The Vietnam War was a great polarizing event in America and in the world for that matter. It still is. The United States went halfway around the world to fight a war for reasons that were unclear. I was against that war. I still remember that while I was at Memorial there was a petition circulating in the student body pledging support for U.S. President Lyndon Johnson and the Vietnam policies of the United States. I didn’t sign it. Students do strange things in the bloom of youth, and it is their right to do so. The judgement of history on the war in Vietnam is harsh.
Time hasn’t softened me on the Vietnam War, and I’ll bet a lot of those that signed the petition back in 1965 wished they had their time back. We are all like that. Time changes things. I was a Smallwood Liberal back in the 1960s but that was then and this is now. I have come to understand Smallwood’s place in history better.
A couple of weeks ago I came across some remarkable and sobering numbers about the American commitment to the Vietnam War and the waste in human lives that it became. Today, I present to you some numbers from the stark Vietnam Wall in Washington. It is a reminder of a war now gone but as Johnny Cash reminded us: “Every shot fired has an echo and every man killed wanted life.”
There are a total of 58,267 names inscribed on the Vietnam Wall. Of those just under 40,000 soldiers were 22 years old or younger. Imagine that. Exactly 8,283 of those dead were 19-year-olds. The dead included 3,300 other soldiers who were 18. Incredibly, among the dead were 12 Americans listed as being only 17 years old. Those dead include five American boys who were just 16 years old when they died in service. You will remember that in all wars, including World War I, we include under-aged soldiers as being part of some heroic tale. I saw a hand lettered cross at Beaumont Hamel in France erected by the family of a Newfoundland soldier named Fallon. He was killed at Beaumont Hamel on July 1, 1916 when he was all of 16. I never forgot that tiny cross and I wondered about Private Fallon. Could he have been a doctor or a lawyer or an engineer or a streetcar driver? Could Private Fallon have been Prime Minister had he not died in a French field a long way from home?
There was a time to die in combat in Vietnam. Exactly 997 young men died during their first day in battle. Unfortunately, 1448 soldiers died during what was their last scheduled day of fighting service. Those numbers would bring tears to your eyes. Other numbers aren’t about volume but they speak loudly. Eight women died in combat wearing the American uniform. Those women were all nurses.
Relationships are another chapter in this sad tale of loss. In the names on the wall are three sets of fathers and sons who were killed in action. It is also recorded in history that there are thirty-one sets of parents who lost TWO sons in Vietnam. The names of those dead sons are on the wall.
Lessons learned? None other than that in war soldiers follow orders and old men order young men to go fight and young men die. It has thus been ever so.
You can contact Jim Furlong at [email protected]