The Shape of War
Whether or not you are there.
Whether or not you are a soldier.
Whether or not you live in a war zone.
Whether or not you carry the burden of seeing the horrors of war up close and personal.
Whether or not you carry the physical scars as a soldier or civilian.
Whether or not the things you saw, felt, or did, haunt you for decades.
War shapes us all.
It seeps into our music, newscasts, movies, textbooks, and politics.
It divides us all.
It scares us all.
It destroys us – at worst.
It shapes us – at best.
I was 9 years old for most of that year. Vietnam was thousands of miles away, yet it was as close as my television set.
Every night I saw the war on the 6 o’clock news.
Mothers and fathers, like mine, crying while holding dead children.
Children, like me and my brothers, covered in blood and tears, draped over the bodies of their dead parents. Left completely alone.
Every day I listened to the music calling for peace. Except it wasn’t completely peaceful.
The Vietnam War era produced some of the greatest music ever written, but the undertones were sometimes angry.
Every day people argued that we don’t belong there.
Angry people calling for peace yelling that the war is wrong.
At nine years old, I wondered what a right war was. And what did it look like?
Every day we turned our backs on our soldiers.
Every day we vilified them for answering their country’s call.
Every day young men, kids really, did what they thought was right.
Every day they were wounded.
Every day they died.
Every day they did the wounding Every day they did the killing.
When they can home expecting parades and “Welcome Home” signs, they were spit on.
Every night I was afraid that my brothers would go to Vietnam even though they were only 5 and 6 years old at the time.
In my nine years, I had only known a country at war.
In my nine years I learned that soldiers were killers.
Every night I was horrified at the bombing of peaceful people living in tiny villages. I didn’t understand it. And how could I?
I was dumbfounded when a soldier would say that Vietnam was a beautiful place. What did they see that I couldn’t?
In 1969, with the backdrop of the Vietnam War, I lived my protected life. I went camping with my family. We spent long summer days on the beach. We ate fried dough, rode go-karts, jumped in bouncy houses, listened to fabulous music, danced, laughed and ran around outside barefooted by choice. We rode our bikes around the neighborhood, scooped pollywogs out of the frog pond, built forts in the woods, slept out in tents in our backyard, always knowing that if it got too cold, or if we got too scared we could run back into the safety and comfort of the house.
But I knew that wasn’t the case for everyone because every night after dinner the news came on. And it ended with the body count.
“Today —–soldiers were killed, bringing the total dead to ——.”
I hated that part.
But maybe, in some strange way, that was the best part.
When the war ended we had so much healing to do as a nation. Probably more so than after any other war. We were all confused by it. Even people who weren’t children didn’t understand it. And the ones who had been there weren’t talking. How could they? Their nation had turned its back on them.
It took decades, and a wall, designed in 1981 by 21 year old, Chinese-American Maya Lin, to start that process. Maya was born one week after me and was also nine years old for most of 1969.
How could a young woman who grew up in Ohio to academic parents understand this war, much less design a memorial for it?
Because she was shaped by it.
The Vietnam Memorial Wall, with each and every one of the 58,195 sacrificed soldiers’ names etched in black granite, is now so renowned that it is known simply as “The Wall”. It is powerful in its simplicity. But it came with its own battle.
This war was so painful for all involved that although her design was chosen in a blind submission contest, she received harassment when her identity as an Asian woman was revealed.
It was almost too much to take for “the powers that be”. They couldn’t decide if they were bothered more by her ancestry or her gender. She was called an “egg roll” by businessman and future Presidential candidate, Ross Perot.
So at 21 years old, Maya went in front of the United States Congress to defend her design. She had to fight to represent the soldiers who were her age, and younger, who lost theirs. And the rest is ironic history.
I have not been to The Wall, but I feel it’s power. I can still hear Walter Cronkite’s strangely comforting voice telling me how many had died on this day in a land so far away, yet within my reach.
The Wall is like that. I only need to recall images of it, and the people that visit, to feel that familiar pain in my heart, the guilt for thinking of our young soldiers as nothing more than killers, and to mourn for the Vietnamese, Cambodian and Laos population that was torn apart by it.
I don’t know if the war was right or wrong, or even what it accomplished. Or even what it means that we lost.
We all lose something in war. Even if we win.
And we all gain something, even if we lose.
Sadly, we have a similar powerful design to The Wall in New York City memorializing a different kind of war.
A kind of war that will shape us yet again.