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Remember the Dead – Remember all the dead

If you travel to Washington D.C., and you visit only one historic site, make it the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. A gentle scar in the park that surrounds it, the modest stone wall slowly emerges into view as you walk towards it. On the pathway by the wall, medals lie propped up, along with letters, teddy bears – mementos of loved ones who passed away in the hell that was the American War in Vietnam. And on their knees, head in hand, or on their toes, reaching up to touch a name carved on a high portion of the wall, middle-aged men bear witness to fallen friends – hair now white, mouths set in anger, eyes fixed with grief. It is a simple, powerful memorial to the 58,220 United States men and women who died in Indochina between 1965 and 1975.[1]

These veterans need to be remembered. They went through hell. But there is a screaming absence in that quiet park, an absence so big, so powerful, it makes your head hurt. The ground in Indochina was in fact soaked by the blood of tens of thousands of young citizens of the United States. But it was also soaked by the blood of millions of citizens of South Vietnam, North Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia. We need to remember the U.S. dead from that pointless war. But to really honour their memory, we need to remember all the dead. The point of remembrance is to learn from history. To do that we need all the history, no matter how horrible, no matter how painful, no matter how uncomfortable.

Think about it for a minute. The magnificent, moving Vietnam Veterans Memorial is 493 feet, 6 inches in length (150.42 metres), angling up from the ground to its highest point of 10 feet 3 inches (3.12 metres) at the very centre.[2] It has to be this massive so that every single one of the U.S. citizens who died in that war can have his or her name carved into the granite. But what if we made it just a bit bigger to incorporate those other citizens who died in that conflict?

Here are the names for which there would have to be found a spot on that granite wall.

Among the allies of the United States:

• 220,357 for The Republic of Vietnam (South Vietnam)
• 4,407 for the Republic of Korea (South Korea)
• 30,000 for Laotian Meo / Hmong
• 487 for Australia
• 351 for Thailand
• 37 for New Zealand

For these 255,639 allied souls, we would need to have four additional massive, smooth granite memorials.

But what of the “other side?” The truth is we don’t know. One estimate is that the number of dead soldiers from the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (North Vietnam) and the Viet Cong would total 1.1 million.[3] To record their names we would need 19 additional Vietnam Veterans walls.

But the story is not over. As in many modern wars, military casualties tell only part of the story. In war, after war, after war, the chief victim of the bullets, bombs and napalm, of the torture, rape and murder, are not men and women in uniform, but peasants, workers, housewives, children – otherwise known as civilians. We have no idea how many millions of these ordinary folk perished in the meat grinder of Vietnam. Only in 1995 did the government of Vietnam release its “official estimate of war dead: as many as two million civilians on both sides” being listed as war dead[4] – a horrifying total of four million.

To honour these dead – which we need to do to really remember that war, to remember all of it, not just part of it – we would need an additional 69 walls of granite on which their names could be inscribed.

But we are not done yet. There was also Laos; and Cambodia; and the First Indochinese War when the Vietnamese fought against terrible odds, and defeated the French colonialists. We are going to have find room for those additional millions, if we really want to remember, and properly honour, the huge experience that we call Vietnam.

The rage that grew inside U.S. society during the years of pointless slaughter in Vietnam, ultimately made it impossible for that war to continue. That rage continued after the war, and led to the construction of the magnificent granite monument which is the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.

But when some dead are remembered, and others forgotten – when some are made visible, and others are hidden from sight – there is a danger that we can over time forget the botched politics, the evil decisions, the corrupt elite who dragged us all into the quagmire that was Vietnam. Unless we remember all the dead – U.S. and Asian, white, black and yellow – we risk forgetting all the lessons we learned through such bitter experiences.

To remember – to really remember – is in itself an act of resistance.

(c) 2010 Paul Kellogg. This work is licensed under a CC BY 4.0 license.


[1] Anne Leland, Mari-Jana “M-J” Oboroceanu. “American War and Military Operations Casualties: Lists and Statistics.” 26 February, 2010: 3.
[2] “The Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall.” On “Beverly Vietnam Veterans, Inc. Post #1: 1st Lt. Stephen H. Doane Chapter.” Accessed 8 November, 2010.
[3] “Vietnam War Casualties.” Accessed 8 November, 2010.
[4] Ronald H. Spector. “Vietnam War.” Encyclopaedia Britannica. Accessed 8 November, 2010. Spector’s language is ambiguous, capable of being interpreted as 2 million total casualties on both sides. The actual estimate is 2 million dead in each of South and North Vietnam, for a total of 4 million. See Agence France Press. 4 April, 1995. Cited in “The Lancet Study” Obsidian Wings. October 2006.

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