Remembering the Dead
By Murray Polner
I used to commute to work by rail with a neighbor. I had once been drafted into the army while he had been an Air Force officer during the Vietnam War with a most unusual, no, awful, job. He had been assigned to visit families and tell them that their husband, son, grandson, nephew had been killed in a war that the overwhelming number of Americans favored, at least until 1973 or so after nearly 58,000 GIs had been killed. It was LBJ''s call but many, many millions shouted out their love for USA USA in support of the war while others did the bleeding and dying.
Tell me more, I asked my commuting neighbor one morning. “I’m sorry I told you, forget it.” Then he added that he’d never allow his two sons to join the military.
Some memories. My boyhood pal Porky was drafted and never returned from the Korean War. The laconic and pleasant Trinchintella boy who helped around his father;s neighborghood gas stateion trained for the Vietnam War as a helicopter gunner, was grievously wounded and died in a military hospital in Japan, his parents sitting helpless in the hospital corridor (His uncle told me this). My African American former high school student Ronald Boston, shy, unathletic, a kid who tried so hard to make good grades. His mother tended my mother in a nursing home. One day she told me about her dream in which Ronald was killed in the war. Poor Mrs. Boston. Poor Ronald. He never did make it home except in a casket. Some years later I received an email from Cathy R. Boston, Ronald’s sister. Her niece had found my mention of Ronald on the web and she wrote me:
“So I decided to write you a short email to say thank you for writing and remembering. My Mom and Dad never recovered, in fact the family never recovered from Ronnie’s death. The subsequent ‘wars’ have been protested in this household and will continue to be protested. Please do not give-up the fight as I have not.”
In our earlier “Good War,” Irving Starr, whose family owned the deli next door, was killed during a raid over the Romanian Ploesti oil fields. His body was never found. Phil Drazin, who used to play ball with us younger boys, also died. When his father heard the news my friends and I watched as he ran out of his grocery store screaming into Straus Street. Screaming. Crying. I wish I could remember the name of the 18- year- old whose family had recently moved into an adjoining apartment to us before the kid was drafted. One humid and hot summer afternoon I watched from my window as his father stumbled toward the apartment entry and began sobbing. My mother, who was very good about such things, embraced him as he continued to cry.
I have never forgotten them. I am in fact obsessed. I’ve read Paul Fussell, Samuel Hynes, W.Y. Boyd, E.B. Sledge, all of whom lived through the carnage. I even memorized Donald Hall’s poem “1943” (“They toughened us for war…Dom died in the third wave at Tarawa…”) During the Vietnam War I interviewed several hundred combat vets for a book I later wrote and concluded, “Never before in American history have as many loyal and brave young men been as shabbily treated by the government that’s sent them to war.”
The neocons and the right-wingers, along with the liberal hawks, yesterday and today, always ready to fight—with other parents’ sons and daughters, rarely if ever their own. (Congress Quarterly once wrote that only 14 members of Congress had a son or close relative serving during the Vietnam War). No one was ever held accountable, no one blamed for the decision to invade Vietnam –or for that matter to invade Iraq. Few remember.
War lovers like Theodore Roosevelt and Rudyard Kipling changed their tunes once their sons died in WWI. Kipling could only assuage his grief and guilt in this shattering couplet:
If any question why we died
Tell them, because our fathers lied.