Edited excerpts from "The Vietnam Memorial"

found in HUMANS by Robert J. Sawyer

Ponter looked at the strange vista in front of him, not understanding. There was a scar in the grass-covered landscape, a deep welt that ran for eighty paces then met, at an obtuse angle, another similar scar. 

The scars were black and reflective a ... what was that word again? An oxymoron, that was it; a contradiction in terms. Black, meaning it absorbed all light; reflective, meaning it bounced light back. 

"What is it?" asked Ponter, staring at the oblong blackness, at their reflections. 

"It's a memorial," said Mary. She looked away from the black wall and waved her hand at objects in the distance. "This whole mall is filled with memorials. The pair of walls here point at two of the most important ones. That spire is the Washington Monument, a memorial to the first U.S. president. Over there, that's the Lincoln Memorial, commemorating the president who freed the slaves." 

"We'll visit both those memorials later," said Mary. "But, as I said, I wanted to start here. This is the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. A war was fought there." 

"Over what? Over swamps?" 

Mary closed her eyes. "Over ideology. Remember I told you about the Cold War? This was part of that but this part was hot." 

"Hot?" Ponter shook his head. "You are not referring to temperature, are you?" 

"No. Hot. As in a shooting war. As in people died." 

Ponter frowned. "How many people?" 

"In total, from all sides? No one really knows. Over a million of the local South Vietnamese. Somewhere between half a million and a million North Vietnamese. Plus ..." She gestured at the wall. 

"Yes?" said Ponter, still baffled by the reflecting blackness. 

"Plus fifty-eight thousand, two hundred and nine Americans. These two walls commemorate them."

"Commemorate them how?" 

"See the writing engraved in the black granite?" 

Ponter nodded. 

"Those are names names of the confirmed dead, and of those missing in action who never came home." Mary paused. "The war ended in 1975." 

Ponter looked down. "I do not think the missing are coming home." He moved closer to the wall. "How are the names arrayed?" 

"Chronologically. By date of death." 

Ponter looked at the names, all in what he'd learned were known as capital letters, a small mark a bullet, isn't that what they called it, one of many words that served double duty separating each name from the next. Mary moved in beside him, and, in a soft voice, read some of the names to him. "Mike A. Maksin. Bruce J. Moran. Bobbie Joe Mounts. Raymond D. McGlothin." She pointed at another line, apparently chosen at random. "Samuel F. Hollifield, Jr. Rufus Hood. James M. Inman. David L. Johnson. Arnoldo L. Carrillo." 

And another line, farther down: "Donney L. Jackson. Bobby W. Jobe. Bobby Ray Jones. Halcott P. Jones, Jr." 

"Fifty-eight thousand of them," said Ponter, his voice as soft as Mary's. 

"Yes." 

"But but you said these are dead Americans?" 

Mary nodded. 

"What were they doing fighting a war half a world away?" 

"They were helping the South Vietnamese. See, in 1954, Vietnam had been divided into two halves, North Vietnam and South Vietnam, as part of a peace agreement, each with its own kind of government. Two years later, in 1956, there were to be free elections throughout both halves, supervised by an international committee, to unify Vietnam under a single, popularly elected government. But when 1956 rolled around, the leader of South Vietnam refused to hold the scheduled elections." 

"You taught me much about this country, the United States, when we visited Philadelphia," said Ponter. "I know how highly Americans value democracy. Let me guess: the United States sent troops to force South Vietnam to participate in the promised democratic election." 

But Mary shook her head. "No, no, the United States supported the South's desire not to hold the election." 

"But why? Was the government in the North corrupt?" 

"No," said Mary. "No, it was reasonably honest and kind at least up until when the promised election, which it wanted, was canceled. But there was a corrupt government the one in the South." 

Ponter shook his head, baffled. "But you said that the South was the one the Americans were supporting." 

"That's right. See, the government in the South was corrupt, but capitalist; it shared the American economic system. The one in the north was Communist; it used the economic system of the Soviet Union and China. But the northern government was much more popular than the corrupt southern one. The United States feared that if free elections were held, the Communists would win and control all of Vietnam, which in turn, would lead to other countries in southeast Asia falling to Communist rule." 

"And so American soldiers were sent there?" 

"Yes." 

"And died?" 

"Many did, yes." Mary paused. "That's what I wanted you to understand: how important principles are to us. We will die to defend an ideology, die to support a cause." She pointed at the wall. "These people here, these fifty-eight thousand people, fought for what they believed in. They were told to go to war, told to save a weaker people from what was held to be the great Communist threat, and they did so. Most of them were young eighteen, nineteen, twenty, twenty-one years. For many, it was their first time away from home." 

"And now they are dead." 

Mary nodded. "But not forgotten. We remember them here." She pointed discreetly. "See that man there?" asked Mary. "He's using a pencil and a piece of paper to make a rubbing of the name of someone he knew. He's well, he looks in his midfifties, no? He might have been in Vietnam himself. The name he's copying might be that of a buddy he lost over there." 

Ponter and Mary watched silently as the man finished what he was doing. And then the man folded the piece of paper, placed it in his breast pocket, and began to speak. 

Ponter shook his head slightly in confusion. "Who is he talking to?" 

Mary lifted her shoulders slightly. "His lost comrade." 

"But that person is dead." 

"Yes." 

"One cannot talk to the dead," said Ponter. 

Mary gestured at the wall again, its obsidian surface pantomiming the sweep of her arm. "People think they can. They say they feel closest to them here." 

"Is this where the remains of the dead are stored?" 

"What? No, no, no." 

"This memorial, then" said Ponter, sweeping his arm, taking in its two great walls. "What is its purpose?" 

Mary's eyebrows climbed again. "To honor the dead." 

"Not all the dead," said Ponter, softly. "These are only the Americans..." 

"Well, yes," said Mary. "It's a monument to the sacrifice made by American soldiers, a way for the people of the United States to show that they appreciate them." 

"But you have not answered my question," said Ponter, gently. "What is this memorial for?" 

"I told you. To honor the dead." 

"No, no," said Ponter. "That may be an incidental effect, I grant you. But surely the purpose of the designer " 

"Maya Ying Lin," said Mary. 

"Pardon?" 

"Maya Ying Lin. That's the name of the woman who designed this." 

"Ah," said Ponter. "Well, surely her purpose the purpose of anyone who designs a memorial is to make sure people never forget." 

"Yes?" said Mary, sounding irritated by whatever distinction she felt Ponter was making. 

"And the reason to not forget the past," said Ponter, "is so that the same mistakes can be avoided." 

"Well, yes, of course," said Mary. 

"So has this memorial served its purpose? Has the same mistake the mistake that led to all these young people dying been avoided since?" 

Mary thought for a time, and then shook her head. "I suppose not. Wars are still fought, and " 

"By America? By the people who built this monument?" 

"Yes," said Mary. 

"Why?" 

"Economics. Ideology. And ..." 

"Yes?" 

Mary lifted her shoulders. "Revenge. Getting even." 

"When this country decides to go to war, where is the war declared?" 

"Um, in the Capitol and White House. I'll show you those buildings later." 

"Can this memorial be seen from there?" 

"This one? No, I don't think so." 

"They should do it right here," said Ponter, flatly. "The leader the president, no? he should declare war right here, standing in front of these fifty-eight thousand, two hundred and nine names. Surely that should be the purpose of such a memorial: if a leader can stand and look at the names of all those who died a previous time a president declared war and still call for young people to go off and be killed in another war, then perhaps the war is worth fighting." 

Mary tilted her head to one side but said nothing. 

"After all, you said you fight to preserve your most fundamental values." 

"That's the ideal, yes," said Mary. 

"But this war this war in Vietnam. You said it was to support a corrupt government, to prevent elections from being held." 

"Well, yes, in a way." 

"In Philadelphia you showed me where and how this country began. Is not the United States's most cherished belief that of democracy, of the will of the people being heard and done?" 

Mary nodded. 

"But then surely they should have fought a war to ensure that that ideal was upheld. To have gone to Vietnam to make sure the people there had a chance to vote would have been an American ideal. And if the Vietnam people..." 

"Vietnamese." 

"As you say. If they had chosen the Communist system by vote, then the American ideal of democracy would have been served. Surely you cannot hold democracy dear only when the vote goes the way you wish it would. You have told me," continued Ponter, "that the majority of people in this country are Christians, like you, is that not so?" 

"Welllll," said Mary, "the U.S. prides itself on its tolerance of a variety of beliefs." 

Ponter waved a hand dismissively. "Two hundred and forty million out of two hundred and seventy million is almost ninety percent; it is a Christian country. And you and others have told me the core beliefs of Christians. What do Christians say about those who would attack you?" 

"The Sermon on the Mount," said Mary. She closed her eyes, presumably to aid her remembering. "`Ye have heard that it hath been said, An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth: But I say unto you, That ye resist not evil: but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also.'" 

"So revenge has no place in the policies of a Christian nation," said Ponter. "And yet you say that is a reason it fights wars. Likewise, impeding the free choice of a foreign country should have had no place in the policies of a democratic nation, and yet it fought this war in Vietnam." 

Mary said nothing. 

"Do you not see?" said Ponter. "That is what this memorial, this Vietnam veterans' wall, should serve as a reminder of: the pointlessness of death, the error the grave error, if I may attempt my own play on words in your language of declaring a war in contravention of your most dearly held principles." 

Mary was still silent. 

"That is the reason why future American wars should be declared here right here. Only if the cause stands the test of supporting the most dearly held fundamental principles, then perhaps it is a war that should be fought." Ponter let his eyes run over the wall again, over the black reflection.