I did not really "know" anyone who went to Viet Nam, but I had met several. My grandmother had remarried and had a second family, the result of which was that I had an uncle, Carl, who was only a few years older than I. Carl was a musician, a really cool guy who used to let me hang out to listen to his band practice in my grandmother's basement. They were an incredibly talented group of kids, working class all, and ready to take on the world. I remember so many joyful days in that dank space listening to them play, sipping a Coke and convinced that I was hearing the next Beatles.
And I remember most vividly a day--it must have been in 1971 or 1972, when Carl would have turned 18--when I sat in my grandmother's house with those talented musicians and some of Carl's other friends as they watched the draft lottery.
I was fifteen. Had I been draftable, I know I would have moved to Canada: this war, like Iraq, was unconscionable. Carl was of the same opinion, but I could see the tension in his eyes and everywhere else as they began the drawing. It was so hard to watch: a young man's life at stake with a random sequence of balls drawn like a carnival game. The relief on his face, the incredible release in his entire body, when his birthday was somewhere in the 300's--meaning he would not be called--stays with me to this day. But even more vivid in my memory is the soul-wrenching cry from the living room, a few minutes later as I went to get a coke, of one of his bandmates whose birthday was pulled into the first twenty numbers. It is not a sound one easily forgets: the agony of someone's entire future being violently torn apart, ripped not at the seams but irreparably sundered, shredded, riven at its very core.
He knew he would have to go. He knew, he said, as someone consoled him, that he would never come back.
That young man did not ever come back from Viet Nam. His name is among the 58195 names engraved on the Wall in Washington, DC. When I made my first visit to the Wall, years ago, I felt a sadness well up in me that I could not fathom, having never fought in a war or even lost someone I knew in one. I actually felt out of place there among the artifacts of love and memory--the photographs, the flowers, the teddy bears, the letters, etc, that were left at the base of the granite slab bearing the only physical connection that remained to a husband, a son, a father, a brother. Their sadness became mine, and I began to understand the magnitude of what it means to sacrifice a life for a country, even in a war you do not believe in.
It is not only about the soldiers. It is about the dreams of young men and women and their families, dreams that have been lost to the lunacy of war, the ugliest of human activities. Men and women have fought for what they have believed in or for what they have simply been told was right, and they have paid with their blood. The people they have left behind, too, have lost everything: this is a day to remember them as well, to hold them in our thoughts and prayers.
Some day, some future generation of whatever has evolved from humanity might look back on these millennia of death and devastation as the obscene blight on the world that it so clearly is: a species so bent on its own self-destruction that it justifies genocide by invoking a God it otherwise pretends is loving? A species so bent on its own annihilation that it sacrifices its young repeatedly and indiscriminately, even inventing reasons to fight wars when none exist? Some day that post-evolutionary humanity will wonder how it ever managed to survive at all.
Today, though, we have to keep in mind the power of the sacrifices that these young people make every day. The fact that we may hate this war, may even hate the very idea of war, is utterly immaterial. Archibald MacLeish, just after returning from WWII, a war most agree was justified and important, nonetheless wrote a poem that reminded us what a horrible, horrible sacrifice it is:
The Young Dead Soldiers....
The young dead soldiers do not speak. Nevertheless, they are heard in the still houses.....who has not heard them?
They have a silence that speaks for them at night and when the clock counts.
They say.....We were young. We have died. Remember us.
They say.....We have done what we could. But until it is finished, it is not done.
They say.....We have given our lives. But until it is finished, no one can tell what our lives gave.
They say.....Our deaths are not ours. They are yours. They will mean what you make them.
They say..... Whether our lives and our deaths were for peace and a new hope, or for nothing, we cannot say. It is you that must say this.
They say.....We leave you our deaths. Give them their meaning. Give them an end to the war and a true peace. Give them a victory that ends the war and a peace afterwards. Give them their meaning.
We were young, they say. We have died. Remember us.
Indeed, on this Memorial Day, remember them. And remember their families and their loved ones and all who have ever known them. My Uncle Carl, never a soldier himself, may well have had his own life altered that day in my grandmother's living room in ways he could not foresee. When his friends (three of them were drafted) went to war, his life was never the same. When one of his bandmates died, something within him died as well. I don't know how much of Carl's unfulfilled life was due to that loss, but he became a drifter and an alcoholic and, though always an amazingly talented musician, never able to make it work. He died five years ago of alcohol-related liver damage, not even fifty years old.
No one will ever list him as a war victim, and they should not: he did it to himself. But the tentacles of war reach wider than we ever imagine and ensnare us all. On this Memorial Day, remember that, too.