It’s Kinda Far
You know how they say chump these days? They say, “Thank you for your service.” Maybe they mean well, a few. Some are hesitant. I’ve always supposed they are thinking, “He doesn’t look like Rambo, even an old grey one. I’m one of the chumps from an older generation, the one that thought politicians tell the truth. I’m a double chump. I don’t mind, much, cuz it’s like we used to say, “It don’t mean nuthin’.
Okay, I’m just an old pissed off infantryman. You know, an extra cranky Bernie Sanders with some faded scars, some in my head too. But it don’t mean nuthin’. So I’m thinking about all this stuff in my head and how it don’t mean nuthin as I head to the university museum. My wife works there. She gives tours, has for years. I like it there. It gets me out of myself. “Beats mowing the lawn,” I say.
The truth is I really enjoy tagging along with the tours. People ask questions, kids especially, so each tour is different. And the tour goes to different art and artists. This time the tour group is a class of school girls, seventh grade I’m guessing, but I don’t ask. I never ask questions and I don’t join the tour –my wife says I make her nervous—but I stay close enough to catch most of what is said, and asked that day in high, chiming, young voices. The Japanese woodcuts are “great,” and “way cool,” and the girls are interested in how these woodcuts are made which is really complicated. One of the woodcut samurai is swinging a cut off head but the girls make no comment. On to some abstract art which bores them. It bores me too and I move ahead to the drawings of German artists of the First World War, trench scenes, you know, and between the wars. Grim drawings of dead soldiers and sausage-fat men and women of the nineteen twenties. My wife tells them the artist is George Grosz. His drawings make them nervous; they laugh, “Grosz is gross.” Clever. And I agree, but not out loud. War profiteers and their women; it’s unsettling, too much like my war.
My wife bustles the girls beyond gross Grosz and on pass some portraits. She stops in front of a photo of a literal landscape by Maya Lin; a photo of her Wave Field, an undulating grassy field of mounds. It doesn’t seem to interest the tour and I’m just thinking, “who has to mow that?” My wife gives the tour a gentle prod, “Have any of you heard of Maya Lin before today?” The question doesn’t hang for long. The girls jump in right away. They say, “She did the Vietnam War thing, the memorial with all those names. And statues too, I saw them, soldiers.
“What are they looking at?” my wife asks, “What do they see?” A girl, deep tan with brown eyes, and purple hair says, “I think they are afraid.” Another, “No,” she says, “They just heard something. They are like alert.” And that’s what I’ve always thought. The sculptor got it. I know the look. “They see what’s coming,” is another opinion. “They are looking at the wall.” They all agree on that. Now the comments race. One girl is adamant: “They know what’s coming. I think they see their names.” “My grandpa was there, in the war. He said he came to “The Wall,” he called it, once – to look for names.” Another, “My dad took me there, all kinds of people, some of them leave stuff, at the wall. I mean, stuff, like medals, cards, flowers.” “I saw a teddy bear,” this was a different girl. “My dad took me. That’s when I saw it. My dad and me walked all along the wall. It’s kinda far, so many names.
Then the tour moved on. But I didn’t follow. . . . And, I can’t say,” It don’t mean nuthin’ anymore.
Dear Visitor to the Wall:
It was many years ago, in 2002, when I met the Medic.
I had served as an Army nurse in Viet Nam in 1969-70, and I published a book of short stories in 2001 that was loosely based on my experience there, so I was occasionally asked to speak on military-related holidays.
That day, I was speaking in an auditorium in Worcester, MA—I think for Memorial Day—on the subject of supporting veterans and soldiers with solid medical care, affordable housing, and counseling, rather than the “Thank you for your service” that the Bush administration had put in place in lieu of more meaningful action. I came down from the podium, and this man cornered me. He was a bit younger than I, trim and all-American-looking, and he was shaking. He stood too close, spoke too loud, and told me he’d been a Medic in Viet Nam in 1970-71.
“I was fine,” he said. “I was doing great. I never had a problem—now there’s this Afganistan War. I can’t sleep—I wake up with horrible nightmares, I can’t work—“ his eyes teared up. “I’m—I’m a wreck! All because we’re there. Because we’re doing it again.”
What comfort could I give? I had been angry when I left Viet Nam; but I’d taken refuge in the one good thing to come of the war—that we would never, ever do something so horrible, so unnecessary, so utterly devastating, again. We would never send our young people to maim and kill people they didn’t understand, to be maimed and killed by people who didn’t understand them. The cost was too high; we would learn from our war on Viet Nam.
And now…here stood the embodiment of my worst fears. This trembling, sweating, crying man who had been trapped, by yet another horrible, unnecessary, devastating war, in the nightmare world where he, a teenager, patched together the broken bodies of his peers for political reasons that made no logical sense.
I grabbed the Medic and hugged him and told him to find help, find someone at the VA who could patch him back together. It was the best I could do for him, because I couldn’t stop this latest betrayal of young people by their leaders.
When you look at this wall, honor the men (and women) behind the names. Then go home, study the war, and ask yourself: for what “freedom,” exactly, did they pay this outlandish price?
I grieve with the Medic, that it’s happening still. Again. Where is the “freedom” gained in permitting our leaders to send our country’s youth to maim and kill other people they don’t understand—to be maimed and killed by people who don’t understand them? Where is the “freedom” to be gained by fighting political wars that make no logical sense? Words—and people—can be manipulated. When the truth of war finally rises, it is the stuff of nightmares.
Susan O’Neill, RN, Viet Nam 1969-70