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Reflections on the Wall and Iraq
28 August 2002
Two weekends ago the well known, traveling replica of the Vietnam War Memorial was on display in Greeley, Colorado near where I live. For years I imagined seeing the memorial in Washington, D.C., so the opportunity to visit the replica was the closest I've come to realizing that wish.
My experience at "the Wall" likely was similar to the hundreds of thousands of people who have visited both the original memorial and the traveling replica over the years. Memories flooded back of the year both my father and older brother were serving overlapping tours in South Vietnam. My mind swirled with TV images of both battlefield reports and protest rallies.
I saw small memorials that families had left in honor of lost loved ones. I watched Vietnam veterans, now balding or with salt-and-pepper hair, stoop or kneel silently, their fingers somberly tracing the name of a buddy who may have died in their arms. When the wind pick up I held the one end of the paper for another veteran trying to pencil etch a name of an old friend. I heard the names being read aloud one by one, the Hidalgo's, the Hinton's, the Hixon's while I was there.
As I walked past the memorial's panels numerous volunteers were eager to offer their assistance in finding the name of the individual soldier who might have brought me to this Wall. But I wasn't looking for one or two names. I was looking for all the nearly 58,000 names of young men and women who didn't come home from that war.
Standing at this Wall I was struck most by its reflection. Even the replica's panels presented a muted mirror that I imagine is magnified in the polished, black granite of the Memorial in Washington. Looking through the names I saw myself standing there, and I was deeply aware: It could have been me. It could have been my name on that Wall.
I overheard a whispered conversation between an elderly man and two family members. The man was the age of most World War II veterans, likely a veteran himself. He and his family were looking for a name, perhaps of a son, or nephew or family friend. The elderly man gestured at the Wall and whispered, "This happened because the President couldn't admit he'd made a mistake."
I was reminded of the paraphrased quotation, "If we do not learn from the mistakes of the past, we are destined to repeat them." I thought about our present circumstances as a nation. We again have a presidential administration beating drums of war against Iraq louder and louder each day. Yet President Bush still has an opportunity to learn from past mistakes and not make the same mistakes in Iraq. The lessons of the Vietnam War can still be grasped.
When President Bush returns to Washington D.C. from his Texas ranch I suggest he begin his grasp by changing his presidential jogging route to run daily through the Vietnam War Memorial...past all of the names. Better yet, he should walk through the Memorial...past all of the names. Better yet, he should stand still at the Wall, look through the names, and see his reflection in the polished stone. Perhaps he would then realize: It could have been him, and not make the mistakes of the past again.