I look out on another beautiful day even as I hear how quickly lives can change. Many of my friends are suffering right now with illness of their friends.
I believe that the Vietnam War Memorial is one of the most touching I have ever seen. I have a book sitting near me, Boundaries by Maya Lin because I love and appreciate her work and what it represents so much.
The following is a heart-felt comment on how the war in Iraq has affected the life of one man, and wonder at how anyone can think of a war memorial as a place to protest and attack. I can only sit today with prayer and desire for bridges to understanding and peace.
The Wall That Now Divides Us
By Charlie Anderson
t r u t h o u t | Guest Contributor
Friday 16 March 2007
"Most Walls are meant to divide us and separate me from you, but God bless the wall that brings us together and reminds us of what we've been through."
-James W. Herrick, Touch a Name on the Wall
The night air was cool and damp with spring rain as I walked down the dimly lit path in front of the Vietnam Memorial Wall for the first time. I was only nine years old and too young to fully grasp the meaning of the seemingly endless sea of names etched on black onyx tablets in front of me. I was also far too young to understand the impact of the Vietnam War on our country or the impact it had on the generation of young Americans that fought it. But, even as a young child, I could tell that The Wall was sacred space. There was an overwhelming air of sorrow that permeated the air around the shrine; people spoke only in hushed tones, many stared at a single name for long periods of time, and even a young child like me could easily be moved to tears. The Vietnam War tore the nation apart. Nearly 60,000 Americans gave their lives in the struggle, over 300,000 more were wounded, and countless more are still suffering with the effects of post-traumatic stress disorder and Agent Orange. The nation itself was polarized into camps of "pro-war" and "anti-war," casting aside similarities, such as love of country, in favor of political differences. The result was a nation that to this day has not reconciled the societal cost of the war. Worse, the concentration of public opinion also forced the war's veterans into polarized camps of "pro-war" and "anti-war" regardless of shared their suffering and shared experience. The chasm created by this unfortunate polarization has prevented many veterans from finding peace with the war. The Vietnam Memorial Wall was built to deliberately cast aside these controversies and create hallowed ground where the nation could grieve the loss of a generation of its youth, away from the political distractions and away from the turmoil surrounding the war. Though many vehemently opposed The Wall as inappropriate or simply an "ugly black gash in the ground" before its construction, the nation has come to treasure the memorial as a shrine to 58,253 unfinished lives.
Twenty years after my first visit, I visited The Wall as a combat veteran. The Wall took on an entirely new significance to me during that visit. The Iraq War is in many ways similar to the Vietnam War. Both wars were controversial at home, causing the veterans to feel betrayed or abandoned by government or the population at large. In both wars, the mission was often unclear to "the grunts on the ground." Much-needed equipment and material goods were denied to the forces in the field by Washington bureaucrats, and in both wars, the care of veterans has not been a true priority. The treatment of veterans has led many veterans of both wars to feel cut off from the nation they love and honorably served. On that and subsequent visits, The Wall felt like a sanctuary from the political storm that has surrounded "my war." The memorial is a place where I can mourn the dead not only of the Vietnam War, but of all wars, including mine. As a warrior, I carry the loss of life and the loss of innocence tightly within my heart. On every visit to The Wall since returning from Iraq, I have met people who disagree with me about the Iraq War. Yet, there is no politics around the wall; we mourn in silence or share our grief aloud not as liberals or conservatives, not as hawks or doves, not as Republicans or Democrats, but as human beings united by our suffering.
I was saddened to learn recently that for the first time since the beginning of the Iraq War, the sanctity of The Wall will be challenged by protest. On March 17, a coalition of citizens concerned about the war gathers for a protest march originating at Constitution Park across the street form The Wall. A group of counter-demonstrators, calling themselves The Gathering of Eagles, will gather around and presumably in the memorial while spreading their pro-war, pro-Bush/Cheney message. The "eagles" claim that their intention is to "defend" The Wall from attack by the anti-war demonstrators. Yet, through four years of anti-war protest, there have been few incidents of vandalism and no war memorial has been damaged in the past. Further, hundreds of veterans and military families, including those who have had loved ones die in this war, are at the forefront of today's anti-movement. None of us who have sacrificed in this war would tolerate, much less condone, such behavior.
While the mission statement of the "eagles" states, "... we are adamantly opposed to the use of violence, vandalism, physical or verbal assaults on our veterans, and the destruction or desecration of our memorials ... we defend and honor those whose blood gave all of us the right to speak as freely as our minds think." Yet, a cursory look at the comments section at the bottom of the page tells a different story. One commentator said, "I hope one of these Muslim commies cross the line so we can teach them a valuable lesson. I will be there with my brothers and will be victorious over these Dimicrat scum. This will teach them not to look at us with seditious eyes." Another expressed similar sentiments: "We need to show these anti-war turkeys we are all business that the sacrifice and honor of the men and women of this Memorial will not be defaced by the likes of them." Organizers for the veterans' contingent of the anti-war march have also received death threats from "eagle" supporters. It seems that the real intent of the Gathering of Eagles is to intimidate those who do not agree with their position on the war. They purport to believe in free speech and to forever honor America's men and women in uniform until the men and women in uniform disagree with them. At the point at which we veterans who feel a duty not to remain silent and advocate that our brothers and sisters in arms be brought home alive and cared for both now and when they get here, the "eagles" call us "commies," "traitors" or "dimicrat scum."
I took an oath to defend the Constitution and honorably served ten years in uniform. I still hold my oath no less sacred than the "eagles" claim to. One of the ways to honor that oath is speak freely and from the heart. I sacrificed everything I had and everything I was when I went to Iraq. I lost my marriage, a job I loved, and the very way I viewed the world. It is a shame these "eagles" who claim to love and support me so much not only want to silence my voice, but they have chosen to put a wall between me and the one place in America I where I can truly let my guard down and grieve.
Charles E. Anderson served in Iraq with the Marine Corps' Second Tank Battalion during the invasion of Iraq. During his nine-year career, he served in infantry, armor, and medical units. He lives in Hampton, Virginia, where he is a World Studies student at Thomas Nelson Community College. He can be contacted through his website at http://www.charleseanderson.com.