OLYMPIA – It’s never really clear whether coincidence or fate juxtaposes certain events, but there was a peculiar one here last week.
For those who didn’t notice, Friday was the 10th anniversary of the start of the war in Afghanistan. It’s a milestone that was mostly honored in its breach; perhaps the 20th will be a bigger deal if the United States is actually out of Afghanistan.
Friday was also the day the state Department of Veterans Affairs put out a call for photos of the casualties of a previous war, Vietnam. It’s a dual purpose request: the state is trying to have one photo of every service member from Washington killed in that war, and the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in the other Washington has an ambitious expansion project to get at least one photo for each of the 58,272 names on The Wall.
There are 1,049 Washington names on The Wall, and state Veterans Affairs has photos of about half of them. (If you have a photo of a relative or friend from Washington state who died in Vietnam, check the newspaper’s online database to see if it’s one the state needs.)
Marking an anniversary of the start of the Vietnam War was always difficult. . .
. . . because America got sucked in like quicksand. Is it the arrival of the first U.S. military advisers in 1955, the first American casualties in 1959, the arrival of the special forces in 1961 or the Gulf of Tonkin attacks in 1964? Even marking the end is a problem. The cease fire after the Paris Peace Accords and return of prisoners of war in 1973 or the fall of Saigon in 1975?
Some people, including President Obama, say that Afghanistan is the nation’s longest war, but that math doesn’t really unless one only counts from the Gulf of Tonkin resolution to the signing of the peace accords. Otherwise, Vietnam is longer – not that anyone would consider that a record to be bested.
"The world of fighting wars seems to never end," said Jan Scruggs, who runs the foundation for The Wall in Washington, D.C., and is planning the Education Center.
Vietnam continues to stir great passions more than a third of a century since it ended. A generation ago, opposition to the war brought people into the streets, which brought other people who supported the war into the streets opposing the opposers.
Now a proposal to add a plaque near the state’s Vietnam Memorial is pitting one group of vets against another. The state planned to set three flag poles near the Capitol campus memorial, one each for the U.S. flag, the state flag and the POW-MIA flag.
While it doesn’t carry the overpowering gravitas of The Wall on the National Mall, the state memorial is still a somber place where people come to reflect and sometimes leave mementoes and messages to family or friends whose names are etched in the stone.
The state was considering a plaque to go in front of the flagpoles that mentioned the contributions of South Vietnamese soldiers. Some of those soldiers or their families moved to Washington rather than stay when the country was overrun by the North.
"We remember with gratitude the soldiers of the Republic of Vietnam and the United States who fought and died for freedom and democracy in Vietnam," it would say in English and Vietnamese.
The design was proposed after meetings between some state vets and some South Vietnamese vets that started more than a year ago. But other Washington vets balked. Not just no, but hell no, was the way Chuck Manley of Tumwater recently described his views to The Olympian. The department has put the project on hold while it tries to find a consensus between the two sides.
Full disclosure: I protested against that war and did everything I could not to go. When my draft number came up 292, meaning there was no way I’d be drafted, I went out and celebrated. So maybe I don’t have much standing to offer a suggestion. But I also lost family and friends in Vietnam, and have spent many hours interviewing Vietnam vets and writing stories about their struggles and victories. That includes some veterans from South Vietnam and Laos, who fought with and for the United States, and got hunted out of their homelands for it.
So my two cents, for what it’s worth, is this seems a bad fight to pick, particularly when one feature of the state memorial is a space in the wall that at first glance seems to be a crack, but on reflection is really the outline of Vietnam. It was their country; recognizing their service doesn’t seem to detract from anyone else’s and could help keep this from being a never-ending war.