Walls, Doors, and Names
Memorial Day in an unnerved America
In the late 1960s, in the Vietnam time, American children in classrooms sang “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.” Later, when they got outside, some of them sang a parody of it:
Glory, Glory, Hallelujah
Teacher hit me with a ruler.
Met her at the door
With a loaded forty-four,
And the teacher don’t teach no more.
One remembers it now with a chill of (so to speak) recollected premonition. Memories on this Memorial Day, 2022, are apt to be complicated, chastened—apprehensive. There’s too much going on, there are too many angers, there is too much unsettled in the country (politically, racially, every which way).
The chief legacy of the 1960s, everyone said, was the toppling of authority in America—political assassinations, the driving of presidents from office, the discrediting of parents, of all adults, of the universities, of the military (the military above all, for the soldiers were the ones who were said to be killing babies on the other side of the world). Why should elementary school teachers have been spared in the purge of authorities? The 1960s were the seedbed of our own culture wars, of great changes—of later miseries and heresies and psychoses. America got to be spelled with a K. The tremendous debunking commenced. It continues today.
During the 1980s, I became a close friend of a man named John P. Wheeler III, West Point ’66, whose class suffered the heaviest casualties of any in the history of the U.S. Military Academy. Jack Wheeler, who, after Vietnam, had gone on to Harvard Business School and Yale Law (he was a brilliant and neurotic overachiever), worked in both the Reagan and the George H. W. Bush White Houses. He came from a distinguished American military family. When I knew Jack, he was immersed, with a veteran named Jan Scruggs, in the effort to build the Vietnam Memorial in Washington. After many toils and snares, they succeeded. Jack championed the controversial design of Maya Lin—that complicated, beautiful elegy, the wall of polished black granite engraved with the names of 58,318 Americans killed in the war.
It was a hard-fought battle. Ross Perot, who got involved in the financing, hated the design—called it unpatriotic. Some said the memorial amounted to a “black gash of shame,” for, unlike almost all of Washington’s memorials, which are white and lustrous and numinous and heroic, the Vietnam Memorial, as everyone knows, sits below ground level, its down-ramp, its declivity, eerily reproducing, for all of us who remember the war, the precise unfolding of the great misadventure, the queasy devolution of American ambitions there. A visitor walks down the incline in the presence of those accumulating names of the dead (names that declare roots Anglo-Saxon, German, Irish, Hispanic, Italian, Hungarian, Polish, African-American, Slavic, Middle Eastern, on and on—the country itself, its DNA) engraved on reflective black stone that at the same time mirrors the sky overhead, the moving clouds. The immense catalog of names—the sheer record of the loss—becomes heartbreaking, almost suffocating: and yet there emerges, after a while, a sense of catharsis, of emotional purity, a grace note that reminds me of nothing so much as Walt Whitman’s elegy for Lincoln, “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloomed,” that most beautiful of memorial poems.
I visited the Vietnam memorial dozens of times with Jack, in all seasons; the experience was different in dead winter from what it was in spring or fall, for the reflected skies were different. It was always the same and always different. Always there would be the mementoes that people had left at the foot of the wall where the name of a husband or father or brother or son was engraved—flowers, cans of Budweiser, mysterious private tokens: talismans.
I thought that the work that Jack and Jan Scruggs did in getting the Vietnam wall organized and financed and built was heroic. For back then—years after the last American helicopters flapped out of Saigon in April 1975, ferrying the last stragglers out to aircraft carriers and then getting pushed into the South China Sea to make way for more incoming choppers—the American mood was either hostile or indifferent to Vietnam veterans. The war had been inglorious and immoral, and worse, it had been a failure. Who wanted to remember that?
Jack and I were close. I was a groomsman at his wedding in Los Angeles. Then we had a falling out and I lost track of him. He was intense and, sometimes, emotionally troubled. I was shocked, and as mystified as anyone, when, in dead winter, at the end of 2010, Jack’s body was found in a dumpster in Delaware. No one knew whether he had been murdered or . . . what. His death remains a mystery. He may have been mugged and deposited in the dumpster. Some concluded that he was killed for reasons connected to top secret work he had been doing for the military. Some thought he had had a psychotic episode and had somehow fatally injured himself—but if so, how had he wound up in a dumpster?
Now it is more than a decade later. The country seems to be running down tracks of alternative truths and speculations and downright hallucinations with no more certainty than we have about who or what killed Jack Wheeler—or why. All the tracks seem to be headed in the wrong direction, and our dealings with one another seem to be grievously corrupted—by politics, by simmering hysteria and fanaticism, by the violent thoughts and violent acts with which the American atmosphere is saturated. What will this summer bring?
This morning—for the first time in many years—I reread the Whitman poem for Abraham Lincoln. It seemed more beautiful than I remembered.
Comrades mine and I in the midst, and their memory ever to keep, for the dead I loved so well,
For the sweetest, wisest soul of all my days and lands—and this for his dear sake,
Lilac and star and bird twined with the chant of my soul,
There in the fragrant pines and the cedars dusk and dim.
Photos, left-right: Brandon Bell/Getty Images / iStock / Matt McClain/The Washington Post via Getty Images
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