After great pain, a formal feeling comes. — Emily Dickinson
It was with commemoration in mind that I attended the unveiling of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.
Thought the war’s validity is contested still, and though I myself did some of the contesting, the awful fact is that more than 58,000 Americans lost their lives and countless others were wounded in body or psyche. Showing up to pay my respects seemed the least I could do. It also seemed the most.
The ceremony was blessedly simple and appropriate. No extravaganza with ‘celebs” mouthing irrelevancies. Instead, speakers with authentic connections to the memorial—decorated vets, a general, a senator—spoke their pieces, brief and to the point: It is time, they said, to honor those who fought in Vietnam; it is time to welcome them home; it is time to say thank you, to the living and the dead. Amen, I thought, and bowed my head in silence.
But when Jan Scruggs, the memorial’s prime advocate, evoked an image of the war itself, describing in quavering voice a particular battle in March, 1969—“a bad day for Company D”—silence suddenly seemed pathetic, even unfeeling.
To the vets clustered around me, undoubtedly freighted with similar memories, I wanted to say something. After all, commemorate is a verb. And the commemorating at long last starts now. But how? Of all human experience, war is (pardon the clinical) the most “privatized.” Or so I understand.
As a civilian and as a woman, I have gotten most of my knowledge of war from books and movies, almost none from personal reports. Certainly none from Vietnam: It was only in an offhand way that I learned a boyfriend had spent three years leading patrols “up the river.”
Yet veterans of “popular” wars don’t readily “share the experience,” either. It was just recently that I could ask my father about his night landing on Kiska during World War II.
All of which casts war as daunting taboo: Don’t ask. And even if one asked, what could be said? War, it has been written, is beyond words. And words, I intellectualized: What can they signify? “It is the ultimate of talk / The impotence to tell.” So observed the brilliant Emily Dickinson. But then: Emily rarely left her room to try; in fact, she hardly ever got out of the house.
Get moving, I ordered myself. After all, you’re not asking for a retelling but acknowledging life-and-death struggle. Besides, you’re not the star; the vets are. Find one and say so. But who? Looking around, I fixed on a guy with boyish face and graying hair, “relating” to him because he looked like somebody I knew. Besides, he’d stepped on my toe as he brushed past me to join a buddy he’d spotted. I braced myself and started edging toward him. But as their reunion warmed up, so did the old taboo, and I hesitated again. How presumptuous, I thought: tailored lady, crashing the fraternity, babbling her regrets about a “life-threatening situation.” Leave well enough alone. But that’s just it, I countered: Things are not “well enough.” Move! I moved and tapped him on the shoulder.
“Excuse me, but were you in Vietnam?” He nodded yes, looking mildly surprised. I stuck out my hand and got started: how sorry I was about what he had endured; how I hated the war; how the losing didn’t bother me anything like all the loss; how badly I felt about the shabby “homecoming,” the altered lives, the pain. Throughout, his face never lost its look of surprise. Oh no, I just crashed into hawk. But no. What stunned him was the encounter itself. “Nobody says anything,” he said, shaking his head, pumping my hand. “This means a lot. It really does.”
Then, for an unmetered stretch of time, we held hands and I listened. Vietnam wasn’t his war, either, he said. Not wanting to go, he’d stalled all he could, which only produced, he chuckled, “a 10-day delay in my departure.”
He said he’d been at An Loc. He didn’t elaborate, except for this: During the time he’d been flown home because of a family emergency, his commanding officer was killed. The replacement, new and inexperienced, led the unit into an ambush—not once, but twice. Of the original 30, only three survived. By reflex, I couldn’t help thinking: If not for a family emergency…. Yet the vet standing before me was clearly more grieved than relieved.
And he went on. What was just as bad, he said, was being called “baby killer” when he got home. I agreed, visualizing his features recoiling at the extremist epithet.
I gestured toward the statue and the wall and asked, “Does any of this help? Even if you have to do most of it yourselves?” He nodded yes. “It all helps,” he said. Then, after talking generally, I stuck my hand out again. “Welcome home.”
Speaking for myself, I felt liberated. In the curious physics of the heart, in taking on a fraction of his burden of knowledge—an infinitesimal fraction, to be sure—I felt lightened up. And, unless I am radically wrong in my judgment, I believe he felt the same.
This, it seems to me, is what reconciliation is all about. Along with a statue, a bridge had been unveiled.
So much from so little? Yes. I don’t mean to characterize our exchange as a Historic Event; yet, quite literally, a sound barrier had been broken. And it was done, not with Shakespearean drama (or Dickinsonian poetry) but with plain speaking and a handshake.
Which is as it should be: It’s people, not playwrights or poets, who do the actual work of rebuilding, which, all things considered, is begun with far less effort than our inner critic thinks possible. I had come to pay my passive respects, but, with minimal action, much more had been accomplished.
As we backed away from each other, he paused. “I won’t forget this,” he said.
I smiled. “Neither will I.” He put his hand over his heart; I did the same. And, as I walked away, past the wall and the crowds of mourners, my favorite poet materialized, once again, with my welcome, to offer her benediction:
How much can come
And much can go
And yet abide the world…