The Stone Mirror

I have just returned from Washington, D. C. While there, I visited the Viet Nam War Memorial with my son. It is a remarkable monument, more poignant because we had just been through the rather bombastic World War II memorial at the other end of the reflecting pond. But the Vietnam memorial is quite another thing. One particular feature is that the names of the dead are inscribed on stone, but not alphabetically, but historically; that is, in the order in which they died, and next to the soldiers that died with them: comrades in arms, comrades in the roll call of the dead. As we walked the grim roll of shattered youth, I could not avoid talking with my son about that war and this one, and wondering were they would put the panels, and how many more panels it would take to count the dead from Baghdad and Anbar.

The monument has another peculiar feature: it is made of black marble polished to a mirror-like finish. And when you lose focus on the seemingly unending roll of names, you suddenly see yourself standing among the dead. For a veteran of the war like myself, this means standing with old and lost comrades, and it is an intense experience. But I do not write of that experience, but of another, of an experience I can only imagine but cannot know. And it is the experience of one who has no connection with the war, who wasn't there and lost no son, no lover, no brother, no father, to the terrible hell's gate of the war. What must they think seeing themselves in the stone mirror among names they do not know? Since I do not know (I cannot divorce myself from my own experience) I can only speculate. Or rather, I can only hope. And what I hope is that they really will see themselves among these dead, and see these unknown dead, these lost boys, as what they are: their own brothers, their own sons, their own lovers. And I hope that their grief cannot be less then those who knew the names, and know the faces behind the names.
As it turns out, at nearly the very time that I was musing on the Vietnam and Iraqi wars, our President was doing the same thing. But he was drawing some rather peculiar and, in my humble opinion, erroneous and damaging conclusions. He was repeating the Myth of the Premature Withdrawal That Lost us the War We Had Won. In this mythical world, a victorious nation, at the behest of Jane Fonda, resigned its victory and embraced defeat; "If only," they say, "if only we had held out a little longer!" Never mind that we held out ten years and 55,000 American deaths (the Vietnamese deaths will never be properly counted). Never mind that we had more than half-a-million men in a country half the size of Iraq, and had trained and equipped dozens of Vietnamese divisions. The myth says we lost because of what is possibly the stupidest woman on earth, hankering as we were, no doubt, for more of her pointless movies and useless exercise tapes.

But in truth, we did not lose this serious business because of a stupid woman; rather we lost it because serious men made the business stupid. The same bodyguard of lies that marched us into Saigon was redeployed to Iraq. The same tales of terror, of beating them "there" so they wouldn't come "here." And America was patient; for 10 years, mothers watched their sons die, and young girls reached out in longing for lost lovers. And still they stayed with the war until they could stay no longer. In the end, it was not the antics of Jane Fonda but the real grief of real women that brought the troops home, home from a contest that could not be won.

Or rather, it could not be won by us. Such wars are not won by foreigners. As outsiders, we can help one side or the other. But the wars must be won and lost by the people in the country. If Iraq really is a country, and not merely an abstraction of the British Colonial Office, then the Iraqis must by their own arms decide their own fate. We can place arms into their arms, and what can be accomplished by training, or logistics, or the like, we can accomplish for them. But they themselves must win their own battles. And ever was it thus. This has happened in Iraqi Kurdistan, a prosperous and free corner of Iraq, free because they freed themselves. There are but 60 American soldiers in the whole province, and even they have little to do. That's six-zero; not 600, not 6,000. SIX-ZERO. I suspect that if there were a similar number in Baghdad, Baghdad would sort itself out in short order. and if they will have problems, as they certainly will, they are problems they will learn to deal with by means they will have to choose.

Kurdistan is successful because we left it alone, Iraq is unsuccessful because we cannot leave it alone, and Vietnam successful since we have left it alone. The problems that will arise are not problems that can be solved by inscribing more names on a stone wall. They are problems caused by men who largely have no comrades on the stone mirror, and who cannot see themselves or their sons among the dead; they avoided the last war ("I had other priorities," says Dick Cheney, chief of the war party) and will let no one avoid this one. But mostly, it is a war of men who cannot admit a mistake, a tragic mistake. That is to say, the problem is not a stony wall, but stony hearts. I would hope such hearts could be softened in the stone mirror, by a grief that identifies with weeping mothers. As I walked the wall with my son, I imagined for one terrible instant, and without attempting to do so, seeing his name on such a wall. And for one terrible moment, all I could feel was grief, and all I could think of is "What will I tell his mother?"


Joe Monday, August 27, 2007 at 3:40:00 PM CDT  


This is a beautiful reflection. Thank you for sharing your very personal and thought provoking commentary.

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