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War Trash, II
The Human Tolerance Walls Can Speak Of

Equal-opportunity waste in the Union's name

[This is the second of two parts. The first part is here.]

Every four years (or every two, as case may increasingly be) presidential campaigns tell us that there are Good Americans, and there are Bad Americans. Places where candidates and presidents ritually gather to sing the praises of good Americans are by the side of war memorials, as they do every Veteran and Memorial Day. The Vietnam Memorial in Washington D.C., where 58,000 Americans have ended their useful life, is the site most visited in the capital. No sooner was it finally completed in 1982 than many of the very congressmen and senators who ensured that so many names would end up on the Wall rushed by its reflective side to be photographed, solemn and sorrowful. It is inconceivable to say anything unkind about those dead. They are the greatest of Americans. They must be so, for our peace of mind. On those walls where miseries and heroics are reduced to engravings on granite, the names of the dead appear with obstinate if ironic equality—no ranks, no religions, no color, no social standing, nothing to single them out and make them look bad, the way candidates relish doing with the living until Election Day.

A few certainties about those who died in Vietnam (certainties that can be applied to the dead of every war, of 9/11, of the coming chisels of the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and who knows where else). They came from all races, though in Vietnam they were disproportionately black. They came from most socio-economic groups, though in Vietnam and now in Iraq the poorer by far outnumber the richer. Most were Americans the generic politician wouldn’t consider bad: God-fearing, tax-paying, norm-loving. But many were homosexuals or atheists or carried Marx or Kerouac in their backpack. Many went because they had no other choice, not because they relished dropping limbs and life in a jungle they had never heard of, or because they thought that somehow scorching Vietnam would keep San Francisco from going red. Many were renegades, serving in the military because it was better than jail. Many probably rioted in the 1960’s in Detroit or New York or Watts, as their “social misfit” descendants—the South-central rioters from whom Pat Buchanan, speaking at the 1992 Republican National Convention, wanted to “take back our country”—would later riot. Many, maybe most, had they known what they were getting into, what they were never going to get out of, would have rather not gone and would have dodged the draft, and you could not have blamed them.

On the Wall somehow death cleanses the names of attributes which in life draw the scorn of the preachers and speech-makers. The same beer-bellied Confederate who would see in some of those names, when living, nothing but “niggers” or “spics” or “chinks,” now chokes at Memorial Day parades and calls them “heroes.” They are silent now, those eternal veterans. Bad Americans or not when alive, no one dares do anything less than embrace them and speak admiringly about honor, duty, the American Way and all that miasmic rhetoric that adds up to nothing so much as a shiver as far as the dead are concerned, or erase the scars of prejudice many died with. Those dead—homosexuals, misfits, drug-addicts, “secularists,” non-traditionalists, liberals—who now receive ritual visitations from the Elected and the Upstanding. Those same dead who, back home when they were alive, would scarcely have attracted a city councilman’s attention, the way veterans scarcely do once they’re processed out of the service.

Where would homelessness be without veterans? As we were fighting the first Gulf War in 1991 there were, by the government’s own accounting, 250,000 homeless veterans, most of them Vietnam left-overs. They slept beneath bridges, on steam vents, on subway trains or park benches, only to face city ordinances that make their presence, of all things, “illegal.” Their mistake was to survive. Our war dead and their walls can be quoted in State of the Union messages to reinforce our sense of union. They died (we’re told) to protect what we hold so dear while our war survivors, the psychologically or physically maimed, are a reminder of imperfections, their suffering and maladjustment an inconvenience to our idea of what we hold so dear. They are, in yet another sense, “illegal.”

Bud what do we hold dear anymore? Community memorials, like siblings of the Wall in Washington, have sprouted all over the country. Always arresting, always troubling, but never really useful. Not when they naturally anticipate more Walls, more dead heroes to praise and quote in speeches and meanwhile teach us nothing about the living, who are owed more respect on their worst day than the dead on their memorial best. What’s the use of a memorial if we’re incapable of making it the last of its kind? What’s the use of respecting the dead with all their one-time faults and eccentricities (at least in our eyes), when we’re unable to extend our neighbors the same respect? Here’s our other unfailing ritual: We judge the living in the divisive and hateful language of our O’Reillys and Coulters and Hannitys and the rest of the fox’s menagerie, we proudly send them to their death, then automatically praise their names’ engravings on a wall, as if in apology, as if the solemnity of Veterans’ Day and Memorial Day makes things right (at least in our eyes, theirs having bugged out of usefulness).

But it doesn’t.

A worthier apology would have made the Wall the last of its kind, since the nation’s first duty to its citizens is to protect them from becoming engravings. Failing that (and fail we already have several times over since 1975), it is to treat all the nation’s living citizens with the dignity and pride the “ Union” endows those names now on the Wall. They have died in vain already, as do most casualties of war. Let the silent but revered equality they have gained in our eyes speak for equal tolerance and reverence for the living. Maybe then could their death gain a measure of usefulness.

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