One Veteran’s Perspective on the Vietnam Memorial Wall

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The Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall was in Superior July 20-23rd. The 250 foot, half scale replica of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial has more than 58,000 names of those American service members who were killed in Vietnam.

It was billed as “The Wall That Heals.” The wall in Washington, D.C. is one of the most visited monuments in the capitol. For many visitors the physical act of touching the name of a loved one, relative, or a buddy served with, helps heal the sorrow, guilt, PTSD, and memories of the war.

But is the wall about “healing?” Or is it another effort to justify the war? Our government is engaged in a campaign to refurbish the image of the Vietnam War. They would like to expunge the real history of the war. The Department of Defense is spending $65 million to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the war and to “honor” the troops. As President Obama stated,

“We pay tribute to the more than 3 million servicemen and women… fighting heroically to protect the ideals we hold dear as Americans. Through more than a decade of combat, over air, land, and sea, these proud Americans upheld the highest traditions of our Armed Forces.”

It seems strange to commemorate a war that we lost. The My Lai Massacre, the burning of villages, Agent Orange, the invasions of Cambodia and Laos, or the legacy of unexploded ordinance (which is still killing people) hardly reflect “fighting heroically to protect the ideals we hold dear as Americans.”

I am a retired military veteran with 20 years of active duty and reserve service. I am a Vietnam era veteran but did not serve in Vietnam. During most of the Vietnam War I was in high school and college. I benefited from an educational draft deferment and the pure luck of a high draft lottery number. But I easily could have been one of the of the names on the wall if my personal history had been different.

At the time I was not paying attention to what was going on in Vietnam. I was young, uninformed, and selfishly “doing my own thing.” I now know the Vietnam War was a tragic, unnecessary mistake. I now know the Vietnam War was NOT a noble cause in the defense of freedom. Our troops were sacrificed by the mistakes, misjudgments, and ideological blindness of our political leaders at the time. These leaders failed to see, OR ACCEPT, alternative, peaceful solutions to the conflicts in Vietnam. Over 58,000 American soldiers died and hundreds of thousand came home physically and mentally wounded for no good reason. Our soldiers were thrown into a “war of choice” that did not need to be fought.

This is not just my opinion. Many people agree with Robert McNamara, Secretary of Defense under Presidents Kennedy and Johnson, who wrote “…we were wrong, terribly wrong. We owe it to future generations to explain why.”

Many of my fellow veterans will disagree with these statements. Accepting the truth about Vietnam is too bitter a pill to swallow. They need to believe that their sacrifice was for a good cause. I do not denigrate the sacrifice of combat veterans or the service of all veterans. But it is more accurate to say our troops have been sacrificed BY their country, rather than FOR their country.

We need to understand that our troops and their families are victims of war in the same way as are the “enemy” soldiers and the many civilian casualties we call “collateral damage.” The people of Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia were also victims. As a nation we don’t acknowledge the millions of civilians killed, maimed, poisoned, and traumatized for no good reason. They are only “collateral damage.” How long would a memorial wall have to be to list their names? Why did they have to die? What “freedom” of ours did they threaten?

The tragedy of Vietnam is we did not learn from these mistakes. As demonstrated by the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, and now Syria, we still think military power can solve political and social problems. And our current endless wars are only claiming more victims.

So thanking veterans for their service is not enough. Building memorials is not enough. We should apologize for sending them into unnecessary wars. We should stop repeating the mistakes of the past by sacrificing more people to military violence.

I would say to the 58,307 veterans honored on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall, I am sorry you had to die. I am sorry you were sacrificed by your country for no good reason. I am sorry I did not do more at the time to stop the war in Vietnam and prevent your premature death. In your memory, and in honor of your sacrifice, I promise to work for peace.