The Wall: a visit
Click. Empty! I drop my CAR-15 onto my lap. The VC across the road stops back peddling. He slowly brings his AK to his shoulder. His lips twist into a sinister snarl. Bullets rip holes into my chest.
I jerk awake. My heart pounds. It takes a second to orient myself; hotel room, Washington D.C., dim light coming through heavy curtains. I glance over to see if Alice is awake. She’s curled into a ball asleep. I sit in the dark on the edge of the bed, rub my temples, slow the parade of memories marching through the treadmill of my mind.
I get out of bed, shave, shower, get dressed, and gently close the hotel door behind me.
The cabdriver points. I thank him and grab my backpack. The predawn sky is turning from gray to pink. Sprinklers methodically hiss streams of water over manicured lawns. A mist drifts between the trees.
The coffee table book at home, The Wall, Images and Offerings from the Vietnam Veterans’ Memorial, describes the Wall as a chevron. I thought it should be a jagged scar, an uneven wrenching of the earth. A chevron is too neat, too clean. One picture in The Wall is of a veteran holding a cardboard sign.
“I am a Vietnam veteran. I like the memorial. And if it makes it difficult to send people into battle again, I’ll like it even more.”
The design of the memorial specified four criteria. The fourth: it had to avoid political statements. How does a design ignore the peace marches, flag draped caskets, the divisive moral and political debates that tore this country apart? The winning design focused on private grief and masks government culpability, forgiving those who promoted the war. Perhaps the Wall’s omission of a political statement is to keep the door open for future wars.
I regret my high school history students aren’t with me. Some of my seniors are considering joining the military. I never know whether to encourage or discourage them. In combat, once events are set in motion, they’re beyond an individual’s control. Doing what has to be done to survive, a soldier performs acts that alter who he is, his soul.
When I told my twelfth grade students that we went to war in Vietnam under a false flag, they didn’t believe me. American warships were never attacked by North Vietnamese PT boats. The Gulf of Tonkin Resolution was a lie. President Johnson used a non-event to escalate a war. One of my students quipped, “That’s not true; our President wouldn’t lie to us.”
Memorials are pedagogical, they make statements, they teach. What does a vast black wall of lives cut short teach of posterity? Does the Wall celebrate war by holding the dead in high esteem? They died doing their duty? But, it would be hard, profane, to throw away my Purple Heart and Bronze Star, even knowing the war was without cause.
A sliver of sun pierces the horizon. It’s been a long journey from Vietnam to the Wall. After I was discharged from Letterman General Hospital, my Dad insisted on driving me home. We drove in silence down Pacific Coast Highway, occasionally stopping to walk on the beach. Memories came up through the bottoms of my bare feet.
Walking towards the Wall, I feel the scar tissue on the back of my right leg, the scar running down my abdomen, my colostomy scar. Scars grow old, but they don’t disappear. In dreams, the surgeon’s knife and the searing pain occasionally visit me.
Alice and I plan to meet for a late breakfast, after my private visit. The Wall is one stop on our tour that afternoon. I worry I’ll cry in front of the group. It shouldn’t matter.
My walk slows. One arm of the memorial points to the Washington Monument in the east, the other to the Lincoln Memorial in the west. Sections of the Wall mirror the morning sunlight in a silver sheen. The rows of names are lines of encrypted code, a story behind each name slowly fading into history’s shadows. In the distance morning traffic rumbles to work.
A paved pathway runs parallel to the Wall. It descends past four-foot-wide granite panels that increase in height. The Wall faces south onto a gently sloping amphitheater, a grassy knoll, 58,267 names etched chronologically. One act plays: a sniper bullet to the head, a sucking chest wound, a dying soldier crying for his mother.
The black granite is a dark mirror inviting visitors to participate in an encore. For a few there is a sense of envy to have one’s name forever etched in black granite.
The panels swell into columns; each with its neatly stacked row upon row of names. The two walls meet at an angle of 125 degrees, the vertex. At the top of one panel and the bottom of another, chiseled in stone:
In honor of the men and women of the Armed Forces of the United States who served in the Vietnam War. The names of those who gave their lives and of those who remain missing are inscribed in the order they were taken from us.
The fourth criteria—no fault-syntax, no political recriminations. What the hell? Wars happen because they happen. Who sent draftees to die in the jungles of Nam? Who asked them to give up their lives in a bogus war?
I take a slip of paper out of my pocket and unfold it. Fellow veteran and friend, Carlos gave me a list of names in the order they were shipped back. I study the panel in front of me and see my image standing behind the names. The names are permanent, fixed in reflective space. There go I, but for luck and chance; an ebony specter drifting behind static names growing old.
For the past year, Nam’s been my constant companion. Carlos has cancer. I think it’s from him being exposed to Agent Orange. A lot of guys came home with toxins in their bodies. Others came home with legs and arms missing. Some guys came home all messed up in the head. They can’t let go of the shit. Over 58,000 didn’t come home at all.
The textbook I use in class dedicates all of two pages to the Vietnam War. It’s hard not to get angry at how textbooks depersonalize history, turning 58,267 dead soldiers into a factoid.
Nam will always be a part of me, the nights, the rain, the adrenaline rush. There is a kind of purity and brotherhood during a firefight, being in the moment, and there are relationships that develop that can never be matched in civilian life. Maybe Hemingway was right about one thing, we live most intensely when facing death.
In 1974 President Nixon declared that we won the war and he brought the troops home. Two years later, NVA tanks rolled into Saigon. Saigon is now called Ho Chi Minh City. Congress abolished the draft. We now have a professional army, which will make it easier to go to war, fewer protests, fewer peace marches. My students have little ownership in our foreign wars. The idea of being drafted, having to go to war, would be unimaginable to them.
Stepping back from the Wall, I look towards the Washington monument. Thousands of names float in space, freed from the black granite by the morning sun. When will we build a memorial to end memorials? I turn and walk towards panel E13.
A solitary figure in a gray business suit is reflected in the Wall. His hands are locked behind his back. A backpack hangs from one shoulder. He walks behind the names, an apparition. There’s something familiar about the face.
I read that some combat veterans find solace at the Wall; others turn their pain into coherent stories or they find an identity. Alice says I’ve always been preoccupied with questions of meaning. She thinks it’s a mild form of PTSD.
I stop and scan down the rows of names and read, CAROL DAPHNE MILLER. I reach out and touch the name, trace the letters with the tips of my fingers. The black granite is cold beneath my fingertips. How could a triage nurse become one of 58,267 dreams deferred?
Carol, you never got any of my letters. They came back marked, NO FORWARDING ADDRESS. The personnel officer at Letterman General Hospital told me you weren’t coming back, KIAed.
We knew each other for all of three days. Your nights were full of nightmares. I wanted to help. The things I said about telling your nightmares to f—off were pretty naïve. Your nightmares now have an official diagnosis, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. You weren’t alone; thousands of vets came home suffering from PTSD; depression, detachment, nightmares, a generation of soldiers haunted by war.
I have a confession to make. Over the years, I’ve used you as my therapist, and confessor. After a bad nightmare or flashback, I compose, “Dear Carol” letters in my head. Words and sentences take the edge off; they anchor me, slow the treadmill of memories spinning in my head. I haven’t told a dream to f—off for a long time.
Alice says she is sometimes jealous of our relationship, but a wife cannot be her husband’s therapist. She’s read all your letters. She says a part of the man she married is in the letters. She says he’s a good man. I have my doubts.
The letters I’ve written in my head over the years were ladders I used to climb out of my dark empty spaces, letters full of “could-ofs,” “should-ofs,” “might-have-beens.” They don’t excuse me. I own my past.
To kill without emotion, in cold blood, psychologists call it detachment or alienation, a diminished capacity to feel, becoming numb to survive. If I feel nothing, then death can’t hurt me. Guilt and regret are the twin sisters of PTSD.
I haven’t visited the nurse’s memorial statue, yet. I’ve seen pictures of it. Three uniformed nurses with a wounded soldier. The nurse looking up is named Hope, the nurse kneeling in thought or prayer is called Faith, the nurse tending to the wounded soldier is named Charity. They were once young, full of hope, faith, and charity.
Hey, I have a gift for you. I slip my backpack off my shoulder and take out a bundle of letters. “These belong to you.” I lay them at the base of the Wall and stand to go.
The man in the gray business suit is trapped behind the names. He pounds the Wall with his fists and cries out, “It was all for nothing, a waste, a lie.” He sinks to the ground, his forehead presses against the cold granite stone.
He lifts his head and I see it’s me.