This past Tuesday marked 49 years since the last American troops left South Vietnam, thus ending U.S. involvement in a long, unpopular, and unsuccessful war. By coincidence, I was in Washington, D.C. to see the cherry blossoms in peak bloom.
I’ve been a tourist in D.C. many times, and have never left the city without a trip to the Vietnam Veteran’s Memorial, commonly referred to as the Wall.
But this time was different than all the rest.
The Wall is an arresting memorial—two black granite walls polished to a mirror shine on which the names of the 58,318 Americans who gave their lives for the war are inscribed.
It takes a wall ten feet tall at its apex and longer than a football field to hold all those names.
I was born in the early eighties, when the wall itself was new, and a decade hadn’t yet passed since the fall of Saigon. The first time I saw the Wall I was a kid, and though I didn’t fully understand its significance, I felt the grief in the air.
At the time, you’d see visitors for whom the names on the wall were not a symbol or a reminder—it was the name of their own son or daughter, husband or wife, mother or father etched in that granite. Or it was the buddy in your platoon that didn’t make it back. People left flowers, cards, photographs, and dog tags at the base of the Wall. You’d see someone pressing their palm against the name of a loved one or making a tracing.
As the Stater Brothers would sing in 1989, for the families it was truly More Than a Name on a Wall.
Lincoln, Jefferson, Washington…those were memorials.
The Wall was a grave.
On subsequent visits, I’d still see flowers and tracings, though fewer every year.
I don’t pretend to know exactly why we were in Vietnam, if we did any good, or if it was a just cause. But I do know that those 58,318 men and women were as loyal, brave, and deserving of respect as the Americans who fought on the beaches of Normandy, the island of Iwo Jima, the French Belleau Woods, or the farm fields of Gettysburg.
Soldiers don’t get to choose their wars.
They just answer when their country calls and try to get back home alive.
Last week’s visit was the first time I found no memorabilia of any kind along the Wall. Everyone there was a tourist, just like me. People paying their respects to a group of Americans they’d never met.
It surprised me. The flowers and the open grieving seemed a permanent part of the memorial. As a country it seemed we would never get over Vietnam.
But it makes sense. A forty-year-old parent with a child who died in the last year of U.S. involvement would be ninety by now. The last eighteen-year-old drafted is now sixty-eight years old.
For those still alive who know a name on that wall, the war will end when they do.
For the rest of us, the present melted into past when we weren’t looking.
Current events faded into history.
Time marches on, as it should. As it must.
But as the winds of war encircle Europe once more, those 58,318 names serve as a reminder that wars just and unjust, won or lost, have the same price—thousands upon thousands of men and women cut down in the prime of their lives.
There will always be another war.
Let’s never forget the ones already fought.