When I was in Vietnam, Armed Forces Radiofrequently played a song called "Abraham, Martin and John." It was a ballad about the shortened lives of Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King Jr. and John Kennedy. A disc jockey described the essence of the song by saying, "They did not get to sing their song."
During the war, most of the losses were young adults. They, too, did not get to sing their song. No hug from a mother on homecoming, no excitement of a wedding day, no joy of a newborn child, no laughter at family gatherings on holidays, no golden years in the sun. Nothing – only a name etched in stone.
Every year we pay tribute to our war dead with statues and memorials and parades. Edmund Wilson's book "Patriotic Gore" referred to statues, memorial buildings, parades and pamphlets that extolled the virtue and glory of the Civil War. Some would call Wilson's "Patriotic Gore" a symbolic form of madness.
It reminds me of the movie "The Bridge on theRiver Kwai." British POWs built a railroad bridge over the river for use by the Japanese army. A British commando team was assigned to destroy the bridge. In the climactic final scene, the Japanese colonel is killed, the British colonel is killed, the British corporal is killed, the American former POW is killed and the British lieutenant colonel is killed. The bridge is destroyed and the troop train plunges into the river. On a hill overlooking the carnage is the British medical officer. He ends the movie with just two words: "Madness, Madness."
When I was a freshman in high school I read a story about a captain of infantry who had served in Italy during the Second World War. He had been reassigned to the Pacific Theater and was granted leave in the U.S. en route to his new assignment. He did not visit his home. He traveled instead to the homes of each of the men who had died in combat under his command to pay his respects to the families. I thought at the time that I would do the same in the unlikely event I was ever in the same situation.
That situation came about in the spring of 1969, when I returned from Vietnam. I never made those visits. I realized I would have to face the families and say something about the noble sacrifice and how that sacrifice was not in vain. That would have been a lie.
I apologize to the families of Roger McNeary, Dallas West, Russell Heliker, Melvin Allen, William DeLisa, Hubert Waford, Morris James, Cleatus "Red" McClanahan and Clifford Jenkins Jr.
By the end of 1969, 39,000 American troops had been killed. Historians claimed the North Vietnamese offered a cease-fire that we refused. They also claimed we agreed to the same deal four years later. By then 58,000 Americans were dead. An additional 19,000 funerals in America – for what? The political slogan was "peace with honor." I am not qualified to judge the political value of a slogan. However, I do understand the grief and sorrow of an additional 19,000 names etched in stone.
The past 100 years have seen a long list of events of madness. Historian Raymond Aron, in his book of the same title, labeled the 20th century, "The Century of Total War." Historians estimate 150 million war deaths since the beginning of civilization, with 100 million in the 20th century. The places of mass dying are familiar: Verdun, the Somme, Leningrad, Stalingrad, Hamburg, Hiroshima, Nagasaki, Iwo Jima, Tet, My Lai – the list goes on.
Perhaps the most maddening military event of the past century took place on Nov. 11, 1918,Armistice Day. The armistice was signed at 5 a.m. with the shooting to cease at 11 a.m. After averaging 2,250 dead and 5,000 wounded each day for four years on the Western front, the shooting would finally stop in six hours. However, some of the commanders thought they would look weak if they stopped fighting before the cease-fire. The death toll for the last attack was 2,738.
The madness continues.
It seems as though the 20th century never happened in our collective memory. The United States is preparing to contest access to minerals and fuels all over the globe. To that end, more than 700 U.S. military bases have been established overseas. We have uniformed troops stationed in more than 120 countries. In order to influence political and economic events, and thus the control of natural resources in Africa, the United States has formed a new Africa command. And now we are preparing to wage war from space.
We cannot change the past, but we can change the tribute to our men and women in service. In my opinion, statues, memorials and parades are not a fair exchange for sacrifices made. We should begin a campaign against more war: no new statues, no new memorials, no new parades. No new names etched in stone.