Forgive and Forget—Or Something Like That

Of course it’s only a coincidence that Armistice Day, the conclusion of World War I, falls (or used to) in November, that month which begins with All Hallows Eve and proceeds briskly to the Day of the Dead. It just happened that way.

Armistice Day, has evolved into Veteran’s Day, still in November and it’s possibly not a coincidence at all that the Vietnam Memorial, that other reminder of war and its heroes, was dedicated in November of 1982. Dedicated, in fact, on November 13, the date on which I am posting these comments. In another one of those, possibly not coincidental instances, November 13 is also World Kindness Day. World kindness, yes, we could use some of that.

It wasn’t an easy memorial to get finished, that memorial to a war which was not only unpopular, but also extremely unsuccessful. Many have had even worse things to say about it. See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vietnam_Veterans_Memorial for a good description of the trials and tribulations it took to get this important memorial finally approved.

Anti-war Protest, photo by Nestor Lacie

From 1964, when it first began to 1974, when it finally ended, I was among the many who vigorously protested that war. We marched, we wrote to our congressmen, we met in loud and hopeless gatherings. Meanwhile, my slightly younger brother, who had made a career in the Navy his life goal, went to Vietnam, as a volunteer, not just once, but three times.

Author's brother in Naval uniform
My brother, photo taken circa 1980

To say that we had some differences of opinion would be an understatement. For me, it was this incredibly stupid thing the government was doing. It was the draft, hanging over so many young men I knew. It was a horror happening on television every night and a national shame that kept getting worse and worse. For my brother it was an occasion for patriotism, bravery and accomplishment.

We never became quite estranged. There were too many other things that held our relationship together—and besides, when it was all happening, we were geographically located great distances apart. While he was training up and then volunteering for war, I was married and raising two small children in upstate New York. It was after the war that we had to talk about it.

And talk about it we did, even if as little and as tactfully as possible. We were both unwilling to break into outright antagonism. My brother never told me he thought I was a pinko collaborator and I never told him I thought he was a tool of the military-industrial complex—but the subtext was there. He had only a little to say about his experience working at the military hospital in DaNang. “We built it up during the day and the Viet Cong took it down at night” is one thing I remember him saying.

Somewhere in the late eighties or early nineties, I had occasion to visit the Vietnam Memorial and saw firsthand those lines of names that are so emotionally compelling. My brother’s name is not there. He survived his three dares with Vietnam and came back to the USA for more promotion, got married, then after his thirty years, retired to live out the rest of his life in what had been our home town.

Eventually we came to a kind of détente about Vietnam. I still thought it was stupid, but I had respect for the men who served. He still thought it was an important military campaign—and was sure to tell me so—but could see that it had failed. We didn’t venture into a discussion of why that happened.

Number of make-shift tents all pushed together
from my brother’s photos, possibly the hospital at DaNang

Recently I have had the rather sad task of sorting out some photographs left after my mother’s death. Coming across some faded and mysterious snaps of military men and an Asian environment, I suddenly realized I had come across my brother’s Vietnam pictures. Nothing unusual, just brief glimpses of people and places that must have meant a great deal to him. As in the conversations we once had, his pictures have a different resonance for me—but I do see them as a kind of memorial.

Group of Navy men
from my brother’s photos

Once I asked my brother if he had ever been to the Vietnam Memorial in Washington. He shook his head and said, “Nah. I don’t have to do that.” I would have liked to know more about why he thought so, but I didn’t push it. Now I kind of wish I had.


 Susan Shafarzek
Susan Shafarzek lives in Charlottesville, Va. Besides editing essays for Streetlight, she is a poet and photographer, blogging occasionally at Whaddyameanrosebuds.com.

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