Dove of Peace

Memorial Day - Remembering and Forgetting

First published May 28, 2018.

"Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it." - George Santayana


I have visited the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in D.C. a number of times and it has never failed to move me.

Fog of War

As you enter the southwest end of the memorial you first come upon bronze statues of three U.S. servicemen. Atypical of many other memorials commemorating war, these soldiers look dazed and weary as their eyes look forlornly towards the main memorial. Following their gaze, you walk towards a "V" shaped trench gouged out of the earth, reminiscent of the trenches that are all too often the homes of soldiers in battle. As you enter the trench, you are exposed to the names of the first U.S. military deaths of that war, dated 1959, carved into cold black rock. As you move forward the trench gets deeper, the slabs of stone get higher and the listings of fatalities grow longer. As you near the point of numbness, having been exposed to tens of thousands of names, each a cold mark in stone of a live once lived, you reach the deepest part of the trench, marking the darkest years of the war. Looking up ahead, you see the names of tens of thousands more. By the time you exit the trench, emotionally drained, you have walked past the names of over 58,000 U.S. military. Exiting the memorial and heading due south, you discover another memorial, this one dedicated to the U.S. women of the Vietnam war.

Sisters of Mercy

The Forgotten

Of course, like most memorials, the site tells only part of the story. While it provides a powerful memorial to the U.S. veterans that lost their lives, they were but a small fraction of the total deaths caused by that atrocity. The toll of Vietnamese fatalities, both military and civilian, was far greater and would require another 20, 30 or even 40 more trenches to commemorate. Using conservative estimates we find that over 440,000 Vietnamese servicemen died on both sides of that conflagration along with at least 627,000 civilians. Even that is not the full story, however, as the U.S. government expanded the war into Laos and Cambodia in the late 1960's, ending the lives of another quarter million civilians.


In addition to the costs in human lives there were the financial costs. At least three million refugees were forced to flee war zones in Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam. Millions of acres of farmland and forests were defoliated, increasing the misery of the local people. The costs of the Vietnam war to the U.S. taxpayer for military operations alone was over $111 billion, or over $2400 for every man, woman and child living in Vietnam at a time when the average annual wage there was under $100. The $111 billion in combat costs, however, is but a small fraction of the hundreds of billions of dollars in medical and other costs expended to repair the damage to families, farms and businesses shattered by the war.

As strongly as I am opposed to Communism and its restrictions on life, liberty and property, given the enormous waste of lives and treasure, surely there must have been a better way to "help" the Vietnamese people then to go to war. It was not, as one U.S. Major claimed during the Vietnam War, “necessary to destroy the town to save it”[19].

Picture Credits

Photos of soldiers at the entrance the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, Vietnam Women's Memorial, and names of deceased U.S. Vietnam war vets by Andrew Lesko, with modifications.

Which Way? Which Way?