The wall stands there, polished black with the names of the fallen carved like wounds into the surface of the stone.
It’s a beautiful day in the nation’s capital as a somber line of people moves past the Vietnam War Memorial. Their eyes search the wall for a familiar name – or just take in the totality of the tragedy, the lost lives building to an apex in the center and then trailing off to grief at the end.
I’m here with a small crew to report and shoot an unrelated video program. A small break in the schedule allows us to do some sightseeing.
Two of the people with me are my students. Both were born 20 years after the end of the Vietnam War. For them, those tumultuous days seem almost as remote as the time occupied by the Great Emancipator who broods, in statue form, from the Lincoln Memorial a short distance away.
That, of course, is the nature of time. No matter how crowded our hours and days, we all are drawn back into the past, where our joys and struggles become quiet, settled questions that seem foreordained in retrospect.
We all become history, whether we want to or not.
For some, though, the past remains a living presence, not just words on a page or lives carved into a wall.
A small group of people walks in slow, searching steps beside the wall. Two women in late middle-age lead an older man and woman as they look for a name.
They find it.
The two middle-aged women run their hands over the letters of the name.
The older man asks them to pose for a photo. The women turn toward the camera, their fingers still touching the name on the wall.
One of them, the woman on the right, has tears running down her cheeks. The other stares out into space, her eyes focused on a distant moment.
Both women are just a little older than I am. As I watch them, I cannot help but wonder – are the tears and the mourning for a brother?
A cousin, a classmate or a friend?
When we Americans tally up the costs of war, we most often focus on the absences the carnage creates. We think of children who miss their fathers and mothers, of husbands and wives who have lost their spouses, of siblings who venture into life without a brother or a sister, of parents who see their children die before they themselves pass on.
These are quantifiable losses, easy to measure, but they do not reflect the full damage done by war.
As the two women now stand, heads bowed in prayer, before the name on the wall, I find myself pondering whether the young man they mourn ever had a chance to know love, to marry, to have children.
How do we account not just for his loss, but also all that might have flowed from the extra 50 or 60 years he might have spent on this earth? How do we measure the children he didn’t have, the grandchildren they didn’t have and the lines of descendents stopped before they could begin? How do we place a value on the hopes and the love he carried to the grave with him?
The answer is: We don’t, because we can’t.
That’s yet another horror of war. In the end, we can’t even calculate how much we’ve lost to the killing.
My students ask me about the war in Vietnam. I fumble the answer, my attention divided between the two women standing at the wall and memories from my youth when older kids from my working-class neighborhood and a favorite counselor at a summer camp went away to fight, some never to come back.
We move on toward another national monument.
As we do, I look back over my shoulder at the two women.
They still stand at the wall, their fingers tracing the letters carved in the polished rock as if somehow that would allow them to touch all the unlived presents and futures etched in the stone.
John Krull is director of Franklin College’s Pulliam School of Journalism, host of “No Limits” WFYI 90.1 Indianapolis and publisher of TheStatehouseFile.com, a news service powered by Franklin College journalism students.