Lost Youth: Vietnam revisited by one who wasn't there**
A friend remarked recently what a pity it was that our society had lost the optimism of the 1960s. She was thinking about marijuana communes and free love and the Great Society, but still it seemed a strange thing to say.
What I remember from those years is playing at war in the woods and waiting for the evening news so I could silently celebrate when I heard that we'd killed more North Vietnamese than they had of us. We killed them fair and square, through "interdiction" rather than "bombing" and with minimal "collateral damage" in the form of dead civilians. Even at ten I recoiled in horror at the news of the 1968 My Lai massacre, sensing somehow that I had helped create this monstrous act in which clean-cut American boys brutally tortured and murdered a whole farming village. To be guilty of practicing violence, you need only be a participating member of a society that encourages it. Even if you were born after the war, you feel this at The Wall in Washington: With our own faces rimmed in black, the names of our victims scrolling across our forehead, once and for all we indict ourselves and we feel the need to lay our hand on the chiseled stone. A decade of optimism? Our boys went because they were told, murdered because it came naturally and died because they didn't know how not to.
But my friend had set me thinking about whether I had learned anything from those years. "Know your enemy and know yourself," wrote the ancient Chinese strategist Sun Tzu, "and you can win a hundred battles." So it was that a few days later, in pursuit of myself, I was drawn to Durham's own little Vietnam Memorial.
A sign on Duke Street ballyhoos the shrine, but once you turn onto Murray Avenue you're on your own. I parked and ambled along Ellerbee Creek, where I came across three girls giggling on a swing set, a little league diamond and a split rail fence beside a meadow chortling with insects. To the north, the banks of the creek sported many clumps of a purplish flower with leaves like his-and-her arrowheads, which erupted into hairy, flat-topped lavender clusters on blood-red stems. This was mistflower, a close relative of Joe-Pye weed, whose medicinal properties for treating fever had been identified by Mithridates the Great around 100 B.C.E. Mithridates, an amateur pharmacologist, was said to have drunk a little hemlock every day to inure his system so his enemies would be unable to poison him. We've learned a lot from him--maybe too much. I plucked off a cluster to take home.
I finally came across the memorial, without warning, in the woods behind the Edison Johnson Recreation Center. A truncated oval of raised bricks, floored with sand and detritus from recent runoffs, its central feature is a large granite book with a bright red placeholder. You learn from a sign on the back, dated 1992, that red symbolizes blood. The book is opened to a rambling list of facts and thank-you's run together with ellipses as though the words had been lifted from an encyclopedia or from a carefully worded proclamation: "America's longest war... over 50,000 dead... these men and women died with dignity... serving freedom." One infers some controversy at the time of its construction from the understated tone of the memorial, its isolation and its apparent neglect. In Vietnam, where they also say they fought that war in the service of freedom, you see many more public and more forthright shrines, bedecked with gay red flags. Of course, they won.
I thought about America's men at the top, those desperate nebishes with adding machines who knew their Clausewitz better than their Sun Tzu, and who only now have been coming forward with humility to admit that they sacrificed 50,000 teenagers on the altar of an infirm policy. Governments do not feel shame. Governments manage resources, trade off, wheel and deal, and do the best they can to perpetuate themselves. People feel shame. In this sad and hidden place, even here where my adopted city had placed an unobtrusive and blushing memorial to its war-dead, I needed to run my hand along the granite, to whisper a benediction and a prayer for forgiveness. Yes, war lives on in our souls, working there long after the shooting has stopped. It even continues to ferment in the bellies of gormless ten-year olds.
Surprisingly, my mistflower is still quite beautiful when dried and I have set it in a vase where I see it every day. It reminds me that, even in the midst of my worst cynicism, it is pleasant and possible to find a place of rest. There is always some reason for optimism. And at whatever risk, I am trying to swear off my daily glass of poison.
Paul Baerman, Fuqua '90, is a University employee.
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