Memorial Day at 'the Wall'

June 02, 1993

Gen. Colin Powell and President Clinton both quoted Abraham Lincoln's words in their remarks at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. "With malice toward none, with charity for all. . . let us . . . bind up the nation's wounds [and] . . . do all which may achieve and cherish a just and a lasting peace, among ourselves, and with all nations." Those are our italics. Surely the time has come for peace among Americans with different views of the war in Vietnam.

Those who agreed with the young Bill Clinton that the war was not worth fighting and opposed it, and those who believed the war was about something important and supported it and waged it, do not productively continue their disagreements today. Certainly not when the dialogue is conducted with no sympathy or empathy for the other side. The war has been over for 19 years. It is time for a political benediction.

Perhaps that is what President Clinton intended in deciding to speak at "the wall" this Memorial Day. His decision to speak there was a break with tradition. No president has spoken at the Vietnam wall on Memorial Day. Presidents usually speak at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington National Cemetery. Veterans from every American war are buried at Arlington. Memorial Day is supposed to be a tribute to wartime patriotism in general. It is not supposed to be about the politics of a single war, or about a single personality.

President Lincoln's words came in his second inaugural address, just as the Civil War was coming to an end. They did not bind up the nation's political wounds, nor replace malice with charity -- not then nor in the immediate decades ahead. Many politicians who had supported the Union continued "waving the bloody shirt" (of casualties) to stir wartime emotions in debates on post-war policies. Some who keep the debate on Vietnam alive seem to have political motives. Others simply cannot forget or forgive. In either case, the result is unhealthy for the body politic.

"Can any commander in chief be in any place but here on this day?" President Clinton asked rhetorically Monday. "I think not." Given his own situation, he should have been there. But neither his presence nor his words should set a precedent for future presidents, or even for him, on future Memorial Days.

Memorial Day is not a day for conflict and debate. It is, rather, a day to honor past veterans and promise support to future ones, as the president did Monday at the wall and at Arlington's Tomb of the Unknowns: "We resolve that if we ask [Americans] to fight on our behalf, we will give them the clear mission, the means and the support they need."

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