I remember walking along the Vietnam Memorial Wall with my Dad, gliding my fingers along the carefully etched names and contemplating my faint reflection in the smooth, black granite. Being a child, I couldn’t quite grasp the paradox of that powerful place, the outward beauty of the monument and the horror it commemorates, those tens of thousands of my Dad’s peers who, through no fault of their own, were devoured by the flames of war, their lives ripped away in fiery moments of hatred.
And so, when I bought my Northwest Airlines ticket to Noi Bai International Airport in Hanoi last week, I couldn’t help but marvel that I’m choosing to visit a country my father, and so many of his generation, with tortured consciences and trembling in fear, tried so exhaustively to avoid just a few short decades ago. Today, Vietnam is a traveler’s paradise of breathtaking scenery and fascinating cultures and I yearn to walk its crowded streets, still very much haunted by the ghosts of war, and try to understand the madness of its past.
My perception of the American conflict in Vietnam is a learned history of textbook facts, graphic memoirs, and history channel productions. I’ve read accounts of cratered hillsides blasted clear of life by sorties, glimpsed photographs of gruesome corpses sprawled in the roadside muck and watched footage of a hysterical child stumbling through the crossfire, her bare skin scorching beneath a vile coat of napalm.
Yet, for my father and his generation, these horrors are not just an impersonal examination of history, but the intimate memories of a reality that will never recede. It must have been truly unthinkable back then, amid such atrocity and uncertainty, to imagine Vietnam becoming a prime destination for a new generation of travelers. I can envision my father glued to the evening news in his college beach house, chain smoking Tareytons and suspiciously eyeing each flag-draped coffin on the tarmac at Dover Air Force Base wondering if one evening he too would end up among them.
And as time marched on, the horrid flames of war that swept across those verdant, monsoonal jungles petered out only to be rekindled, decades later, in the arid, shifting dunes of my generation’s divisive war in Iraq. I, too, suspiciously eyed my dorm room television in March of 2003 as the squadron of American tanks revved their engines in the Kuwaiti desert, their deadly turrets pointing north toward Baghdad.
In the bloody years since, I’ve grappled to make sense of that tumultuous region, the jagged shrapnel of IED’s tearing through patrolling Humvees and the senseless acts of fanaticism that blast crowded markets into lifeless dust. Amid such grisly violence, it’s nearly impossible to imagine a sovereign Iraq stable enough for a young American backpacker to visit.
And yet, I’ll soon backpack through the former killing zone of Vietnam and contemplate a people who, much like their American counterparts, are still healing from the wounds of a gruesome past. I’ll remember the 58,261 names on the Vietnam Wall and the millions of Indochinese who, with the demons of war on their doorstep, were forced into battle. And then, I’ll think of my peaceful home many miles beyond the horizon and, with silent relief and a tormenting sense of guilt, quietly give thanks for the tranquil life I’ve been blessed with in the United States of America.
The cynic in me, however, can’t help but despair at the perpetual cycle of violence that taints nearly every chapter of our planet’s history and leaves us demoralized in the hope for a more peaceful future. The inferno of war, it seems, will forever flare up in distant corners of the globe and successive generations of youth will be eternally thrust into the fire. And eventually, the once urgent politics and solid rationale that sparked the bloodshed will dissolve behind the veil of time, leaving only a stark void of human life to mark its passing.
Only recently have I begun to understand the potency of the Vietnam Memorial. Through it’s beauty and placid surroundings, the Wall eschews the murky politics and moral ambivalence of the Vietnam era to concentrate solely on the human cost of warfare. Its glassy facade reflects the visitor among the staggering multitude of names, establishing them as a vital component of the memorial and forcing them to ponder their role in the madness.
The Wall seems to implore us, as Americans, to accept our innate responsibility to those fallen soldiers; the responsibility to honor their gift of freedom by living virtuous lives and, above all else, the moral responsibility to never send a single man or woman into combat without exhausting every last peaceable option, and even then, to never lose hope that their sacrifice will sew a lasting seed of peace for future generations.
Maybe, many decades in the future, my son, bitten by the travel bug of his forebears, will sling a pack over his shoulder and board a Northwest Flight to Baghdad International Airport. Maybe he’ll wander through the bustling morning markets of Sadr City and fight back tears at a heart-rending memorial in Fallujah. Maybe, standing on the fabled banks of the Euphrates, he’ll think of his peaceful home many miles beyond the horizon and, with a sense of relief, quietly give thanks for the tranquil life he’s been blessed with in the United States of America.