Thursday, September 2, 2010

A View From the Wall

During my Sabbatical, Dayna and I visited Washington, DC. I’d visited the capitals of six other nations; it was time to visit my own. Being a history buff, I was very much looking forward to it. Soon as word got out that we were going, a lot of people who have been there had a story of “you’ve just got to see this.” We didn’t get to see everything during our day in DC, but we got to see a lot. All of it was impressive: Kennedy’s grave, the Lincoln Memorial, the Capitol, seeing Honest Abe’s top hat in the history museum, and seeing moon rocks in Air and Space. All very, very cool.

But I suppose the site that touched me most was the Vietnam Memorial—the black marble V inscribed with the names of every one of our soldiers who either died there or who are still missing in action. I was touched on several levels. Maybe part of it was because this was the war of my childhood and youth. I saw it played out on television news every night. I saw the helicopters whipping the tall jungle grass as body bags and wounded soldiers were loaded on them for evacuation. I heard it debated and discussed in school and on TV. I read about the protests in the newspaper and saw images of them on the news. Ours was a patriotic family. We supported our soldiers. For a time I planned on enlisting in the Marines so I could go do my part. My older brother did enlist in the Marines in 1971, but thankfully, by that time we were bringing troops home instead of sending more in. He never had to go. And I abandoned my interest in a military life. Maybe these memories are why the wall touched me so.

Or maybe it was because I have known a number of men who fought that war. I have listened to their stories, seen glimpses of their scars, and watched some of them fall apart in a variety of ways some years after the war—post-traumatic stress disorder, they call it. While many died in the war, others died because of the war some years later. I still remember one Wednesday night in the late 1980s as I was leading a Bible study, a ragged-looking man none of us knew came into the sanctuary and interrupted our study by asking a question about how a person like him could go to heaven after all the things he did in Vietnam, all the blood he said was on his hands. He had been drinking and the liquor perhaps had loosened both his tongue and his inhibitions. He broke down in tears, sobs (as I’m almost doing as I remember that man and write this story). I feebly tried to assure him that God loves and God forgives and that the grace of Christ is high enough and wide enough and deep enough to include him too. He wasn’t hearing it. A couple of our men took the initiative to go to him and help him from the sanctuary so they cold talk with him and pray for him. They didn’t get a name, and we never saw or heard from him again. I hope somewhere along the way he found the grace and the peace he was so desperately searching for.

But back to the wall. We walked the length of the wall that day in DC. We saw flowers at the base of some of the panels. We saw and read a couple of the notes and pictures left there too. And we saw two men working feverishly, pressing paper to a particular name on the wall, running the edge of a pencil across that name, hoping to capture its image on their page. I wanted to ask them who this person was to them: a brother, a dad, a classmate, a brother in their platoon? But I didn’t ask. Didn’t want to interrupt the moment. Didn’t want to intrude. I did take a picture as you can see. I felt a little guilty about doing even that, but they were so involved in their mission that they didn’t even notice.

In watching these men painstakingly work with that name, it struck me that the more than 58,000 names on that hallowed wall are more than names. They are somebody’s son, brother, father, husband, sister, friend. It reminded me of the day the twice-a-week newspaper in our small town reported that Branson, Missouri, had lost her first son (I think her only son) in the Vietnam War. For some reason, I desperately wanted to remember his name. I wanted to remember his name and find his name on that wall and trace my fingers across his name and connect my life to his even if the connection was no more than having gone to the same school, having fished in the same creek, and having ridden bikes on the same streets. But his name never came to me. I hadn’t thought about that young man in decades, but I thought about him at the wall. For the life of me, I couldn’t recall his name, but I knew his name was there.

It’s all those names that make this memorial so different from the statue of the seven flag-raisers at Iwo Jima and from most of the other war memorials scattered around our country. It’s the names. Some communities have etched the names of their fallen in their local war memorials, but the Vietnam Wall is a national memorial. It bears the name of every soldier who paid the highest price he could pay: young men (some of them boys really) from Kansas and Maine, New York and Tennessee, New Mexico and Montana, men from my state and from yours. By inscribing all the names, this memorial allows us to grieve not just as communities but as a nation, and to graphically remember the cost of war—a war that destroyed a lot of people in our country and in Vietnam, a war in which it wasn’t just the raw number of 58,195 American servicemen and women who were killed, it was Robert Dale Draper and Kelton Rena Turner and Sharon Ann Lane. It was the boy next door who used to mow your lawn, the young candy-striper at the local hospital, the young man who carried the groceries to your car. The wall reminds us that the cost of war is not just numbers; it’s names, it’s faces, it’s neighbors. The wall won’t let us forget that so many died, and it won’t let us forget just who they were. So many dead. And for what? You’d think we’d have learned from that experience, but subsequent history tells us we have not.

I will never forget the wall. Just as the names of the dead and missing are etched into the marble, that experience is etched into my heart. I knew none of those whose names are on the wall, but as we walked back to the tour bus I thought of their brothers-in-arms I do know—ones that made it out alive. I thought of the men I know—men now in their late 50s and 60s, men who still carry both the scars we can see and the scars we can’t. I thought of them. I thanked God for them, for their courage to do their duty, and for the fact that they lived to grow older and to live the life their brothers or sisters on the wall never got to live. I chose in those moments not to ponder the big questions about why some survived and others didn’t. I will leave that in the hands of God who makes all things right in the end. Instead, I will be content to give thanks for the ones that died and the ones that lived, and I will continue to live in the hope that we worship a God who in His good time will bring about that great day when nations will beat their spears into pruning hooks, their swords into plowshares, and will study war no more.


  1. John, once again a great read. Thank you for your blog. I always look forward to reading them. I am glad I know you. You are a blessing. David W.

  2. I saw The Wall several years ago. To me the real memorial is the countless people who are there year round, every day rubbing names- some family, some friends. They remind me that for every name there are families and friends who lost someone who was irreplaceable.