A war seen clearer through time


This year, Americans will celebrate the 93rd anniversary of Veterans Day. Armistice Day, as it was originally called, was set aside to honor veterans of World War I, but after the great mobilization of soldiers, sailors, Marines and airmen during World War II, and Korea, Congress amended the official remembrance by striking the word “armistice” and inserting “veterans.” With this new legislation, Nov. 11 became a day to honor American veterans of all wars.

I am old enough to remember a time when Veterans Day was barely acknowledged. Our then-President Jimmy Carter described America as struggling through “a malaise” where heroes and patriotism were but a faded memory.

But morning dawned in America and with it a new presidency restoring hope and faith for its citizens. In the years that followed, successive actions in Grenada, Lebanon, Bosnia, Kuwait, Iraq and Afghanistan have served to elevate our fighting men and women back to the proud pedestal once held when their fathers fought “The Good War,” but it wasn’t always that way.

From the end of the Korean Conflict until President John F. Kennedy began his deployment of “military advisers” to Vietnam in 1961, the United States generally steered clear of the many local and regional squabbles around the globe.

While our involvement in Vietnam actually began as assistance to the French in the fall of 1932, it would decades later virtually destroy that nation, and eternally fracture our own.

The war in Vietnam, unlike almost every conflict this nation had seen before, was an action whose goals were essentially political. At risk was not our independence, our boarders, our union, or even freedom itself; it was our government’s desire to restrain the growth and expansion of a rival form of government called Communism.

With war aims as insipid as those, it is in hindsight no wonder the conflict left us holding our first military defeat, and nursing a deeply divided country back from the brink of social anarchy.

It is discomforting to look back at just how many in this nation vented their anger and disdain not only on those in power, but on the young men who in their loyalty and service to this country were all but powerless to object to their participation.

Five difficult years had passed from the last helicopter leaving Saigon until the inauguration of Ronald Reagan as president.

It took nearly as long as the war itself, but America was again ready to restore its faith and confidence in those who fill the boots that protect it.

There was perhaps no greater mea culpa than when some half a million Americans lined Broadway in lower Manhattan on May 7, 1985, as our veterans of Vietnam proudly marched the parade path.

That year, President Reagan accepted on behalf of a grateful nation the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C. Carved in its stones is the story of America; a continuing quest to preserve democracy and decency.

There are 58,267 names now listed on that polished black wall, including those added in 2010. The names are arranged and alphabetized in the order in which they were taken from us.

It is hard to believe 38 years have passed since the last casualty. The first was Richard Fitzgibbon Jr. of North Weymouth, Mass., listed by the U.S. Department of Defense as having been killed on June 8, 1956. His name is listed on the wall with that of his son, Marine Lance Cpl.

Richard Fitzgibbon III, who was killed on Sept.

7, 1965.

The last American killed in the Vietnam war was Kelton Turner, an 18-year old Marine, killed in action on May 15, 1975.

There are three sets of fathers and sons on the wall; 39,996 were 22 years old or younger, with 12 of those only 17 years of age.

One, Pfc. Dan Bullock, was just 15 when he was lost in battle; 997 soldiers were killed on their first day in Vietnam, 1,448 soldiers were killed on their last day, and 31 sets of brothers who will forever be together on that cold wall of stone.

Eight women are named, killed while nursing the wounded; 244 soldiers were awarded the Medal of Honor during the Vietnam War and 153 of those individuals are on the wall. The month of May 1968 saw 2,415 souls lost. The most deaths for a single day occurred on Jan. 31, 1968, with 245.

For most who read this, the numbers tell only part of the story. To those of my generation who survived the war, and to the families of those who did not, we still see the faces and feel the pain these numbers represent. They were our friends, fathers, husbands and sons.

While our soldiers were still under fire, this nation became deeply divided as to the wisdom of the Vietnam War. Yet after witnessing a decade of desperate boat people and the killing fields of Cambodia, who can doubt that the cause for which our boys fought was just. Through the hindsight of historical analysis it was, after all, the cause of freedom, just imperfectly pursued.

This Veterans Day, take a moment to embrace the quiet heroes of Vietnam, as well as of all our wars. Remember those who were called upon to give their last full measure of devotion for our country, and honor those who returned. We must never forget the dedication and gallantry through which our veterans ennoble this nation. Our country is safe today because brave men and women continue to face the fire at freedom’s door, allowing us and our children to live in peace. Martin Mabe is a resident of Manalapan.