Whenever I teach the American Civil War, I always end the last lecture on the conflict by reading a passage from Walt Whitman’s funeral hymn for Abraham Lincoln, “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d.”
I saw battle-corpses, myriads of them,
And the white skeletons of young men, I saw them,
I saw the debris and debris of all the slain soldiers of the war,
But I saw they were not as was thought,
They themselves were fully at rest, they suffered not,
The living remained and suffered, the mother suffered,
And the wife and the child and the musing comrade suffered,
And the armies that remained suffered.
I also read this passage whenever we look at war memorials — particularly the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in DC, which substantiates like nothing else that crushing sadness in Whitman’s verse. Anyone who’s visited the site knows this.
The wall was dedicated 26 years ago today. Built less than a decade after the war’s conclusion, the memorial was the outcome of a difficult process that required veterans to negotiate the meaning of the war itself; the fact that the design bore the names of the dead was not accidental — it was the only thing the committee could agree on. The final design had earned its creator, a 21-year-old student named Maya Lin, a “B” in her funerary architecture course at Yale. After the selection jury chose it, Lin’s proposal was subjected to howls of protest from veterans and others who regarded it as a sign of disrespect to the soldiers whose names it would carry. Phyllis Schlafly described it as a “tribute to Jane Fonda,” while the National Review dismissed it as “Orwellian glob” and begged Ronald Reagan to scotch the project. A veteran named Tom Carhart wrote in the New York Times that the memorial, if built, would commemorate the war with a “black gash of sorrow and shame.” Tom Wolfe, in a moment of wankery that must be judged as epic even by his own olympian standards, insisted that the memorial would fail because it emanated from the sort of elitist, modernist sensibilities that Real Americans would never accept.
In spite of the negative publicity, the memorial fund continued to receive a stream of donations from veterans and other actual Americans who subsequently traveled to the site to see the names of their fathers and comrades and husbands and sons. They touched their names, rubbed them onto paper with pencils and charcoal, brought them things — stuffed toys and cans of beer, wedding rings and Bibles, yearbooks and agonizing letters — all of which, having seen in person, you really, really wish you could use to beat the shit out of Tom Wolfe.
The photo at the top of this post was taken by my father sometime in the early 1990s, when he visited the wall for the first and — to my knowledge — only time. As I’ve written elsewhere, Dad never expected to survive the American war in Vietnam, where he served as a helicopter pilot for nearly two years before returning to live another forty. While he was in Vietnam, seven pilots and passengers from his company lost their lives; he may have known as many as six others who died in the year after he left. Overall, roughly half of Dad’s training group, which included somewhere between 300-400 young men, never made it back from the war.
One of those killed was CWO Kenneth Edward Messenger, whose name is visible just below center in this photo. I didn’t see this picture — and never heard the story about Dad’s visit to the wall — until a day or two after he had passed away. As a result, I was never able to ask him about his friend, who died on 5 May 1968 from a mortar that struck his sleeping quarters in Kien Hoa during a brief NVA/NLF offensive known as “mini-Tet.” Donald L. Merry and Lloyd Lockett — the men whose names bracket Messenger’s — also died the same day, as did nearly 30 others on panel 55E, which contains 199 names.
Based on what little information I’ve been able to gather, Messenger was about three weeks from leaving that awful war when he died. He was 27 — three years older than my father — and had never been married, never had kids. He grew up in Wantagh, NY. His parents may or may not still be alive, and there are no websites devoted to his memory. Still, though, he had musing comrades who remained and suffered. On a Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund site, one of Messenger’s neighbors at the airfield in Soc Tran posted a brief tribute to someone he barely knew:
The mortar round that stole his life was the first of many. He surely never heard it, he never suffered. The impact of it blew me out of my bunk, the beginning of another horrible night of man killing man. I never knew him, but he was my neighbor, and my brother in arms, another American serving with honor. I didn’t know him, I wished I had. We fought all night, the war stopped at dawn, as usual. I cried when I learned of his fate. I never knew him, but I dearly miss him and I will never forget his name.