The Moving Wall is a half-scale replica of Washington DC's Vietnam Veterans Memorial. Since 1984, The Moving Wall has toured the country, having installed itself for public viewing at over a thousand towns and cities. A conservative estimate would put the number of visitors in the millions. This blog is dedicated to getting behind The Moving Wall, to revealing how it was built, and what keeps it standing and rolling along.

On The Road With The Moving Wall

I have created a separate blog for this year's visitors to The Moving Wall. On it, they can directly post observations, impressions, reflections, etc. They can also post images. This new blog has the potential to be a great journal or travelogue of The Moving Wall in 2010. Please spread the word.

Here is the blog: http://rollingwiththemovingwall2010.blogspot.com/

I am also quite honored and pleased that Sharon Denitto has requested that her excellent site, Touch The Wall, be linked here. Please visit Touch The Wall, as Sharon's hard work offers a unique perspective on The Wall, and presents information not readily found elsewhere.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Seamen on the Poopdeck

In his first inaugural address, Abraham Lincoln coined the phrase "mystic chords of memory" referring to the history all Americans shared, irrespective of their significant differences. It is a lovely phrase.

At this point in the arc of this blog, for me a less poetic but more descriptive phrase would be "mystic shards of memory" or even "distant shards of memory." Lincoln may have heard harmonious chords echoing from the past; I'm trying to pick up the pieces from a time not long ago. It's been about two months since I left White Pine and the mental images of it, and the impressions I formed there, are not quite so vibrant as they had been, and certainly not so coherent. Still, I will keep on keeping on until even the shards seem shattered.

Over the few nights that I was an adoptee of the American Legion Hall Post 462 I got to see first hand the affinity vets feel for each other, especially those of the same or similar branches. John engaged with several other combat vets to share their wartime experiences, but even more, to share the good-hearted tag-team ribbing of those non-combat vets, even those who may have served during war time though removed from the action. As far as the military pecking order goes in Post 462, Marines top the heap, followed closely by the Army, but a distant third is the Navy (I'm not sure the Air Force shows up at all). A oft-repeated laughline was "there's seamen on the poop-deck" which I also suspect got its yuks from the identical sounding "semen", and what "semen on the poopdeck" might mean. In any event, John and other land-based vets got many a good chuckle repeating that phrase.

I was, to be sure, an outsider there. Not only was I a foreigner, all the way from the east coast, but more distant still was that I had never served in the military -- not even in the Navy. However attentive I may be as a listener, no amount of listening was going to get me remotely close to actual military, and even more exclusive, combat experience. I know this and I accept it. I also understand it.

A world I could not know. It was explained to me several years ago when The Wall had traveled to my home town of Warren, RI. I had just become acquainted with John and Joy, and John was gracious enough to let me hang around while he chatted with some local vets. While it was a source of kibitzing in White Pine, I discovered there is a real, felt distinction between those vets who have seen combat and those who haven't. Not pronounced, but it exists. There is even a little bit of animosity from those who fought in Vietnam toward those who simply served during that period (stateside, in Germany, Korea, etc.), those who call themselves "Vietnam Era" vets, as though they are trying to land a place in a heroes' parade for which they haven't really paid their dues. But that is another issue.

While I eavesdropped on John's conversations with his Vietnam "brothers" I came to find out what an extraordinary thing combat is -- how on the one hand it can be the ultimate, terrifying rush, and on the other hand the greatest source of human bonding men can know. John and others made it pretty clear to me that, if they bought Washington's rationale going in, once they got to Nam the scales fell from their eyes. The war was a bungle, run by incompetent officers who, if you didn't watch out for them, would get you killed. Maybe hindsight is 20/20, but I got the sense that many a vet did not believe in the story they were told about our being there -- to stop communist aggression, etc., and came to measure victory simply in going home alive. They felt lied to by their government. But while they felt little loyalty to an untrustworthy government they felt great loyalty to each other. The G.I.'s mission in Vietnam was not to fight for "America" but rather to fight for your brother, to keep him alive. For the guys firing the guns, the war was not a series of speeches or geo-political abstractions. It was bullets and artillery, and how not to get hit by them. Survival was the name of the game, and survival was, in Nam, a team sport. Survival meant interdependence, and interdependence meant trust, valor, watching each other's back. It was just too easy to die there.

While The Wall was in Warren, I spoke with a vet who walked me over to his truck to show me something. There, on the front seat, were scattered several small clear plastic bags. Inside each was a photo of some smiling soldier in dress uniform, and an accompanying page of information. The information included the soldier's name, date of birth, hometown, etc. The information also listed the date the soldier landed in Vietnam, and the date he was killed, because all the soldiers on the front seat of that truck were killed in action. It was shocking. Most of those killed, that I saw, died within a few weeks of having arrived. Several were killed within a few days. The greatest enemy was ignorance; the greatest killer, innocence. I gleaned from those plastic bags, and from bits and pieces of conversation, that if a soldier could get through the first few weeks "in country" there was a good chance that he would outlive the war, because, after a few weeks he would have learned how not to get killed, and how to count on his brothers as he would have them count on him. Knowing this, in a way, I can understand some of the immediate furor over Maya Lin's original design of The Wall, and why the issue of amending The Wall with the sculpture of the three soldiers was so important:

The Wall can only address the failure to return home alive of those whose names it bears; the three soldiers speak to the comradeship and brotherhood that got those whose names escaped The Wall home alive. Perhaps honoring the dead wasn't enough to memorialize about the war; perhaps honoring, and in a sense reliving, the self-sacrifice and spirit of camaraderie that existed among those who dodged the bullets, or took them, and fired them, is something to be cherished and remembered, not by people like me who weren't there and couldn't know, but by those who were, and need to have something substantial to fix their pride and appreciation to.

The statue of the three soldiers may have been necessary for just that reason; to honor not only those who were lost in the war but those who survived it. The Moving Wall seems to accomplish both aims, despite the fact that there is no replica of the three soldiers (nor of the nurses statue). As it is brought to towns largely by vet's groups -- and it is for the vets more than anyone than John has been toting The Wall all these years -- it can be argued that those same vets are its primary audience, providing a place for them to come and gather, trade stories, and thank their stars, the names on The Wall, and each other they're alive. Collectively as well as individually The Wall enables them to appreciate not only the sacrifice of their fallen brothers but also the commitment of those grizzled old men who, thanks to the common yet uncommon bonds of soldier to soldier, have lived all these many years, to grow from skinny high school kids to men with paunches, jowls, bald spots, and watery tattoos, to men with wives, children, grandchildren, and maybe even great grand-children. Men with full-lives. The Wall reminds them of the time, that there was a time, when life's longevity was a crapshoot.

Lincoln spoke of the mystic chords of memory. For the vets who come to visit, The Wall plucks those strings, strums those chords. Vietnam was a horrifying yet mystical time for those who survived it. It is right and fitting that they have some common ground to celebrate their mutual survival, and the surviving memories of those less fortunate.

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