Vietnam Memorial

by Brad Cotton -- Published Circleville Herald 26 March 2010 

How much can one generation understand another? Accompanied by my two teen children we attended the antiwar rally in Washington D.C. this past March 19-21, the seventh anniversary of our strike-first invasion of Iraq. We visited the Vietnam Memorial, my two children for their first time, the third for myself.

 The Vietnam Wall is a rarity, an honest war memorial. There are no puffed up valiant charging figures here, no stirring war stories. Just 58,195 names on a silent black wall. One can see one’s own reflection in the polished black granite. I imagine “Taps” playing as I touch one name after another.

The older brothers of my high school friends were sent to Vietnam. Some of them were killed, others came back different, quiet and with a lost look in their eyes.   I turned 19 May of 1973, two months after the last active combat U.S. troops left Vietnam. My draft card remains pinned up in the study. Yet the war was a darkness that hung over mine and all of our youths in the 1960’s.

We were on the wrong side in the Vietnam War. After backing the French in their effort to re-assert colonial rule after World War ll, we became the colonial occupier. Vietnam veteran W.D. Ehrhart writes  of his service, “In grade school we learned about the redcoats, the nasty British soldiers that tried to stifle our freedom… … I began increasingly to have the feeling that I was a redcoat.”

It was to the Vietnam Memorial  that Sen. Robert Byrd (D-WVA) suggested the Senate adjourn to before voting to fund the Iraq incursion. I wish the Senate had taken Mr. Byrd’s suggestion and looked at their own reflections on the Wall before voting .The Iraq War authorization was skillfully timed in October 2002, just before midterm elections, with the public’s judgment clouded by images of 9/11 and manipulated by fearful stories of  weapons of mass destruction. The Gulf of Tonkin resolution authorizing the Vietnam War we now know was similarly based on misrepresented  intelligence.

My reflection on the Wall asks a question: “What have you done to see that we did not die in vain, to see to it that the truth, that the Vietnam War was a tragic horror remains permanently in our national conscience?” Nietzsche  said that when  one “when you look into the abyss, the abyss also looks into you.” It is at that moment, dangling over the abyss, one finds one’s character.

The Vietnam War was the dark abyss that haunted our generation. We found our character in opposing the war and in working for equal justice for our African-American brothers as well as concern for those abandoned in poverty by an unjust economic system.

 I am proud that my children know that I stood weekly with members of the Circleville Quakers, Veterans for Peace in peace vigils against the Iraq/Afghanistan wars at the Pickaway County Courthouse or at Mike Astley’s “Cost of War” exhibit on SR 22 East. Mike’s exhibit of one thousand white crosses for U.S. troop deaths in Iraq, was vandalized several times. Drivers swerved at us as we held signs reading “Healthcare Not Warfare” and “Honk for Peace” . I am proud my children and grandchildren know I canvassed door to door working for the election of our first African-American President. I am proud they know many of us, their father included, worked hard for healthcare reform.

I can never completely understand my children’s generation. I had no internet, no texting. Watching their quarrels with boyfriends/girlfriends, I am glad we didn’t have cell phones with their instantaneous  calling that prolongs the argument.

My children face a more brutal economic world that I did. Economic inequality is  nearly as great now as it was in 1912 when my grandfather, age 12, shoveled coal in the boilers of Great Lakes freighters. This abuse of Hiram Cotton was not a problem for the free market, in fact the Supreme Court ruled it could not interfere with a child’s right to sell himself to the highest bidder. Now 45,000 folks die yearly as the market deems their lives not worthy of health care. Fortunately, our nation has begun to assert morality over markets and, albeit with a flawed bill, voted in healthcare reform.

There is much work left for my children to do. I hope they take heart that out of the darkness of the Vietnam War, many of my generation learned to live and work for peace, equal opportunity and justice. May they be encouraged by the words of the greatest faith leader of the 1960’s, Martin Luther King, who, unlike Glenn Beck  and the Religious Right, understood that the Old and New Testaments are through and through about God’s passion for social and economic justice: “The arc of history is long, but it bends toward justice.”  God’s passion for justice requires that we do the footwork bending the arc.