With a friend, some years ago I visited war memorials in Washington, D.C. The morning was gray. Overhead, clouds sped by chased by an easterly wind, while off and on light rain fell. Looking up at the clouds my friend commented, “Sky’s weeping.” The sky, perhaps, and God, too, I thought.
I wondered if the memorials to our past conflicts would perhaps suggest hints of change in the American psyche regarding war and violence. Why, for something that causes so much suffering to the human race, for something that is regarded almost universally as madness, does war remain so intoxicating that one war follows the next one, as lemming follows lemming.
We visited three war memorials that morning. The WWII, Korean and Vietnam memorials. These wars spanned almost a quarter of this century. Total American casualties are estimated at 410, 472.
I find the Vietnam Memorial unique. People descending its depths speak in hushed tones as though at a wake. Young soldiers, looking just out of boot camp, walked around slowly but without speaking. When we were there, half the memorial was undergoing alterations and so we saw only a part. My friend looked up in the directory one of the casualties, a friend of his, found his inscribed name and brushed his fingers across it for a moment in silence. The memorial is remarkably unassuming, understated, humble– much of it seems bunkered underground– but it emanates more power and clarity about the realities of war than the most spectacular arches of triumph. The imaginative and creative design of the memorial exposes with quiet dignity the political sanitizing and glorifying of war by simply naming its victims. The memorial doesn’t celebrate the war nor lionize its casualties; it elegizes the victims. The ‘paths of glory lead but to the grave’ and the name of every soldier who died in Vietnam is inscribed there in dark marble for the world to see–but more painfully, for friends and relatives to see.
From the WWII memorial to the Vietnam memorial, I sense a subtle and hopeful shift in the American attitude regarding war. The WWII memorial is clearly triumphal, a celebration. The Korean war memorial is somber, like watching condemned men walk the last mile. Finally, the Vietnam memorial, sunk in the earth like a grave, inescapably personalizes war’s carnage by inscribing on its walls the name of every fallen American soldier. It’s as though in the last twenty-five years there’s been an emerging national consciousness that waging war precipitously is the failure of imagination. War is a desperate measure yielding dubious victories at a terrible price– something one does only as a last resort.
The vision of America’s future is not nationalism, unilateralism and militarism, but mutuality and international cooperation. Leading us in national and international affairs requires flexibility, imagination, skill and compassion.
On the wall of the memorial, there are the names of at least 58,318 men and women who gave their lives to realize that vision.