10 November 2007

The Wall

Filed under: Culture, Reflections — ktismatics @ 3:31 pm

Twenty-five years ago this weekend the Vietnam War Memorial in DC was dedicated. At the time I was in grad school in Charlottesville VA, working part-time at a vet counseling center I had helped get started (I wrote about this HERE and HERE). There was this Canadian vet, I’m pretty sure his name was John, who was walking from Vancouver, down into the States, and on to Washington in a one-man campaign for increased recognition of vets’ issues, including P-TSD and Agent Orange. He reached Charlottesville the day before the dedication, accompanied by a retinue of maybe a couple dozen casual supporters. John was a small scraggly-bearded fellow carrying a walking stick and dressed in fatigues and hiking boots, hauling on his back a heavy pack surmounted by two flagpoles, one flying a Canadian flag and the other an American one. He still had something like a hundred miles to go, so it was clear he wasn’t going to make it to DC in time on foot. Reluctantly he agreed to let me drive him to the ceremony.

At the time the Memorial generated a lot of controversy among the vets I knew. The project had been vet-initiated and vet-organized throughout, financed entirely by private donations. But the architect selected to design the memorial was a woman, and a Chinese-American woman at that. Instead of a white phallic monument to heroism this memorial was to be a black gash in the ground. Not only that, but General Westmoreland and Caspar Weinberger, Reagan’s Defense Secretary, had finagled invitations to speak. In short, expectations were low.

The afternoon before the big event I got behind the wheel of my VW Dasher, my wife-to-be Anne riding shotgun and our new buddy John sitting in the middle of the back seat, talking compulsively about all manner of things. We got to DC sometime in the late afternoon. Our charge was to deliver John to Tom Daschle, then a second-term Democratic congressman from South Dakota, years later ascending to the post of Senate Majority Leader before being unseated in a concerted Republican effort to label him a radical liberal. Apparently John had been in correspondence with Daschle, also a Vietnam vet, and Daschle had agreed to put him up for the night. So we drove across the Potomac, found a place to park on Capitol Hill, and walked over to the House Office Building. We’re here to see Congressman Daschle, we told the person at the front desk. She told us where to find Daschle’s office, we thanked her, and off we went. The halls of power didn’t make much of an impression, what with the linoleum floors and the bad lighting. We found the right office number and knocked. Daschle himself came to the door, stepping into the corridor to greet us. He helped John with his stuff, stashing it under one of the chairs in his office. We all chatted briefly, and having discharged our duty Anne and I said our good-byes and headed for our cheap hotel a couple blocks away.

Morning broke cold and gray as Anne and I started walking toward the Mall. Men in their thirties and forties, most wearing green army jackets and looking kind of scruffy and wary, alone or with maybe one or two other guys, a few with wife and kids, were converging silently and almost reluctantly on the Memorial. And then, almost without realizing it, we were there. No jubilation or rage, no joking around, no mass communal outpouring: it was a pervasive, private solemnity that had settled over that place. Nobody had really known it before it happened, but now everyone knew: we had come to pay our respects.



  1. John, I was very surprised to see in a recent AP article that 1 in 4 of all the homeless are veterans. More frighteningly it seems that the lag time between coming home as a vet and becoming homeless is dropping fast as in todays world it takes a whole lot less to crash out of the system.

    I think in this field alone you guys have your work cut out for you. Is it generally known but I missed it somehow? I’m shocked…


    Comment by samlcarr — 11 November 2007 @ 12:01 pm

  2. One consequence of the Vietnam era is that the Veterans’ Administration acknowledged PTSD and other combat-related adjustment disorders, agreeing to pay for related psychological services provided by people like us. Since then the VA has brought the whole psychotherapeutic apparatus in-house, setting up their own counselors and hiring their own staff. So now a vet has to rely on the VA, a Federal agency, to decide whether they get psychological services and for how long, AND they have to go to a government employee to receive these services. From what I’ve heard the services are minimal; e.g. one visit per month for 3-4 months, with a long waiting time. Vets with private insurance might be able to fare better in the private sector, but not the unemployed and the homeless.


    Comment by ktismatics — 11 November 2007 @ 1:00 pm

  3. When one looks at the VA, one wonders whether it is possible for the army to really be this bad. Can they in good conscience care so little for their own?

    I know that the Republicans have been squeezing the VA of funding but somehow it seems to me that this issue goes deeper than this. Soldiers are only of any use to an army as long as they are fit for battle. But when one considers that it is other soldiers that are tasked with caring for their own colleagues, something just fails to add up.


    Comment by samlcarr — 11 November 2007 @ 2:57 pm

  4. That the army seems so incapable of learning from their mistakes and adapting to unexpected circumstances makes it hard for me to believe them capable of pulling off sophisticated conspiracies without being detected almost immediately.

    In thinking back on that day it’s amazing that we were able to walk right into a congressman’s office like that — no metal detectors, no escort, no official clearance. I suspect those days are over forever.


    Comment by ktismatics — 11 November 2007 @ 10:05 pm

  5. I wasn’t thinking so much of any conspiracy to short change the vets so much as a thought that there is an extreme level of incompetence and loss of morale at the heart of the American war machine.
    Their intelligence was and is shaky.
    They are incapable of planning successful campaigns or of anticipating what the enemy is likely to do.
    They are over dependent on technology to the point that the human element is ignored.
    The generals have proved to be totally gutless as far as getting their way is concerned with a titular head who has a neocon think tank that runs circles round the Chief of Staff and his group of commanding officers.
    The “persons in arms” are not fools. They see all of this happening up close.
    It’s not surprising finally that the army has to hide their forces behind a hired set of civilian mercenaries just to stay alive somewhere near the front lines of a proxy war…


    Comment by samlcarr — 11 November 2007 @ 10:36 pm

  6. No, I wasn’t thinking of that particular conspiracy. I’m thinking more generally about attributing extreme shrewdness and forethought to a military that seems so incompetent. E.g., that the US government was behind 9/11, or that the military expected exactly what has happened in Iraq in order further to Balkanize the Islamic alternative to Western capitalist hegemony, etc. They’re too heavy-handed for that sort of thing — piecing together a patently false rationale for unilaterally invading Iraq is more their style, and then actually believing that the occupied nation is actually going to welcome their permanent presence. I agree with you, Sam — the US military is incompetent of successfully doing anything that demands finesse or subtlety or complexity.

    In a way it’s a good thing that the Army hasn’t been able to manage PTSD more successfully. You could imagine them calculating a particular incidence of PTSD as collateral damage, and installing an efficient treatment mechanism to handle the expected psychological casualties. Then they could look permanently humane while pursuing perpetual warfare. But they don’t think these things through well enough to avoid the adverse publicity of taking care of our own. So far the multiple tours of duty have kept soldiers in the field far longer than was the case in Vietnam, so the number and visibility of vets remains quite low. But just as New Orleans finally turned the tide against Bush, so maybe the disregard for American vets might finally cause the American public demand an end to Iraq. But that might take years.


    Comment by ktismatics — 12 November 2007 @ 3:31 am

  7. “PLYMOUTH, N.H. – Presidential contender John Edwards is introducing a $400 million plan Monday to help veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder, including those recently returned from combat in Iraq and Afghanistan. Under Edwards’ plan, veterans could seek counseling for post-traumatic stress disorder outside the Veterans Health Administration system; the number of counselors would increase; and family members would be employed to identify cases of PTSD.

    A recent study of Veterans Affairs records showed that the number veterans with PTSD increased by almost 20,000 during the last fiscal year — a nearly 70 percent jump. Edwards said the Bush administration’s extension of tours to 15 months has only exacerbated the situation, and he promised to increase the time given to service members between deployment. A Defense Department study earlier this year showed that inadequate time stateside led to higher rates of PTSD or aggravated mental stress from service in the field.

    Edwards’ campaign said there are too few trained counselors in the networks available to veterans. As such, they avoid seeking care because of the wait or the stigma. Instead, Edwards said he would increase counseling and training for counselors and allow veterans to seek treatment outside of the existing system. The VA currently has a backlog of as many as 600,000 claims, increasing delays for initial treatment by up to six months, according to the campaign. Edwards pledged the entire backlog would be eliminated by Memorial Day 2009 — four months after he might take office — and would cut the processing time by half.

    Edwards’ plan also would provide a comprehensive medical examination, which would be part of a “Homefront Redeployment Plan” provided to every veteran. Edwards said veterans don’t receive their first examinations for months or years after leaving the service, making it more difficult to determine whether an injury is service-related or not. The Edwards campaign said the government could pay for the program through closing tax loopholes and more efficient tax collection.”

    This is my worry about the Democrats — they want more efficient engineering of the war campaign and of the collateral damage on the home front. Hillary Clinton joined the retired generals in saying that Rumsfeld failed by having too lean a fighting force assigned to Iraq — that we should have sent more troops. And here’s Edwards making the ongoing war more palatable by re-engineering care delivery for the ever-increasing numbers of PTSD cases.


    Comment by ktismatics — 12 November 2007 @ 3:39 am

  8. Well, there it is. The Dems carried a slender majority mostly in the hope that that would stop the war or at least put a crick into Bush’s wilder ways. Neither of these scenarios has worked out. The Dems have pussy footed around every issue from the war itself to eavesdropping, to rendering, to guantanamo, and on down the line. I guess you guys are better off with the Republicans, at least you’ll end up paying less in taxes!

    Hillary is sounding particularly dangerous, Edwards as you note above, and Obama… well in any case neither of the latter look capable of beating a determined Giuliani.


    Comment by samlcarr — 12 November 2007 @ 5:51 am

  9. I think it will be Romney before Rudy, Sam.


    Comment by Erdman — 15 November 2007 @ 11:00 am

  10. Jon, is that an early call or is it that you are hoping that Romney will prove the stronger candidate? Another senator is the one who seems to have dropped out of sight. No one is talking about him, I wonder why?


    Comment by samlcarr — 16 November 2007 @ 6:51 am

  11. It is just a prediction. Romney has the best stage presence, and I think that this means more than anything else.


    Comment by Erdman — 20 November 2007 @ 7:44 am

  12. He is the hottest of the bunch I agree, but he’s also Mormon, and according to US opinion polls more people would disqualify a presidential candidate for being a Mormon than for being either black or a woman. Atheists, however, are rated lowest of the low in terms of electability.


    Comment by ktismatics — 20 November 2007 @ 7:48 am

  13. Interesting: I didn’t know that Atheists were the least electable of all “religious” positions.

    What do you think? Do you think that “religion” and “faith” are the most politicized of all issues?

    Why do we want a religious man to run the country? Does it make us feel safer? We didn’t care that Clinton was irreligious, though, did we????

    I think Romney can handle the Mormon thing. He has done it in the past.


    Comment by Erdman — 22 November 2007 @ 12:53 pm

  14. Here are poll results from August 07. “Regardless of the specific candidates who are running for president, we’d like to know how you generally feel about some different traits. Would you be more likely or less likely to support a candidate for president who is:

    a woman: 15% more likely, 12% less likely, 72% doesn’t matter
    black: 9% more likely, 6% less likely, 84% doesn’t matter
    Hispanic: 9% more likely, 15% less likely, 70% doesn’t matter
    Mormon: 5% more likely, 25% less likely, 66% doesn’t matter
    Muslim: 3% more likely, 45% less likely, 49% doesn’t matter
    an evangelical Christian: 19% more likely, 16% less likely, 60% doesn’t matter
    Catholic: 13% more likely, 7% less likely, 79% doesn’t matter
    Jewish: 9% more likely, 11% less likely, 79% doesn’t matter
    Does not believe in God: 3% more likely, 63% less likely, 32% doesn’t matter

    So, as candidate for US President, you’re more electable as a Muslim than as an atheist. Mormonism could be a liability on the national stage — Massachusetts might be more “liberal” or cosmopolitan than average in the sense of accepting minorities of all stripes. Bill Clinton was (and I suppose still is) a practicing Southern Baptist. As we’ve seen time and again among evangelical leaders, getting your hand caught in the cookie jar doesn’t mean you’re not religious.


    Comment by ktismatics — 22 November 2007 @ 1:18 pm

RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URI

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

Create a free website or blog at WordPress.com.

%d bloggers like this: