Perhaps you thought you were doing the right thing, fighting in a small distant country for president and country. It is the way we were all indoctrinated. When the country calls, you must answer. But the leaders of the country were dead wrong about fighting in Vietnam, and this wall with your names etched on it speaks to the terrible loss of each of you in that savage, brutal and unnecessary war. I mourn your loss. I mourn the loss of possibilities that were cut off when your lives ended in that war. You might have stayed home to live and love, to have children and grandchildren, to follow your dreams, but for that war.
The war was so wrong in so many ways. It was wrong for you, for the people you were ordered to kill, and for the soul of America. It was a war that was neither legal nor moral and, as such, set the tone for future US wars. After that war, I don’t see how we can ever be proud of our country again.
Some three million Vietnamese were killed in the war. Some were fighting for their independence. Others were innocent civilians. Many were women and children. You and other Americans were sent half way around the world because American leaders feared the communists, feared that countries in Southeast Asia would fall like dominoes to the communists. But Ho Chi Minh was more than a communist. He was a nationalist, leading his country to independence from colonial rule. He was a nationalist who admired Thomas Jefferson, and he had once asked the United States for help in seeking that independence. We turned him down, turning our backs on our own history and on your future.
Once Lyndon Johnson became president it was all escalation in Vietnam. General Westmoreland always wanted more men. He kept upping the ante in his calls for more American soldiers, and LBJ and McNamara kept obliging him. They kept pulling young Americans from their lives and dreams to fight in the jungles of Vietnam. You know better than I do that it was a hopeless war, a war in which you were sent to kill and die for no good reason, for the delusions of American leaders who didn’t want to lose a war. Of course, that’s exactly what happened in the end, and by that time Nixon and Kissinger had joined the Johnson and Westmoreland team in failure. According to the rigged body counts on the nightly news, we were winning the war, but that was only until we lost.
One slogan stands out in my mind, “Hey, hey, LBJ, how many kids did you kill today?” We’ll never know how many there were, but there were many. The war drove LBJ from office, but it brought in Richard Nixon. He said he had a plan to end the war. This turned out to be massive bombing of North Vietnam, and secret and illegal bombing of Laos and Cambodia. It was shameful, but not as shameful as Kissinger receiving a Nobel Peace Prize for negotiating the shape of the table for peace talks with the Vietnamese.
What kind of a country could pursue such a war against peasants fighting for their freedom? Answer: The same kind of country that could drop atomic bombs on civilians at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Sadly, in the years since you’ve been gone, our country has learned little about compassion. We have fought new wars, including one in Iraq, based upon presidential lies having to do with illusory weapons of mass destruction.
America has continued to waste its treasure in fighting wars around the world, as well as its dignity, its goodwill, its youth and its future. I wish I could give you a more positive report on what America learned from the Vietnam War, but most of what it has learned seems intended to make wars easier to prosecute, such as ending conscription, relying on a poverty-driven volunteer army, embedding reporters with the troops, and not allowing photographs of returning coffins. Incidentally, no dominoes ever fell.
America has yet to learn that war is not the answer, that bombs do not make friends and military power does not bring peace. Our military budget is immense. When all is added in, it amounts to over a trillion dollars annually. Imagine what a difference even a fraction of those funds would make in fulfilling basic human needs for Americans and people throughout the world.
I wish you were here to stand up and speak out for peace and justice, for a better, more peaceful country and world. We need you.
David Krieger is President of the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation (www.wagingpeace.org). He is the author and editor of many books on peace and nuclear weapons abolition, including “Speaking of Peace: Quotations to Inspire Action.”