My Letter to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial (The Wall) in 2019
I sent my letters to the Wall in May 2015 and in May 2017. I addressed my May 2015 “letter to soldiers who died in Vietnam.” I addressed my letter not only to U.S. soldiers who died during the Vietnam/Indochina War, but also to the far greater number who died after 1975 from suicide and war-related physical and psychological devastation and need to be listed as Vietnam War deaths. I also included the 3,000,000 Vietnamese death and perhaps 4,000,000 total Indochinese deaths, as well as those who continue to suffer and die because of the devastation of the war.
In my May 2017 letter, I wrote that all of the painful and tragic lessons of the Vietnam/Indochina War expressed in my previous letter were truer than ever before. As I noted, the one significant development that shaped my 2017 letter was coming to terms with the era of Trump. It is not as if the lessons of the Vietnam War are significantly different under Trump. What is different and fraught with danger is Trump’s ignorance of history including the history of the Vietnam War, his dismissal of “facts” and his ego-driven obsession with winning at any cost, and his blatant lying, demagogic, racist, sexist, xenophobic, America First, anti-immigrant and anti-foreigner language and policies. This, of course, would not be so dangerous if there were not the economic and political elite, those at the heart of the imperialist military-industrial complex, who fuel and benefit from such policies.
Once again in May 2019, as described in my previous letters, I write as a nonviolent, action-oriented, engaged, antiwar resister. As I described in 2017, full disclosure of the lessons of the Vietnam War means for me focusing on two major concerns: Truth and Nonviolence. This has remained a central focus of my research, teaching, and peace and justice activism, as presented in my recent book Gandhi after 9/11: Creative Nonviolence and Sustainability (Oxford University Press, 2019). We who learned the real lessons of the Vietnam War must resist the continuing false mythic rewriting of history of the war and its incredible brutality and violence, must set the record straight, and must work for a world of greater truthful living, nonviolence, compassion, peace, and justice.
Writing this letter to the Wall in May 2019 reminds me that this marks the 50th anniversary of the peak of the upsurge of the antiwar movement. Coming after TET, the invasion of Cambodia, Jackson State, Kent State, and other dramatic developments, we were small parts of a dedicated antiwar movement of many millions in the U.S., as well others throughout the world and in the military, determined to expose the lies, resist the violence and genocide, and bring the troops home. We demonstrated that antiwar activism can make a significant difference. Today, those lessons of the Vietnam War are truer and more desperately needed in 2019 than ever before, as we resist and struggle to build a peace and justice movement addressing the causes and conditions of violence and war, imperialism and militarism and corporatist globalization, inequality, economic and environmental unsustainability.
Professor of Philosophy
The University of Maine
Orono, Maine 04469 U.S.A.
As I was thinking of what to write, I thought back to what James Baldwin wrote in his novel “Just Above My Head”. In Baldwin’s novel a Korean War veteran spoke of his feelings after returning from the war. Baldwin wrote, “It was bitter to see that you were part of a country that didn’t give a fuck about you or anybody else.”
It is tempting to lie to you whose names are on the Wall and to myself about the war. I was so tempted to lie to a mother when I told her that her only son had been killed in Viet Nam. To truly respect his sacrifice, I could not lie to the mother to provide a justification for his death. I still feel every blow to the chest that she gave me. When one of my men was killed in Viet Nam, the blows intensified. The thump, thump, thump to the chest still say the same thing, “waste, waste, waste”.
Ernest Hemingway wrote about his similar feelings after he returned from war. “There were many words that you could not stand to hear and finally only the name of places had dignity. Abstract words such as glory, honor, courage, or hallow were obscene.”
So I will remember the places in Viet Nam that I served alongside US, South Vietnamese, and Korean soldiers. Places that you likely spent time at also. I wish I could give you those words that Hemingway mentioned. I am sure many who visit the Wall do. My experience in Viet Nam and respect for all of you do not allow me to lie by saying those words-that makes me bitter as hell.
Viet Nam 70-71