America has always been different from other nations in the fact that we are not united via a similar racial identity but rather through a universal acknowledgement of certain irreversible truths and inalienable rights. We are a nation of a multitude of races, but one single idea. It is what makes us truly exceptional. Because of this, our citizens have historically been averse to warfare and have long cried for a policy of isolationism. It is truly a strange irony that a people that is united by such strong beliefs would long so much to be left alone by the troubles of the world.
It is for this very reason that we drape ourselves and our national conflicts in the trappings of liberating oppressed peoples, yearning to be free, from the clutches of tyranny. It is a psychological and societal need that we do so, lest we face the monstrosities of warfare itself. It is this need that we must use to summon the strength needed to venture into the maelstrom that is international warfare. We create symbols: heroes and villains, angels and demons. Traditionally, this has been easy. The Spanish-American War had the cruel, imperialist Spanish. World War I had the power-hungry Germans. World War II had the Nazis and the Japanese. Our enemies were clear-cut; the world was black and white. Lines were drawn in the sand and we knew exactly where we stood.
But things changed drastically during Vietnam. The lines between non-combatants and soldiers became blurred, the reasons for fighting were never quite clear beyond some lip service paid to fighting Communism, and the American people were confronted with the true horrors of combat in near real time and soon grew a distaste for war. This left the men and women fighting deep in the jungles of Vietnam with little to call theirs beyond the physical and emotional scars inherit to men who have tasted battle. They came home — their spirits and bodies broken — to a public who not only did not understand them and their sacrifices but hated them for answering the call to duty. This left many of the returning veterans in a strange purgatory; searching for a symbol to rally around, to help ease the pain of their sacrifices, and to help bring closure. This symbol finally came with the placing of the Vietnam War Memorial on the National Mall.
Finally there was a means with which to put the cost of the war into real, concrete form; a large gash on the nation’s face. The names carved into its obsidian face placing the conflict in human terms. The polished stone acting almost as a mirror, allowing the viewer to peer deep into the abyss and come to terms with whatever demons that his memory may be harboring. It is a striking thing.
Living near Washington, DC, as I do, I’m fortunate to be able to travel to the National Mall when the mood suits me. The Vietnam War Memorial is hard to miss and it is very near the other attractions. It was over this past weekend that I decided to venture into our Nation’s capital for to take in the various Smithsonian museums that line the grassy fields of the Mall. As I walked through an exhibit at the American History Museum chronicling the story of the American Fighting Man, I was brought nearly to tears by the pieces from the Vietnam War and the Memorial. I was so disturbed that I quickly moved on; and rounded the corner to be instantly confronted by the grotesque hulk of a twisted girder from the World Trade Center.
My friend (a fellow VMI Alumnus) and I quickly fell into a reverent silence; our minds transporting us instantly to that day in September. The memories of awakening to the news that a plane had collided the World Trade Center that morning, and then turning on the television just in time to watch the second plane impact the other tower in an explosion of fire, flame, and glass. I remembered being entranced by the news reports the rest of the morning as I sat in a classroom in sunny, Southern California while my countrymen rose to the occasion on the East Coast. I remembered the emotions, the anger, the rage that boiled within me that day and still does. I remember hearing, for the first time, the clarion bugle of Duty singing my name. And I was not alone. My friend felt the same thing, as did the other Americans in the gallery who had been old enough to understand the events of that day.
And that was historical. It was a turning point in our history. We soon became embroiled in two wars that seem to lose their meaning as the day drag on, fighting for peoples who do not want our help, and shedding American blood while civilians back home protest the supposed evils of the American soldier. But, as I talk to my Brother Rats, fellow VMI Alumni, soldier, sailors, airmen, Marines, coast guardsmen, and other fellow proud Americans, the more and more clearly that those two towers will be my generation’s rallying flag. They are our symbol.