By Phineas J. Stone
As Memorial Day approaches, I am often confronted by the faces of the young men who went away to war and never returned.
I can put myself in their shoes certainly.
Their faces are so fresh and eager, naive, and ready to conquer the world.
They left indestructible in their minds – such as is so common in young men – but were not so once on the battlefield.
World War II was always so prominent in the minds of all on Memorial Day for so long, but it is now many of the veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan – men and women these days together – carry out that proud tradition. Their new energy has brought back a renewed Patriotic feel to Memorial Day that is finally overshadowing the feel-good BBQs and blockbuster car dealership sales.
That’s all great news, but we still have a hole left in our national patchwork of battlefields. That would be Vietnam.
I was too young to serve, but knew plenty of men who went off to the jungles to stem the tide of Communism. All too often these men don’t commemorate Memorial Day. All throughout Boston you’ll find men from the post-World War II era that were combat veterans, but don’t really trumpet the fact.
Vietnam was so complicated due to the fact that it was the first war that was televised like a football game. Cameras filmed soldiers fighting and, during dinnertime, reported the so-called victories or push backs that were achieved against the North. We lived war at the dinner table, and that set off the sensibilities of a lot of well meaning people.
The atrocities of Vietnam reported so frequently, we know now, were not new to that war. Innocent children and civilians were slaughtered mistakenly in World War II just as they were in Vietnam. It was just kept on the battlefield and not widely reported. For those of us who did not serve in Vietnam, we watched detailed reports on TV and in the newspapers with a depth we had never known before – and it didn’t feel good.
I make no judgement on whether that is right or not, this Memorial Day, but simply to point out war is and always has been “hell.”
The casualty of America’s first televised war were and are the soldiers. They came back into an atmosphere that forced them into the shadows.
The World War II veterans – who were used to dealing in the stark contrasts of winning and losing – wouldn’t allow these soldiers in their celebrations because they had “lost.” They didn’t understand it was a war about making a stand, pushing back against a horrible philosophy, and thus couldn’t ever have been won.
We all know the stories of young people and some in the general public who welcomed back these fighters by spitting on them, calling them murderers and shaming them into hiding.
My father’s friend spent a good deal of time in Vietnam during the early years – had a horrendous and dangerous job being a forward-man in the jungles. He was decorated, yet I never even knew he served until later in life.
“No one wants to hear about a medal won in Vietnam,” he said once.
I recall meeting a woman in the course of my work who shared that she had lost her young son – only 19 – to the war in Vietnam. He had left and told her not to worry about him. He had been on the football team, played hockey and even did some boxing. In his words, he told her he was prepared to take care of himself.
None of those things could prepare him to stop a bullet, however.
She had shared how after her grief, she had wanted to be proud of him. She wanted to put up a Gold Star like the World War II mothers. There was no room for that back then though.
She still had his baby shoes in his untouched bedroom. You couldn’t help but cry.
She kept her pride hidden within the house. So many did.
This week, I watch President Barack Obama visiting Vietnam – which is still Communist and enacts the harshness on its people that we were fighting to prevent – and I see that he in a way is releasing them from our shared past. Their country has been rebuilt and large cities look like any American city with skyscrapers, modern amenities and even fast food.
I see that we are also going to sell them weapons. What a thing time is, to take a country we hated with all our might at our supper tables over our TV Dinners – our arch enemy at one time – and to now arm them with our own weapons.
It’s incredible how time moves.
But for many Vietnam soldiers, time hasn’t moved and they haven’t been released.
Maybe this Memorial Day, we can listen to them and hear their stories.
We all know the bad – we saw it nightly on TV – so maybe we can hear and celebrate the good things they did over there and the philosophical stand we took as Americans and they backed up with weapons and lives.