My thoughts on American soldiers who died in war were best expressed in this piece I wrote to my son Sean on July 22, 1990. Sean was then serving in the U.S. Army. It is one of the best things I ever wrote
Here it is:
During the lunch hour, I took a walk over to the Rose Garden, near my office. It is a big park where the city maintains a beautiful garden of roses of every variety and color. There is a fountain in the middle of the rose garden. This week, the Viet Nam Memorial Wall was there on display. It is one of two miniature replicas of the Viet Nam Memorial in Washington, D.C., one-third the size of the original.
On a long line of black panels, the names of the Viet Nam dead are inscribed in white lettering. I looked at the very first name from 1959, and walked along the panels, letting my eyes fall at random on the name of some soldier, unknown to me but not to God, realizing that each name represented a real human being, with a mom and dad, who probably grew up watching the same Saturday cartoons on T.V. and eating Trix for breakfast and going off to high school, maybe getting his ass popped with a towel in gym class by the local bully, maybe falling in love and just generally getting buffeted about by life’s ups and downs until he found himself in some stinking jungle dodging bullets or artillery fire.
It is sobering to realize that every name represents a new born baby once fawned over by proud parents and grandparents, who went through life’s passages from his first tooth to kindergarten to the somber robes of graduation, and ultimately, to a mahogany coffin with a bright red, white and blue flag. Then the grief of parents, family and friends, left only with memories and remorseful thoughts of all that he might have been.
Each inscribed name represents these things, multiplied by 58,000. The truth of this grief was present even at this replica wall, with flowers left at the foot of certain slabs, and oddly, other personal possessions, like a hat, a pair of sneakers. The names start with one name, then two, then three, moving right from side to side in a sweeping V shape, till the slabs were filled with names, and in the middle war years, the names reach a crescendo, filling the tallest slabs with their silent beseeching litany, like ocean waves at high tide, smashing themselves on the rocky shore of eternity. Finally, the flow of white lessens its intensity, and the names finally trail off. Eventually I came to the very last name, a young soldier who died in 1975 during the last evacuation of American personnel.
One of my classmates from my high school graduating class is there, somewhere in the sea of names. What strange and arbitrary quirk of fate, I thought, put me standing here, staring at his name on a wall, instead of him standing here and staring at mine? We had walked the same corridors at Camden High in San Jose, California; used the same hall lockers painted adobe red, their metal doors clanging closed as the bell sounded the next class; ate in the same lunchroom, cheered for the same football team, endured the same stern teachers and pugilistic bullies. On a spring day we had marched into our futures while the band played Pomp and Circumstance, wearing identical black graduation robes, the yellow tassels on our caps tickling our faces in the June breeze.
Who or what decided that it should be him instead of me? And how is it all reconciled in the great cosmic design? I don’t know the answers. No one does. But I do know this: if you are breathing and in reasonably average health, you have nothing to complain about. You are lucky.