Have we learned from the lessons of the last great war?


January 16, 1991|By ROGER SIMON

WASHINGTON -- A pale yellow sun warms the small stone blocks that make up the pathway that leads down to the wall.

More than 100,000 people come here each week, but today it is strangely deserted. There is only a businessman in a suit and topcoat. An elderly woman in a wheelchair pushed by a man in a woolen baseball jacket. A man in fatigues with a bushy beard.

Against the wall, as always, are the mementos that others have left: a flag, a flower, a rosary.

As the stone path descends into the gentle landscape, the wall seems to rise up as if to engulf you. At the apex, where the two parts of the wall meet in a wide V, it towers 10 feet tall.

And when you look to your left and to your right, you see only the names. Thousands and thousands of names, marching one after another, carved into the stone. The names fill 70 panels and continue for nearly 500 feet. There are 58,175 names.

These are the names of those dead and missing in Vietnam, America's last great war.

And perhaps that is why the Vietnam Veterans Memorial is so deserted this day. Perhaps few want to remember America's last great war as we prepare for America's next one.

The wall is polished black granite, and as you reach out to touch it -- nobody minds if you touch it; it is almost impossible not to -- you see a dim reflection of yourself.

And so you see the names of those who have died and disappeared and, at the same time, you see one who chooses to remember them, however briefly.

About 125 feet away from the wall there is a khaki tent flanked by flags. It is unofficial, not part of the memorial, but in it you will always find a Vietnam veteran who will talk to you. Outside, on a table where they sell bumper stickers, there is a small sign: "Over 58,000 reasons why we can't forget."

But what do we really remember of Vietnam? The numbers? The Vietnam War cost us $150 billion. About 2.7 million Americans served. And along with those Americans killed, some 300,000 were wounded, 75,000 were disabled, and 1,300 are still missing.

And what does the act of remembering bring us? What lessons have we learned?

George Bush was in Saudi Arabia for Thanksgiving last year, and he told the American troops there that a war in the Persian Gulf would not be another Vietnam. "This time," he promised, "we're going to win."

So is that the lesson of Vietnam? That if you win, it makes it OK? That if you win, the price was right?

And is that why we prepare to go to war in the Persian Gulf? Not so much because this war is necessary but because this war is winnable?

The woman in the wheelchair now sits next to a low pedestal that bears a catalog listing the location of each name on the wall. Those on the wall are listed not alphabetically but by date of

death or disappearance. That is so buddies can stay together. It takes 20 minutes to carve a name by hand on the wall, and the margins on each panel are wide enough to add new names. The last were added Nov. 11, 1989.

The woman says a name to the man in the woolen baseball jacket. "Lyons," she says. "Look up the Lyons boy. Can't remember the first name."

The man flips through the thin pages of the catalog and then stops for a very long moment. He turns to her.

"Twenty-six of them," he says. "They got 26 Lyons here."

"No," she says. "So many?"

So many.

We take away different lessons from Vietnam. Some say the lesson is that you must go all out to win and that by attaining victory you make each death meaningful.

Others says Vietnam taught us that our leaders do not always tell us the full truth in war and that defeat, no matter how unlikely, is always possible.

But even if we had won in Vietnam, would that have made a difference to these men and women whose names are carved in stone? Would it have made their loss "worth" it? Would it give them back to us?

Maybe the true lesson of Vietnam is not the bitterness of defeat, but the hollowness of victory. Victory is a sweet thing, and it is better to win than to lose. But the victory of a great nation can be insufficient solace for even one empty seat at a dinner table.

The woman in the wheelchair and the man leave. The businessman is gone. The man in fatigues has walked away. The sun is lower in the sky, and the stones in the path grow cold.

If you stand at the wall long enough, a volunteer or a National Park Service guide will come up and ask if you need help.

"Is there someone?" they will ask. "Someone special?"

All of them, I always want to say. All of them.

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