Memorial Day Questions F

SARA ENGRAM

May 30, 1993|By SARA ENGRAM

Few experiences can be more powerful than a visit to a battlefield cemetery, where rows upon rows of graves give silent testimony to the human cost of war.

In most cemeteries the stories of the dead -- old, young, male, female -- would form a full picture of a community.

But battlefield cemeteries are filled largely with the graves of young men who had barely reached adulthood when they died. Their stories tell of dreams unfulfilled, of promise and potential cut short. It is possible in these places to feel an almost palpable sense of yearning. It is also possible to be overcome with something larger, with a sense of finality and rest -- a sense of peace.

The young warriors at rest in these cemeteries live on in memory, that of their families and friends and, in the larger sense, in the memory and gratitude of the nation they died for.

But lingering among the memories is always the nagging question: Did they die in vain?

Memorial Day is a way of answering that question, a ritual of collective remembrance meant to reassure ourselves that their lives and deaths had meaning.

This Memorial Day brings a new twist to the old question -- or, rather, another tweak to a painful wound. Tomorrow President Clinton will visit Arlington National Cemetery, as presidents often do on this occasion.

He will also pay a visit to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial at the invitation of Jan Scruggs, president of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund. There Mr. Clinton, who opposed U.S. involvement in Vietnam, will speak about the painful divisions created in American society by that war and what is needed to heal the wounds it left.

Some Americans believe President Clinton has no right to make that visit. Richard Vania, a Korean war veteran from Carthage, N.C., has promised that protesters will show up at the memorial to register their displeasure at the president's appearance.

In Mr. Vania's view, the president's opposition to the Vietnam War and his efforts to avoid participating in it mar the memories of the people whose names are chiseled on that black granite wall.

The Wall itself sends a very different message, as Jan Scruggs' invitation to the president makes clear. But the memorial is no stranger to the prickly sensitivities that are part of the legacy of the Vietnam War.

These days, the memorial is a beloved spot on the Mall in Washington, D.C., and is one of the capital's most popular stops on tourist itineraries.

But when the design for the memorial was first unveiled, critics derided it as a "black gash of shame." They interpreted its meditative, non-heroic statement as a political attitude, one that lent less than full support for America's role in Vietnam.

The critics, led in part by H. Ross Perot, succeeded in having a statue of three servicemen added to the site. But in the decade since the memorial was dedicated, visitors have shown relatively little interest in that life-like representation of Americans at war. They are mesmerized instead by the Wall itself with its seemingly endless rows of names.

Like plain, flat grave markers, those names suggest the democracy of death. Colonels and corporals, heroes and heroin users -- it doesn't matter. They were Americans who died in the service of their country.

As countless visitors to the Wall have learned, there is an eerie power in the silence of names. It has nothing to do with heroism, with victory or defeat or politics.

It touches deeper, down where there is a real and aching need for days like Memorial Day, for wreath-laying and speechmaking -- and for presidents to lead the nation in remembering the dead.

Partisan arguments and protests miss the point. To say that a president has no right to visit a national memorial is akin to saying that the nation has no right to move past partisanship and to heal its wounds.

Victory or defeat, heroism or cowardice -- these are the issues that preoccupy political discourse. But the lesson of the Vietnam Memorial is more subtle and, in the end, more powerful.

Death creates its own democracy, while the living struggle along with their own rough, imperfect version.

Life goes on, history is written, then reconsidered and written again. Wounds can heal -- if we're willing to let them.

Sara Engram is editorial-page director for The Evening Sun.

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