When will we ever learn

November 15, 1990|By Wiley A. Hall 3rdWiley A. Hall 3rd

It is a cold and blustery morning in Washington, D.C., and the Vietnam Veterans Memorial is as silent as a tomb.

A middle-aged couple stand there.

The man is heavy-set and tough. He wears a lumberman's jacket and has the weathered face of a working man. The woman is dressed as though for church. She wears heels and she has pinned a corsage to the front of her dark woolen overcoat.

"This is for my eldest boy," explains the woman quietly as she kneels and lays a small wreath at the foot of the wall.

The woman rises and we stand quietly for a few moments. Their faces are expressionless.

"Do you know how he died?" I ask after a while.

Her husband shifts his feet and looks off into the distance, the muscles in his jaw twitching.

The woman looks at him and touches his arm.

"If you don't mind," she says to me, "I guess we'd rather not talk about it."

"I understand."

I step away then, and grief enfolds the two, isolating them in this public place.

And I walk alone, shivering against the cold.

Everyone walks alone here, for the Vietnam Veterans Memorial is that kind of place -- a place that envelopes you in tragedy, in death, in sadness.

There are over 58,000 names inscribed there, and each name represents the death of an individual. The silent testimony of so many individual tragedies is almost too intense to bear.

A few days ago, the National Conference of Catholic Bishops sought to remind the Bush administration of the heavy tragedy of war when it urged officials in a letter to consider the moral dimensions of the use of force in the Middle East.

It is well that the bishops did this.

We live in a society that wisely separates the powers of church and state. But does such a separation give our leaders a license to ignore the moral implications of their acts?

I think not.

"As religious teachers," wrote Bishop Roger M. Mahoney of Los Angeles in the Nov. 8 letter that was endorsed by the entire group Monday, "we are concerned about the moral dimensions of the crises -- the need to resist brutal aggression, to protect the innocent, to pursue both justice and peace, as well as the ethical criteria for the use of force."

The clergymen referred the administration to a 1983 Pastoral Letter on War and Peace, in which Catholic bishops outlined moral criteria for a "just war".

"Is there a real and certain danger which can only be confronted by war?" asked the bishops.

"Is the prospect of success sufficiently clear to justify the human and other costs of military action?"

"Have all peaceful alternatives been fully pursued before war is undertaken?"

And, "Is the damage to be inflicted and the costs incurred by war proportionate to the objectives to be achieved by taking up arms?"

The bishops urged the administration to consider "the principles of proportionality and discrimination, i.e., the military means used must be commensurate with the evil to overcome and must be directed at the aggressors, not innocent people."

The bishops concluded by praying that our leaders "will have the persistence, wisdom, and skill to resolve the current crises in peace and with justice."

The whole letter, in both tone and substance, probably struck the hard-eyed men in Washington as naive and impractical.

In fact, shortly after receiving the letter, the president announced a major escalation of troops in Saudi Arabia and acknowledged for the first time that the build-up was to give U.S. troops attack, rather than defensive, capabilities.

But the bishops are not alone. A public opinion poll this week reported that support for the president's Middle East adventure has dropped by some 30 points since August.

And congressmen are slowly and timidly beginning to wonder aloud if they have asked enough questions about what we are doing there and why we are doing it.

Meanwhile, in Washington, virtually in the shadow of the White House, survivors of this country's last major military adventure stand silently in front of a smooth, cold, black marbled wall inscribed with the names of over 58,000 dead.

The president speaks of a thousand points of light. At the Vietnam Veterans Memorial we have a thousand -- no, thousands -- of points of grief.

And the whole point, I thought, was not to make the same mistake twice.

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