FROM VIETNAM VETERANS PLAZA, NYC (9-26-05)
"War is a racket." - Major General Smedley Butler, 1935
You wouldn't see it if you weren't looking for it. I'm only here because it's across the street from the deli, and I don't want to go back to work to eat.
Benches, a fountain, a few trash cans. A food court, save for the small pathway off to one side and a diminuitive arch that might be mistaken for a bathroom. On one side, the roar of Water Street. On the side opposite, a helicopter landing pier jutting into the East River, with takeoffs & landings every five minutes or so.
On the two remaining sides, and in nearly all lines of sight, behemoths. Vast skyscrapers of indifferent architecture, felt more than seen. Names you know by heart. Goldman Sachs, Standard & Poor's. The names you don't know are etched into short pillars on the sides of the small pathway between one row of benches and another.
In Howl, Allen Ginsberg bemoans the fate of the best minds of his generation. This is what happened to the one after.
They were told to ask what they could do for their country. In my father's case, he was told what he could do for his country, in a letter from Lyndon Johnson and Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara. Chance and pragmatism (the need for good payroll clerks) kept him stateside, one of the major contributing factors to my existence.
Chance and pragmatism worked very differently for the men whose names were instead chosen to line this obscure walkway. And they were chosen, not destined. In chess, a player will sacrifice a pawn when there is a chance of capturing the king. And like Schroedinger's cat, every man sent into battle is simultaneously alive and dead and somewhere between, a gravestone marker and a father and a head case, until he emerges and we know for sure which one he is.
It isn't always evident which disposition is best. The wheelchairs and decaying cardboard donation cups of veterans line the sidewalks and parks of this city, ignored as much as these names carved into a politely unobtrusive row of slabs that double as planters. America doesn't like to look at its mistakes.
That's how I feel right now, staring at these names I wouldn't have thought to seek out. I want to apologize to them. I'm sorry. I'm sorry you died for a mistake. I wish you hadn't. I wish you were somewhere in the world, perhaps sitting on the bench next to me on this plaza that everyone thinks is a food court, and that no one would think to visit if it weren't surrounded by the behemoths where the living go about their business while more people die for another mistake.
My parents' generation is still fighting the Vietnam War. They fought it in last year's elections. They fight it because no one ever won. In War Is A Force That Gives Us Meaning, war correspondent and Baby Boomer Chris Hedges observes that once the first casualties are incurred, whether civilian or military, war becomes entropic. In the attempt to avenge the dead, more dead are created, who must then be avenged. Not to avenge is to dishonor the memory of those who died fighting for their country. Before the first casualties, war must be sold zealously and cleverly, to a skeptical populace, as with both World Wars and the Spanish-American War. But add the dead, and the war sells itself. To criticize the war or those who orchestrate it (the player, not the pawn) is to insinuate that someone's death was a mistake. But sometimes, a death is a mistake.
Like all stalemated wars (as Vietnam certainly was, and Iraq may well be), someone must say when enough is enough. In the 1960s and '70s, many citizens of the United States did exactly that, for a variety of reasons, some honorable, some not. Others would not cry "Uncle", no matter how high the casualties ran, and no matter how unlikely victory became. Some simply objected to the way in which the war was protested and by whom, a sentiment that's easy to understand. In 2002 and '03, at marches & rallies opposing the then-oncoming Iraq War, I occasionally found myself in dubious company, and wondered for a moment if I had picked the right side.
Truthfully, though, most anti-war folks I have come into contact with have been thoughtful, average citizens who happen to believe that one death does not make up for another. Some of them were still fighting the Vietnam War, something they thought was over. They didn't know that the other side was still out there fighting the memory of the hippies, in bars and on right-wing radio, waiting for a chance to prove the peaceniks wrong, and blaming them for the old war's failure as they blame them now for the current quagmire. It may be that my own generation will be fighting the Iraq War for the rest of our lives. It may be that every war will be fought by those who fought the last one. Those who survive, at any rate. Those who don't may find their names in places like this, nestled in available space among the daily goings-on of the living.
Over the years, voices have emerged from the belly of war, from George Orwell to Kurt Vonnegut to Paul Rieckhoff, telling us that war is not as it may appear onscreen. That the best intentions of those who signed on to fight for their country were sullied and subverted by those at the helm. This is not the fault of the soldier, and it does not dishonor them to be sad and angry that their good intentions were twisted and taken advantage of by others. That's how I feel, looking at these names. These were people doing what they thought was right, told by their superiors that they were fighting the good fight, the moral fight, the winning fight. Not long now, it'll turn around.
This was a lie, now confirmed as such by none other than Robert McNamara, the Donald Rumsfeld of his time, and thus the authority that these soldiers were relying on for their missions and their fates. If the mission was a lie, then the deaths were a mistake. It is no shame upon these men whose names cover this monument. It is a shame upon those who sent them to their deaths needlessly.
When the time comes, and it is coming, when Americans look with shame at the mess we've made of Iraq, it should not be the soldiers we blame. It is, as always, the power and hubris of those in command who drive us, and have always driven us, towards war. It is their shame, and they should be made to wear it, as McNamara has worn his in later life. I only hope that George W. Bush is intelligent enough to know that he screwed up, though honestly, I don't think he is. His world would completely collapse if he allowed such a thought in, and that's why he's dangerous. I've said this before, and I won't go through it again, particularly since he isn't going anywhere for three more years.
What also isn't going anywhere is this country’s treatment of our soldiers. Dan Baum wrote a haunting piece in the New Yorker about the way our soldiers are trained to kill, versus the way pre-Vietnam soldiers were trained. To keep soldiers' trigger fingers from freezing up when the time came to shoot another human being, a reluctance that happened surprisingly often, a new training program was introduced by Lt. Colonel S.L.A. Marshall in 1947. No one kills anyone anymore. They're "attritting the enemy." "Engaging targets." "Suppressing enemy fire." It's no coincidence that the number of mentally ill veterans began to climb after the start of Vietnam, and climb higher now that soldiers are returning with record rates of post-traumatic stress disorder, among other neuroses & psychoses. Add to this the shabby pay and diminishing benefits afforded to veterans, and the picture becomes depressing at best, frightening at worst.
But the time I have to think about these things is waning. I've finished my forbidden slice of marble cake, and I can only pretend I was in the bathroom for so long. Securities paperwork does not slow for the war. Somewhere in Iraq, a soldier is in Schroedinger's box. We will not know for some time whether he is a casualty, a survivor, or somewhere in between. His name has yet to be written on stone in a corner of some familiar and forgotten field. He may already suspect that his life is being put in danger for a mistake. Plenty of letters from the front can attest to that trend among enlisted men & women. All I can do is say I'm sorry, and that's feeble comfort or compensation. I tried to remove the fools on the hill, but they remain, and I don't know what else to do but scream at the top of my lungs, which I do often, to no avail. I'm sorry. I'm sorry that you may die for a mistake. I would change it if I could, and I will continue trying. I know it's not enough, and I'm sorry. I'm mad as hell, but I have to go back to work. I'm sorry...