The Official Voice of Vietnam Veterans of America, Inc. ®
An organization chartered by the U.S. Congress

Special Commemorative Issue, November 2002

Should We Keep Building Memorials?


Give Money, Not Memorials

By Art Hoppe

A story the other day said that a commission created by the California legislature was having trouble collecting funds for a memorial to the Vietnam veterans. I can understand that. If asked, I wouldn't give.

A new patriotism is growing in (he land. It frightens me. "All I want," a current college student is quoted as saying, "is to kill a Communist." On the screen, of course, Rambo is doing it. The sinister, faceless. Commie aliens fall in bloody waves as macho males in the audience shout encouragement.

In keeping with this new mood abroad in the land, the hardline politicians, from the president on down, are rewriting history. They are attempting, consciously or not, to rehabilitate the Vietnam War. More and more often you hear them saying that while the war may have been mishandled (we should have bombed the enemy harder), the cause was a worthy one, and our honored dead did not die in vain.

This is arrogant nonsense.

The Vietnam War was a lousy war, a stupid, senseless, incredibly expensive war, a blight on our nation's history. That war not only cost us $100 billion and 50,000 American lives, it sullied our national image, wrecked our economy, and destroyed our children's faith in their society, in their future and in us.

But now the politicians talk about how we arc "standing tall" again. The pundits who supported them write about how we are ridding ourselves of the "Vietnam syndrome," which is some dread disease that saps the moral fiber and not a healthy distaste for senseless combat.

I suppose the desire to "stand tall" is a cyclic reaction to the malaise that followed the Vietnam years. I think this desire is a good thing. But I don't think we should lie to the new generation about the Vietnam war. They can't really stand tall on lies. I think they should be told the honest lessons we learned. And one of those lessons is that our soldiers who died in Vietnam died in vain.

Saying so has become increasingly unpatriotic and unpopular. To rehabilitate the Vietnam war, we must rehabilitate the Vietnam veterans. We must make them heroes. They didn't used to be. When my generation came home victorious from World War n, we were hailed as the saviors of the world. But when a soldier comes home from a pointless defeat, he is an embarrassment. As such, he is avoided and ignored. And it is understandable if his body is filled with drugs and his mind with nightmares.

For few young men have ever been more royally screwed by their own government than those we sent to Vietnam. It is at least partially true that the smart kids went to college; the principled kids went to jail; and the poor, luckless kids went to Vietnam.

The blundering older men of that day thought up a stupid war, and then, because they could think of nothing else to do, they kept sending the poor luckless young men to fight it. And now they are building monuments in honor of those poor, luckless young men they screwed. I think that borders on the obscene.

I would as soon contribute to a monument in honor of rape victims or those who have been murdered by muggers. Rather than a monument, I would much prefer to see us give each Vietnam veteran $10,000 or $100,000 or whatever our society can afford.

Life is unfair. But part of society's responsibility is to make it as fair as possible. Just as there is a growing trend to recompense crime victims for their suffering, so should we toy to repay our Vietnam veterans for theirs. We should do so not for what they did for us, but) rather for what we did to them.

Art Hoppe is a columnist with the Sari
Francisco Chronicle
Reprinted from the San Francisco Chronicle

Memorials Help Heal Us All

By Jan Scruggs

It's unfortunate to see an unbuilt and underfunded California Vietnam veterans memorial being used as a vehicle to reignite the divisive issues of the Vietnam War. But Art Hoppe has done just that.

Veterans should congratulate themselves on the many Vietnam memorials that have been built throughout America. The memorials have had a positive impact: by recognizing sacrifices, by bringing people together, and by providing symbols that force people to remember that the war is real-that people give their lives as a result of American foreign policy.

Hoppe contends that a Rambo-like mentality is sweeping the nation. Hardline politicians, the editorial says, are creating a revisionist view of the conflict in Vietnam-describing it as an essentially "noble cause" that was undermined by America's left.

That may be true, but only in part.

While the hardliners continue their support of the war and blame the left for the slaughter in Cambodia and the Soviet naval base in Cam Ranh Bay, those who opposed the war blame its supporters for the loss of 58,000 American lives in a hopeless cause. They say to each other: "you have blood on your hands."

Yes, Vietnam is truly a bone in our throat, and it's a tough one to dislodge. Indeed, in our efforts to construct the national Vietnam Veterans Memorial I found that no matter what we did to keep the war's divisiveness away from the project, we always landed square in the thick of it. The best public relations advice in Washington couldn't keep us out of the soup.

When we called for a design that would make "no political statement on the war," we found that any work of art could trigger the imagination of right wing ideologues. And when we called for a memorial to stand as a symbol of reconciliation and unity, we heard voices from the left demanding that it be engraved with the names of those Americans who went to Canada to avoid the draft.

Both of these extremes were looking for a forum. The memorial became their mutual platform.

The debate got out of hand. A small group of clever but misguided people nearly destroyed the memorial. Had they succeeded, all the healing that has taken place since November 1982 would have never happened. But most of the debate, like Art Hoppe's comments, had less to do with the idea of whether, or how, to memorialize veterans than it did with the bone in America's throat-our common undigested experience of Vietnam.

I think the continuing debate over the Vietnam war is healthy. But there are proper forums for this fussing and feuding. Attacking a memorial still on the drawing boards in California is not the appropriate battleground for an old debate, no matter how necessary that debate might be.

If you truly believe that the Vietnam experience came about as the result of "blundering old men who thought up a stupid war," then why so vociferously oppose the California memorial? After all, it will have the names of over 5,000 of those victims from that state who were killed.

Those present and future generations who visit the California memorial will be reminded of their sacrifice. Children will ask their parents why the war took place. Veterans and non- veterans alike will pause to reflect on the experiences. The memorial will not allow present and future generations to forget.

Hoppe makes one good point, though. Memorials can only do so much. Appropriate benefits and recognition go hand in hand. When veterans are unable to find work, need answers to questions on Agent Orange, or need public and legislative support, a memorial can help keep the issues alive.

That's why we need the memorials. They last longer than money.

Jan Scruggs has written a book. To Heal Nation (with Joel Swerdlow), about his struggle to build the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.


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