No More Imperial War

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The Vietnam War, which novelist Robert Stone once likened to a piece of shrapnel “embedded in our definition of who we are.” Photo from PBS' 10-part, 18-hour documentary THE VIETNAM WAR, directed by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick. Front photo, Horst Faas /AP

Commemorations, note Veterans For Peace, are "acts of choosing what to remember." This Memorial Day, amidst the "hyperbolic salutations of soldierly valor - though valor there was," they sought to present an honest accounting of the Vietnam War by delivering hundreds of "Letters to the Wall" from veterans, families, anyone touched by the carnage that killed at least 58,000 Americans and upward of three million Vietnamese. The letters are part of a "Vietnam Full Disclosure" project that began after Obama announced a 13-year, $65 million commemoration of the war in 2012 in tribute to "the valor of a generation that served with honor... fighting heroically to protect the ideals we hold dear as Americans." Yes, but, say many veterans and their families - including scores who responded last week to the Army asking what serving meant to them by documenting all the alcoholics and suicides and broken and sleepless who represent the true, grim, bloody, reality of our wars.

If every war is fought twice - once in fact, then in memory - many veterans argue we owe it to the dead and the living to remember their dark truth, despite the persistent attempts by those in power to hide it. In D.C. one Memorial Day, Vietnam Veteran for Peace Doug Rawlings saw too many Americans virtually wrapped in the American flag, "almost as if their willful ignorance of the real meaning of war, their silent acceptance of murder being committed in their name, was some kind of badge of honor." He wore his own badge: A T-shirt with Eisenhower's declaration, "I hate war as only a soldier who has lived it can." Quoting Francis Bacon - "Silence is the virtue of fools" - he argues that the "eerie moral silence," if allowed to stand, "makes murderous fools of us all." This year, every year, our commemoration needs to be a warning, say Veterans For Peace: "No more Vietnams, no more imperial war."

Over a hundred years ago, Wilfred Owen described the timeless "monstrous anger of the guns," the "shrill, demented choirs of wailing shells, those "who die as cattle" in "Anthem For Doomed Youth." His "Dulce et Decorum Est" - from the Roman poet Horace's “It is sweet and fitting to die for one’s country” - remains the ultimate act of "choosing what to remember."

Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs,
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots,
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of gas-shells dropping softly behind.
 
Gas! GAS! Quick, boys!—An ecstasy of fumbling
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time,
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling
And flound’ring like a man in fire or lime.—
Dim through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.
 
In all my dreams before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.
 
If in some smothering dreams, you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,—
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,

The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est

 

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Clara Gantt, widow of US Army Sgt. 1st Class Joseph Gantt, viewing her husband's remains on a chilly morning in 2013, 63 years after his death in the Korean War. Gantt received the last letter from him in 1950; told only that he was missing in action, she waited every day to get definitive news of his fate. Photo by Andrew Renneisen/Los Angeles Times/Getty Images

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Vietnamese children run from a napalm attack. Photo by Nick Ut/AP

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Vietnam. Photo from US archives.

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Iraq. Photo from ACLU archives

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First World War. Archives.

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