Thursday, 3 September 2009

Pro Patria Mori

“It’s ok, I didn’t know him real well. He was on my Dad’s side, I think.” The middle-aged lady, a little moist-eyed, her husband and young son had found Barry A Bidwell on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington DC. They’d been looking hard: it’s an extraordinary structure, a long, L-shaped walkway complete with 58,256 names of men who died or remain missing from that war.

I had memorial fatigue by the time I made a right by the Reflecting Pool in front of the Lincoln Memorial, after already visiting the World War II memorial, Washington Monument, Ulysses S Grant memorial, White House and US Capitol. I also had Memorial Back – it’s a bit like Tennis Elbow but lower down.

But with the Vietnam memorial, that vanished. It was unexpectedly moving. A young boy sat with his father looking up at it (pictured, above). “Some of these guys volunteered,” said the father in a southern baritone. “But a lot of them were drafted. Do you know what that means?" His son shook his head. "They took the ones who weren’t doing real well in school and made them sign up.” I think there was another lesson going on there, too.

The ranks of names – all but Barry A Bidwell anonymous and without any human context – reminded me of recent front pages back home of those killed in Afghanistan. How big will those memorials be?

As I left, another young boy asked his father, “Dad, was Vietnam the Second World War?” “No,” he replied wearily. “The Second World War was different. Vietnam was, well it was Vietnam.”

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