What the Wall teaches us

November 13, 2007|By Patrick Granfield

In the fall of 1972, Baltimore natives Jack Bergman, Ralph Robinson and Ricky Rucker served together aboard the USS Newport News. As they traveled through the Gulf of Tonkin, their ship's second gun turret malfunctioned. Hundreds of pounds of gunpowder ignited, killing 20 crew members and injuring dozens more. Neither Mr. Bergman, Mr. Robinson, nor Mr. Rucker had reached his 21st birthday before they were burned to death that October morning. They became Baltimore's 395th, 396th and 397th sons to die in Vietnam.

Today is the 25th anniversary of the dedication of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, where the names of Jack Stephen Bergman Jr., Ralph Lewis Robinson, and Ricky Lee Rucker are chiseled into black reflective granite alongside those of 58,253 others on the National Mall. The Wall is black and white; the lessons it provides are anything but.

In August, President Bush told the Veterans of Foreign Wars not to forget "the unmistakable legacy of Vietnam." This legacy became a springboard for the president's talking points on Iraq. As passers-by walk and weep in the silence of the Wall, the weighty hulks of stone do not echo the president's certainty.

The Wall's western edge points to the Lincoln Memorial, rising almost arrogantly in contrast. Yet, the two memorials deliver a strikingly similar refrain.

The plain-spoken words from Lincoln's Second Inaugural and Gettysburg addresses that flank his seated statue do not take easy lessons from national anguish. Instead, the inscriptions from the Lincoln Memorial, like those from the Wall, provide terse perspective in the face of unfathomable sacrifice. The Wall seems to underscore what Lincoln offered at Gettysburg: "We cannot dedicate - we cannot consecrate - we cannot hallow - this ground."

Humility is the unmistakable link connecting the Wall to Lincoln's memorial. Lincoln wrestled with God's plan for him and his country to find "firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right." For Lincoln, God's ways, like the ways of war, were seen darkly. Instead of declaring his mission accomplished when the Confederate army was on the run, in his Second Inaugural he offered "malice toward none, with charity for all." Lincoln wanted to give his country its best chance at binding itself together once again.

The Wall, too, attempts to bind the wounds of a divided nation. Rather than rehashing the political struggles of the Vietnam era, the monument gives its full attention to the fallen. Unburdened by political baggage, the Wall speaks to anyone who will listen.

Like Lincoln, the Wall does not assign blame for the tragedies it documents. Instead, it elicits mutual responsibility and mutual gratitude from those who walk past. The Wall cannot create meaning from so many deaths. That is our job.

For 25 years, names have been etched into two stone tablets, 247 feet long. Yet, as the Athenian leader Pericles declared almost 2,500 years ago, national sacrifice must not only be "engraven in stone, but in the hearts of men." The collective lessons of Vietnam are still not engraved in our nation's heart. We have again sent men and women to war without knowing whom we are fighting, why we fight and how we should exit.

True, the nation was hardly a tribute to Lincoln in the years after his memorial was completed in 1922, with the South suffering under segregation and Jim Crow. But decades later, in August 1963, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. affirmed Lincoln's hope that a country "By the people, for the people, and of the people, would not perish from the earth." With the Lincoln Memorial as his backdrop, Dr. King helped the nation understand that "We the people" could no longer exclude the descendants of slaves.

Just as Dr. King rededicated Lincoln's Memorial at the March on Washington, it falls upon us to reconsider the sacrifice and honor documented by the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. After 25 years, the Wall remains a striking and evocative tribute. Inscribed there are more than 58,000 reasons why war should only be considered a last resort.

A country that fails to weigh the terrible costs of war is one that forgets the memory of those listed on the Wall. Sometime since it was dedicated 25 years ago, we forgot this lesson. Remembering it again, even in the face of the real dangers our country faces today, is the least we can give back to Stephen Bergman Jr., Ralph Lewis Robinson, Ricky Lee Rucker and all those who have offered this country "their last full measure of devotion."

Patrick Granfield is a history teacher in Washington, D.C., and a writer/producer for "The McLaughlin Group." His e-mail is pgranfield@gmail.com.

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