The Vietnam Veterans Moving Wall arrived in Amherst today. At 5:30 p.m. Friday, its four-day stay officially begins.
The word “moving” is apropos in at least two ways: The wall does move from place to place, but anyone who sees it, who reads those thousands of names etched into it, will be moved.
And many people will find familiar names — someone from high school or college, someone who worked nearby, who played ball on the field down the street. Far too many names, far too many dead young men and women in a war our leaders knew — they knew — could not be won.
The United States got caught up in a war that we didn’t know how to fight. There were no major battlefields, no enemy facing us tank-to-tank, or roaring out of trenches to die in “No Man’s Land.”
The enemy — the Viet Cong and the North Vietnamese — used what they understood far better than U.S. forces: The land.
“Goodnight, Saigon,” as written by Billy Joel:
“And they were sharp. As sharp as knives.
“They heard the sound of the motors,
“They counted the rotors.
“And waited for us to arrive.”
Before you go to see the wall, you might want to go to YouTube and watch the video of Joel singing “Goodnight, Saigon.”
The Viet Cong were a patient, dedicated, committed enemy up against kids, many of them draftees, and officers who had never faced combat. The majors, colonels and generals who were in World War II and Korea didn’t lead troops in Vietnam. They just sent them out to do whatever they could against an enemy they often couldn’t see or hear.
We killed thousands of them. They killed thousands of us. In 1995, Vietnam estimated that more than 2 million civilians on both sides died.
And in the end, Ho Chi Minh got his unified Vietnam as we got our people out from the roof of the American Embassy in helicopters. And we left behind thousands of South Vietnamese citizens whose help we had sought, whose help we got, and who, for their trouble, were sent off to re-education camps or to the firing squad wall.
The Vietnam Veterans Moving Wall should remind us of all these things, should remind us that brave, patriotic, often reluctant men and women went off to do what they were told was their duty, sent by elderly white men who never heard a shot in anger.
Sometimes, things don’t change much.