Let’s Not Tear Down Monuments to Soldiers
My dad was, when he was drafted in 1966, a devout and fundamentalist Christian. He made no effort that I’m aware of to avoid the draft. The fact that he was married to my mother meant he couldn’t claim that he was a caretaker of my grandmother, a basis for deferment. This later was a sore spot between my mother and grandmother. Rural New Mexico had offered up plenty of fodder to American wars and my dad was next. But he was a fundamentalist; thou shalt not kill meant exactly that.
My dad wasn’t some adherent of Thoreau, though knowing my dad, he was likely familiar with who he was, even at 21. My dad was not one to make a big point I’m sure. He just couldn’t kill anyone. “Fine,” I imagine some clerk saying, “You can be a medic.”
So off he went. He didn’t drink or use drugs. He’d be sober for his tour. He’d carry no weapon, just a medical kit and basic training in how to patch up people hit with shrapnel or torn up by bullets or badly burned or whatever might happen. In Vietnam it might even be a snake bite.
To some Vietnamese my dad was part of a long train of occupiers, killers, rapists, and colonizers. The Chinese. The Japanese. The French. Now the Americans. My dad the 21 year old imperialist, with his medical kit. My dad has always told me the one thing he wanted most was to go home.
One day, somewhere near the Cambodian border, my dad and his platoon were dropped of a boat and started marching. Suddenly bullets were flying. My dad said he saw bullets hitting trees, snapping branches, and sending leaves falling down. The men dove for cover. Some on the left side of the road, some on the right. Some were down, hit and unmoving, with no cover on the road.
He came out from cover, and grabbed a guy and pulled him off the road and under cover. Then he went back. Then he went back again, multiple times. Meanwhile the Vietnamese, defending themselves against an invading force of Americans, were unloading everything they had at my dad and every one of his colleagues.
He has said they’d call him “doc.” When hit, they’d cry, “medic!” He’d go toward their voices. He said, after all this, as they moved back toward the boat, some guys ran toward him with a limp body. “Doc, can you help?” The man’s tongue was hanging out. His eyes were wide open. He was dead. My dad went along with it, and tried what he could. It was too late. The men with the dead body cried.
Later my dad would be carrying a man on a stretcher with another soldier toward a helicopter. He stepped on what we’d today call an improvised explosive devise or IED. It was likely placed there by a Vietnamese patriot, fighting to defend his or her country from an invading army. I wonder if that person or people lived and are alive today. Probably not. They probably were eventually pulverized by a huge bomb or burned to death with napalm.
Today my dad’s leg is mangled, and he wears a built up shoe and a brace. When I was little, I used to try to imitate his walk, because that’s what kids do, imitate. I never have thought of my dad as “disabled.” It doesn’t make any sense to me to call him that. He did get designated that by the government, “disabled.” And he got two medals, a Silver Star (for gallantry in action) and a Purple Heart for being blown up by the IED.
I know my dad pretty well. When he was hit he was thrown up into the air. When he landed the other medics gave him morphine, delivered by a little squeeze syringe. Stab and squeeze. They gave him one. Then another. “No,” he said, “you’re only supposed to give one.” The other medic, probably seeing how bad it was told him to stop worrying about it. That’s my dad, trying to do the right thing.
I also know that when he was put on the helicopter himself his first thought was, “Maybe I’m going home!”
My dad’s days as an imperialist conqueror were done, ended probably by some teenagers or an old man defending their homeland against his invasion. I can almost see them packing a coffee can type thing with powder and nails. Every now and then one probably went off, blinding or killing one of them.
I’m sure there are statues of Vietnamese generals in Vietnam. We have statues of American generals here. I suppose if my dad and I went out to lunch and sat in the shadow of a big statue of General Giap maybe it would ruin our meal. Or not. Probably not anymore than our time together would be ruined by a big statue of General Westmoreland. But we don’t live in Vietnam. And the people who shot at my dad and tried to kill him don’t live here.
I’d gladly tear down a statue of any General or politician that sent boys like my dad and the boys that tried to kill him into war. I’m fact, I believe that it’s the promise of a statue or a highway or conference room or building somewhere dedicated in their honor that provokes old men to put people at each other’s throats to kill one another. I think tearing down every single statue of a politician or general is damn fine idea. And we ought to promise to never, ever build or honor any General or politician who sends young people to their death to make point, win or lose, ever again.
And no roads, or rooms, or states, or cities, or county dumps either. Nothing. Maybe that will make the next batch of “leaders” think twice.
But a statue honoring soldiers? Please leave it. If you can’t respect it, fine. Please just leave it. Seeing what you did to that statue in Durham kind of hurts. They were kids. Maybe they were racists. Maybe they were on the wrong side. My dad was on the wrong side too. So was the other kid that tried to kill him. Very few soldiers did anything but their best to stay alive, even if that meant killing people on the other side. Most soldiers in that war or any war, weren’t enthusiastic ideological adherents of the power structure; they were trying live another hour, another day, long enough to go home.
Abraham Lincoln at Gettysburg seemed to intuit this. He didn’t talk about sides or the winners or losers, but that the dying and suffering was not in vain, that the whole mess would somehow be redemptive. That ugly struggle and suffering hallows the battlefield. My point is not to glorify the suffering. Rather my point is that we ought to respect the soldiers who acted out of loyalty and obligation to the call of their country, even when that country was wrong. Maybe this feeling is what allows war to happen.
My dad was a CO, a conscientious objector. In the end all soldiers are COs and just want to go home. It’s the vanity of politicians and generals that set up sick scenarios in which there is no other choice but to set one group of young people against another to kill each other. I’ve written so many words to make way for so few.
Abraham Lincoln: Gettysburg Address
Delivered November 19, 1863, Gettysburg, Pennsylvania.
Fourscore and seven years ago our fathers brought forth, upon this continent, a new nation, conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that “all men are created equal.”
Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battlefield of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of it, as a final resting place for those who died here, that the nation might live. This we may, in all propriety do. But in a larger sense, we cannot dedicate, we cannot consecrate, we cannot hallow, this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have hallowed it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here; while it can never forget what they did here.
It is rather for us the living, we here be dedicated to the great task remaining before us — that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they here gave the last full measure of devotion — that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain, that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom, and that government of the people, by the people, for the people shall not perish from the earth.