There are some places to which I am drawn, places that memory holds and cannot release. One such place is Normandy of D-Day — June 6 — infamy.
Memorial days as celebrated in western countries such as the United States, Britain, France and the Netherlands, honor the fallen of wars and their deeds.
One Memorial Day, I attended services in Arnhem, the Netherlands, site of “A Bridge Too Far.” And then there was Dachau, the Nazi extermination camp near Munich with its notorious welcoming sign, “Arbeit macht frei,” work will set you free. Of course, it didn’t for hundreds of thousands.
Yet, through the years, I knew there was another memorial to which I was being drawn.
The Vietnam Memorial. I was, and still am, unsettled about that war and grieve for the young men who died fighting it. I think of our participation in that war as a chapter many years in the making and a story still being told.
It was the story of once-young men and women, and the victims, and the 57,939 whose names were etched into a stretch of black marble gouged into the fine earth of the Washington Mall. They were among the more than 500,000 sent to Vietnam.
“It’s time we recognized that ours was in truth a noble cause,” then-President Ronald Reagan said. I can’t agree with that, and I wonder if that view would be shared by most of those whose names appeared on that black marble.
I have to think that if there was anything noble about that war, it was not the cause, but the men and boys who did what their country said was their duty.
If there is a nobility about dying in war, it is to be found defending country, freedom or family. It is not to be found in questionable wars with questionable aims. Vietnam was not a World War I or World War II. This was the cause where the end never could justify the means.
Almost from the beginning, we tried to impose an American style of democracy on a nation that had no understanding of democracy as we understand it. It never worked, opposing a people that already had been fighting the French for 35 years, and winning.
Frank McCulloch, former editor of the Sacramento Bee, a Time magazine bureau chief in Vietnam, and one of the most revered names in journalism, said this: “The society of the north had no problem with public support and that it was defending its homeland. They were a war people 1,000 years ago. They are a war people today. They just licked us hands down in most one-on-one situations.”
David Halberstam, a great journalist, in his book, “The Best and the Brightest,” said this: “The North had become invulnerable to bombing. Bringing in more combat troops would bring the same problems encountered by the French who suffered a humiliating defeat at Dien Bien Phu” — after which the French said “enough” and pulled out of Vietnam, leaving more than 7,000 men to the mercies of the north. Most were never seen again.
In Vietnam, we followed our boys through the moving pictures of hand-held cameras and the words of the media people who walked with them. And we watched as they walked through valleys of death. We saw them hug the ground as bullets and mortars ripped overhead.
We saw mud on their faces and tears being shed, and saw blood on their chests. We saw eyes that saw no more.
We saw ponchos over bodies and bodies placed in bags and then in flag-draped coffins for the quiet trip home to their native land, a land torn by its own war, mostly a non-shooting war but a war nevertheless. Then, the coffins would return to the Mantecas or Stocktons, to their native soil. There would be no marching bands and few presentations of medals.
Some years later, I would find myself in front of that black monument where for the longest time I kept my hand pressed against it, tears from my eyes.
I looked not for an individual name, but drawing all names into my being as I mourned for the lost souls.