On the occasion of this Memorial Day, I am in the habit of thinking back to the Vietnam War, as are many of my generation.
Several months ago I wore an old T-shirt I bought at a Veterans’ function to my yoga class. The shirt read, “Vietnam Class of 1969.” When the class was over, a woman came up to me and said, “I just want you to know how upset that shirt makes me.”
“I am sorry,” I replied.
“I do not accept your apology,” and she abruptly walked away.
I was sorry, but not for my service in Vietnam. I was sorry because I did not have an opportunity to explain to her why I wore it, why I still wear it and what it means. I wore the shirt in honor of those who served, and more importantly those who fell, believing that they were answering their country’s call for help, and in the hope that Americans would not forget the war and the lessons it holds.
The war in Vietnam was not popular. Many on the left felt we should do nothing. Many on the right felt we did not do enough. In the end, President Ford called it “our long national nightmare” and we closed the book.
Rancor receded and a sort of premeditated amnesia set in. Occasionally, Vietnam rose to the surface like the creature from the Black Lagoon, to be slain, perhaps prematurely, by leaders anxious to pronounce a validation or promote a victory. Too often lost among these sentiments, or the long periods of inattention, were the silent moments in honor of those who gave their lives for their country in that conflict.
Some 2.7 million people served in Vietnam, more than 58,000 lost their lives. These young men and women answered the call of their country in exactly the same way as their fathers had during WWII. They heard their country ask for their service and they responded. Whether the cause was just, whether the war’s prosecution was correct, whether the goal was attained was not their concern, and need not be ours on this day. It was, and is, enough that they served and sacrificed. For that they deserve our deepest reverence and our undying gratitude.
But it is also important that in remembering the sacrifice that these Americans made we remember the key lesson of our Vietnam tragedy. War is not only the last resort, it is also the most costly and much of that cost is irretrievable. Cities are rebuilt, societies recreated, monuments resurrected but lives lost are marked only with stones — dull, mute testimony to what we can never hold again. Piecemeal escalation, partial truths and secret agendas are bills of fare paid in lives lost, and in the end cost the government the popular support a democracy needs. When we go to war, before we send our young men and women, we must intend to win.
Ultimately the responsibility lies with us, the American people, to hold our leaders to account and to demand transparency and honesty. Americans will always respond when told that their country is in danger and needs them, and the costs of war will in turn be paid by them. For those most grievously taxed we pause today to honor through our prayers, heartfelt gratitude and resolve not to forget. So I will wear my T-shirt again on this Memorial Day, and hope that if someone notices they will ask me why and what it means.
Gary Larsen is an advisory board member of US Vets-LB, was a Foreign Service Officer and served in Vietnam for four years. He is a Long Beach native.