As we honor Memorial Day, we reflect on the tragedy of war. We also remember how certain wars, started and waged by our own government and elected officials, have been borne by ordinary young American men and women, rather than by those who commenced those wars.
When President George W. Bush ordered the invasion against Iraq, a sovereign nation, in 2003, he claimed that Iraq possessed “weapons of mass destruction.” He even ordered his secretary of state, Gen. Colin Powell, to the United Nations to give a speech repeating that claim. Yet there were no “weapons of mass destruction” in Iraq.
Even though President Barack Obama had reduced the number of American troops in Iraq, U.S. troops still remain there. Iraq’s people still suffer from the destruction of its land and infrastructure that occurred during the war; and the war and fighting and killing continue.
After the invasion against Iraq began, a friend of mine, Paul, an Army veteran who had been captured by the Nazis in France during World War II and was a prisoner of war, said to me, “Damn it, this war that Bush is starting against the Iraqis, do you see his kids being sent over there? Do you see ANY kids of senators and congressmen being sent over there? Do you see the kids from privileged and rich families over there? No, it’s always somebody else’s kid!”
The questions my friend Paul asked are as relevant today as they were then — not only for the U.S. war in Iraq, but also for the U.S. war in Afghanistan, and the U.S. war in Vietnam, which ended in 1975.
On Memorial Day several years ago, I met a Filipino American bus driver who was wearing an Army Infantryman beret that his son wore. His son was in the Army for two years, and was killed in Afghanistan at the age of 19. The Pentagon told him how his son died in Afghanistan. However, individuals who were familiar with his son and the circumstances of his death shared with him a much different version than the one provided by the Pentagon. This father told me that he and his family grieve deeply for their son each day.
In commemorating Memorial Day and honoring those who have perished in war, I think not only of American servicemen and servicewomen who have sacrificed their lives, I also reflect on the life of my uncle, Dr. Pham Van Can, who died during the Vietnam War.
My uncle Can (“Cau Can”) was killed in Saigon in 1970 when a bomb detonated at a nightclub restaurant with his wife present. The bombing occurred during Sen. George McGovern’s visit to Saigon. Sen. McGovern strongly opposed the U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War.
The evening news in the U.S. that day reported that the South Vietnam government blamed the “Vietcong” for the bomb detonation. One can be skeptical of the news report, and question the veracity of the news source. I do not know who really planned the bombing that killed my uncle Can.
This I know: When my uncle was killed, his young son was orphaned. His son sobbed as he embraced his father’s coffin. My uncle’s wife was widowed and she was seriously injured from the bomb blast, her face severely deformed.
My uncle, who had been drafted into the South Vietnam Army, was serving in the military. A top graduate of the University of Saigon School of Dentistry, he never had a chance to practice dentistry when his life was cut short.
The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., delivered his sermon, “A Time To Break The Silence,” at Riverside Church in New York City, on April 4, 1967, and called for the end of the Vietnam War. Dr. King stated, “We as a nation must undergo a radical revolution of values. We must say of war, ‘This way of settling differences is not just.’”
Dr. King condemned the American military’s use of herbicides and napalm against the Vietnamese people, and declared that he could no longer remain silent when he thought of all the Vietnamese children, women, and men killed by our war efforts. Dr. King stated that a nation “sending men home from bloody battlefields, physically damaged and psychologically deranged, cannot be reconciled with wisdom, justice and love.”
Dr. King stated, “A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.”
Let us remember Dr. King’s sermon. Let us reclaim our belief in the sanctity of human life. Let us turn swords into plowshares. Let us work for peace in our world.
Anh Lê is a writer and independent journalist in San Francisco.