As I viewed the Traveling Vietnam Memorial Wall a week ago on the grounds of VFW Post 5118 in Easton, I looked at the 58,000 names of men and women killed in Southeast Asia and starkly envisioned in the black background of the haunting tribute the turbulent 1960s.
I spent the rest of the week trying to make sense of a violent decade marked by war abroad and civil upheaval at home.
Allow me to share my thoughts. They might echo yours. They might rankle.
Like others born at the end of World War II, I spent my adolescence and young adulthood in the 1960s. While coping with my own growing pains and angst, I felt buffeted by catastrophic events. The decade was historic for its tragedies, its divisiveness caused by the Vietnam War, fractious race relations, the impact of feminism and a revulsion by some toward academic institutions and the government.
To this day, I cannot understand what begat the assassinations of President John F. Kennedy, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Senator Robert F. Kennedy. I wondered then if there were some unconscionable and undetected strain in American culture that led to the extermination of excellence.
I understand that many may disagree with my imposition of “excellence” on these three gentlemen. I stand by my opinion. They were remarkable.
As I traveled through life, I’ve certainly perceived an underlying resentment toward high-achievers, people whose skills and intelligence supersede the attributes of the rest of us. But this is fueled by jealousy. It doesn’t normally engender violence, just disdain.
Back to the wall, so dramatic in its somberness.
My first reaction was one that engulfed me despite my best effort to avoid it: was the Vietnam War worth the loss of 58,000 lives and thousands who were maimed physically and mentally? This nagging question is not intended to besmirch the bravery and patriotism of our troops.
The war, like the decade, was complex. It was meant to contain the spread of communism in Asia. That was a noble objective that placed us in the middle of a civil war between North and South Vietnam. As documented, our political and military leaders lied to American citizens about the inability of the world’s greatest power to change the political equation in Vietnam. As time went on, despite hard-fought victories, we lost mightily on the field of public opinion.
As our troops fought courageously in the jungles and rice paddies of a divided South East Asian nation, back home the nation was engaged in protests staged against the war in cities and major universities. We were a nation at war with itself. While conversation and actions were harsh and disruptive, women, for one, made strides in the business, political and academic worlds.
As I strolled along the Traveling Vietnam Memorial Wall, I saw what is commonplace at the actual memorial in Washington, DC: flowers and a note left by a veteran in memory of the loss of five fellow soldiers. That’s symbolic of the compassion and healing power of this unusual and poignant tribute to the dead.
Whatever passions were stirred by an immensely unpopular war, the Memorial Wall offers a quiet, contemplative place to pay homage to our nation’s fallen soldiers, sailors, airmen, Marines and Coast Guard members. It even summons forgiveness on the part of those who mistreated our returning veterans.
Our country’s history comprises many historic decades. Our own lives pass through phases, variously pleasant and unsettling. Last week’s 50th anniversary of the death by gunfire of Robert F. Kennedy at a hotel in Los Angeles, following a campaign victory speech during his quest for the Democratic nomination for president, drew me back to my adolescence and young adulthood in the sizzling 60s.
I recall I was just beginning to like Bobby Kennedy. In contrast to his brother, the president, he seemed so strident and pugnacious. I learned that in many ways he was more passionate and sensitive than his charmingly smooth older brother.
I thought maybe another Kennedy could have become president. It was not to be.
Just two months prior to the killing of Bobby Kennedy, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., a giant among civil rights leaders, was gunned down in Memphis, Tennessee. He led the rocky and risky crusade for racial equality, fighting forces of discrimination that still exist.
Dr. King’s “I have dream speech” was an unforgettable call for national unity. He strove ceaselessly for racial equality. He awakened the national consciousness. Yet, equality remained elusive. He died pursuing his dream.
When Robert Kennedy was shot on June 5, 1968, dying the following day, I was a young reporter at a community newspaper in Ellicott City in Howard County. Still shaken by the murder of the Rev. King, I was dumbfounded and shocked by the assassination, only two months later, of Sen. Kennedy. I immediately wrote an editorial and submitted it to the editor. He rejected it for reasons I cannot recall. He likely considered it too emotional.
So, here I am 50 years later, writing that editorial. This one is probably more reasoned and mature. After all, what does a new reporter just out of college know about depth?
Viewing the Traveling Vietnam Memorial Wall transported me back to a difficult and disruptive decade.
The journey was well worth it.
Columnist Howard Freedlander retired in 2011 as Deputy State Treasurer of the State of Maryland. Previously, he was the executive officer of the Maryland National Guard. He also served as community editor for Chesapeake Publishing, lastly at the Queen Anne’s Record-Observer. In retirement, Howard serves on the boards of several non-profits on the Eastern Shore, Annapolis and Philadelphia.