Under normal circumstances, I would post this photo I took at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial nearly a year and a half ago on a more traditional day associated with service personnel—Veterans Day or Memorial Day. But this week is as logical a point, really, as the others.
You see, it was in February 1965 that Lyndon Johnson, with a Presidential election behind him—and with the Gulf of Tonkin resolution empowering him to do what needed to be done in Southeast Asia—took the first fateful steps toward expanding Americans’ role in Vietnam from an advisory to a combat capacity. The logic of escalation would not be countered until 1968, by which time the United States would be well on the way to losing 58,000 lives in the Vietnam War.
National Security Adviser McGeorge Bundy happened to be in South Vietnam in early February 1965 to determine the need for a program of expanded bombing envisioned by the Joint Chiefs of Staff when Communist raids on Camp Holloway and Pleiku resulted in the deaths of nine Americans. After another assault, this time on Qui Nhon (in which 23 Americans were killed and 21 wounded), LBJ ordered sustained bombing of North Vietnam.
But it couldn’t stop there. The attacks on Pleiku and Qui Nhon demonstrated that the bases from which “Operation Rolling Thunder” would fly out were themselves vulnerable, requiring their own security. And so, toward the start of March 1965, two Marine divisions were dispatched to Danang.
Even as he was deepening our involvement in the conflict, LBJ was deeply fearful of the quagmire that did in fact result—or, as he put it to his mentor, Sen. Richard Russell of Georgia, in a May 1965 conversation, “There ain’t no daylight in Vietnam.” Thousands of more young men would die for his two fears: of being branded soft on Communism, and of admitting he made a mistake.
The “Three Soldiers” statue seen here was erected to placate those veterans who felt that Maya Lin’s design for the Memorial Wall was a black slab and hole in the ground unworthy of the men whose sacrifice it was designed to commemorate. Yet, for all the consummate skill on display here by sculptor Frederick E. Hart, it is hard to see even this artistic corrective as the heroic vision its most fervent supporters had hoped for.
How could it be, really? When North Vietnam overran South Vietnam in 1975, America’s fundamental war aim—the independence of the latter—had been lost. Despite the fact that U.S. forces had won just about every major battle, then, they had, by not gaining their strategic aim, lost the war. And so, there are no battles commemorated here, no politician’s speeches excerpted—nothing so familiar from the other war memorials that the American republic has erected.
Even admirers such as Tom Wolfe have characterized Hart’s work here as being in a traditional vein. Yet, while the representation might be, the effect is anything but.
In a rarity for public statuary up to that time, the three soldiers—white, black and Latino—are broadly representative of the Americans that fought the war. They are grouped together, this multiethnic band of brothers, but they are not looking at each other. They may present a united front against any enemy, but they are alone with their fears.
Instead, they are peering ahead, on foot patrol, watching for the dangers that may lurk in a jungle from guerrilla fighters impossible to distinguish from the populace the platoon is fighting to save. They are good, decent young men, but also men profoundly weary of the necessity to stay on alert, and, in no short time, aged beyond their years by what they have seen, living on borrowed time.
But they are also looking out beyond the moment in which they find themselves. They are looking over to the Memorial Wall, with the names of those who did not make it out alive—including more than a few that they themselves would have known. And they are looking at the onlookers of tomorrow—maybe asking us to understand them better, but hardly expecting that this will be possible, anymore than they can know that they will get out of their mission alive.