today: “A true revolution of values will lay hands on the world order and say of war: ‘This way of settling differences is not just.’ This business of burning human beings with napalm, of filling our nation’s homes with orphans and widows, of injecting poisonous drugs of hate into veins of people normally humane, of sending men home from dark and bloody battlefields physically handicapped and psychologically deranged, cannot be reconciled with wisdom, justice and love. A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.”
Just to the south of the wall with the names of all the war dead is a statue to the women who served in Vietnam. It too is powerful and touching. The woman who had seen me crying, and the youth group she was chaperoning, got to it just ahead of me. By the time I arrived to contemplate it, with tears still fresh on my cheeks, some of these youth were climbing over the statue and joking about it. I may well have done the same at their age. But their chaperone chewed them out, telling them, “Its not that kind of statue [for climbing on], and besides, there are people here grieving the deaths of their family members and friends.” She also apologized to Becky for their conduct.
Technically, I was not grieving the loss of any “family members and friends.” I can’t claim to have known a single person whose name is on that wall. But a walk through the memorial reminded me that the world is such that no one is untouched by, or immune to, the effects of love or hate, life or death, war or peace, anywhere in this world. Bearing the names of all the war dead, each one representing an inter-connected web of still-grieving family members and friends, that long dark scar of a monument reminds us that we are all members of the same human household, with much left yet to mourn, to learn, to do, and to heal.