Last week, I took a walk with friends to the Vietnam Memorial in Washington, DC. At the Veterans Memorial on the National Mall, we paused for some emotional and humbling reflections on American ideology.
One of the first things I noticed about the memorial was its reflective quality. The smoky black granite somehow sharply mirrored its surroundings. On its face, I could have either focused on each small gray name in succession or the changing background, that day a multicolored, crisp fall afternoon. I saw myself juxtaposed with each name, small in my sky-blue-and-buttercup striped sweater. I looked uncertain and lost in the background of fiery reds, mustard yellows, muddy browns, and other blurs of movement that passed along the wall.
Reflecting on the tragedy of Vietnam was like being frozen inside the granite for a brief moment. It reflected 58,260 names. Unusual names like Steven E. Amescua, who was killed a few months before one of his best friends in 1968. On the web site for the Vietnam Memorial, http://thewall-usa.com, it says that 25,000 of those killed in Vietnam were 20 years of age or younger. Twenty years. Twenty-five thousand youth that were my age, your age, who will be “forever 20,” attested to by the laminated papers left in memory for those whose birthdays would have been this week.
I felt an inexplicable, irresistible urge to touch the granite, to physically feel each name. As I ran my hand along the various etched letters on the reflective black wall, I thought about all the boys who became men only to die or lose their minds in a place where no one welcomed our invasion, in a place that was worse off after we left. We left Vietnam war-torn and bitter, taking our shattered forces and our shattered pride along with us.
The youth and the sheer magnitude of the casualties hit me again as I looked at the bronze sculpture of the “Three Servicemen,” 20 feet from the Wall in a grove of trees. Their faces are young and frightened, though their stances are determined. The three of them stand together, looking into what must have been a dark unknown. It was a vulgar display to see those boys wrapped in their machine gun rounds like funeral shrouds.
They should not have been required to learn how to creep through Agent Orange infested jungles, how to kill or be killed, how to withstand torture, how to deal with the psychological damage of such harrowing experiences. They should never have been sent there to die by the thousands for nothing. Nothing, that is, but broken hearts and minds and a broken American reputation.
I relate this disheartening journey to bring up some important questions about the current state of affairs in our great nation. First, why are we repeating this cycle in Iraq? Who allowed this to happen? Why are our bright young men and women again being sent to die in yet another country that will arguably be no better off for our casualties or our ideologies? Has it ever occurred to Mighty America that perhaps democracy is not the answer for everyone? That perhaps the Middle East is unprepared if not downright unwilling to accept our ideologies?
I know we cannot and should not justify fighting to spread those ideologies until they have played out to their fullest potential where they are supposed to be strongest. I know that here, in their supposed heartland, we have a failing economy, a crumbling infrastructure, an endangered education system, an energy crisis, a leper for a foreign policy, and a perpetual partisan clash unchecked by an apathetic public which enables avaricious arrogance on the part of our government. We must change, we must expect more than history’s repeated tragedies.
President Lincoln once said that “a house divided against itself cannot stand.” Likewise, perhaps a house built from the strongest of materials but renovated in a repetitively shoddy manner will someday fall. I am a history major, and have been derided more than once for my study of the “useless past.” But the past is not useless. Vietnam should have taught us something about foreign engagements that we are still struggling to learn 40 years, 4186 casualties, and 565 billion dollars later.
There is something we can do about our prior mistakes now. We can inform ourselves on the current state of affairs in the United States and in the world, and we can exercise our influence as a large demographic and vote. A feasible way to change the current situation, and my greatest hope for America’s future, is an informed youth movement that cannot be ignored by our leaders, telling them unequivocally that we have had enough of history’s repeated mistakes. We can express our views the way our parents or relatives did when their friends, loved ones, and neighbors were dying by the thousands in Vietnam—we can protest, become involved in politics, or even simply (let me say this again) VOTE.