How to remember

Thirty years ago today, the U.S. dedicated perhaps the most appropriate war memorial ever designed:

Near the end of a weeklong national salute to Americans who served in the Vietnam War, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial is dedicated in Washington after a march to its site by thousands of veterans of the conflict. The long-awaited memorial was a simple V-shaped black-granite wall inscribed with the names of the 57,939 Americans who died in the conflict, arranged in order of death, not rank, as was common in other memorials.

No rousing quotations or defense of causes… just the names of all those whose lives were tragically cut short.  Perhaps no monument has so simply but powerfully captured the human cost of war.

But if the purpose of a monument is for a people to remember, perhaps we’ve missed the point.  Such a site should cause us not just to remember the people whose names are now engraved on that polished surface.  We should also remember the many failures that produced the circumstances that put them there. 

We are fortunate, over a decade after entering Afghanistan, then Iraq, that our nation’s losses are but a fraction of what they were in Vietnam.  Thirty years of medical advancements have greatly improved the odds for those wounded in combat.  But we’ve lacked similar advancement in our ability to formulate and implement sound and coherent national policy.  In that sense our monuments have failed, because we don’t remember what we learned through such painful experience.  And so the remedial lessons continue…

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