Letter to the American Dead of the Vietnam War


Greg Laxer

Veterans For Peace, an organization of which I’ve been a member since 2013, has called for veterans (as well as civilians) affected by the Vietnam War to write a letter to the American war dead for this Memorial Day.  This letter-writing effort is part of a campaign to counter the Pentagon’s effort to paint the Vietnam War in a “noble” light.  The letters will be hand-delivered to the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington, DC on May 25th.  This is my contribution.

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To Those Whose Names Are Here Memorialized:

You came from small towns and big cities; you came from different socio-economic backgrounds (though tilted, of course, toward the lower end of the income spectrum); you came from different ethnic and religious heritages.

Some of you enlisted enthusiastically, believing you were saving “The Free World” from a communist menace; many of you, like myself, enlisted in order to “beat the draft”; but undoubtedly the majority of you were conscripted: “Take this rifle, son, or…meet your cellmates for the next few years in this Federal Penitentiary.” A few of you were women, serving in a medical or perhaps clerical setting. Death, the Great Leveler, has here united you all.

But Death is not the only thing that binds you together. You were all victims of a national sickness, a belief that the United States of America has a God-given mandate to rule the entire globe, to its own economic benefit. You were all victims of a chain of monstrous lies which led to your deployment to a strange land that most Americans didn’t know existed prior to the 1960s. The first of these was the fiction that there was a separate, sovereign nation called “The Republic of South Vietnam” that needed you to defend it against “aggression from the north.” Democrat, Republican, it mattered not: our national leaders lied to us again and again and perpetuated one of the most criminal wars of modern times. Not a single one of you should have been deployed to Vietnam in the first place. Not a single one! And thus, as surely as the uncounted millions of inhabitants of the region killed by US weaponry, each and every one of you is a victim of US military aggression. And no one in the leadership of the war machinery, at any level, has ever been prosecuted for their roles in this criminal undertaking. Not a single solitary one.

If resurrected from the realm of the dead you could be, what would you make of the state of the world today? Sure, the advances in technology would wow you at first. Such wizardry! Hey, what became of the USSR? And is that a black man in the White House?!? That would be a shocker, no doubt. But after examining what is recent history for us in this present era, I hope you would be alarmed and ultimately outraged that American troops are still deployed all over the world in the effort to maintain economic hegemony, and that they kill and occasionally get killed or maimed…for what, exactly? To “defend freedom”? While our own dwindling freedom here at home is in mortal peril of being extinguished, in the name of “our own protection”! While the streets of our cities and towns are patrolled by cops wearing full combat gear, generously donated by the Pentagon. And that very Pentagon is spending millions of taxpayer dollars on a campaign to persuade the generations following ours that the war that took your lives was far, far from the monstrous crime that it was. I hope you would be sufficiently appalled that the USA learned not a damned thing from its defeat in Vietnam that you would be moved to actively resist current government policies. But that is a struggle we, the still living, will have to pursue. Continue to rest in peace, brothers and sisters. Your fighting days are over.


Spec. 4, Medic, US Army May 1967-July 1971

Greg Laxer is a lifelong peace activist who served time in military prisons for opposing the War against Viet Nam from within the Army.

12 thoughts on “Letter to the American Dead of the Vietnam War

  1. I’ve visited a lot of war memorials, both in the USA and in England. Just about every English village I walked through had a monument to the dead in the “Great War” or “World War,” i.e. WW1, with more names often added at the bottom for World War II. Lots of cities and towns in the USA have a monument, often a large one, to the dead of the U.S. Civil War. And most of these monuments are very straightforward, featuring a soldier or figure of victory or consolation.

    But the most moving, most powerful, monument I’ve ever visited is the Vietnam War Memorial in DC. I was serving in the military at the time, and when I came to The Wall, and all those names, I just felt a rush of sadness and grief. I choked up — What a waste, I thought. So many young lives snuffed out before their time.

    When will the madness of war end?

    • Moving statements, but for me, there another matter that historians ought to address. The matter: how so many wars generate the grievances that lead to subsequent wars. ‘Making peace’ ought to be studied as throughly as making war.
      As a tentative answer to your question I’ll quote George Marshall, as I often do: “If man does find the solution for world peace it will be the most revolutionary reversal of his record we have ever known.”

      • Yes, I agree. Much more effort has been dedicated to how to win wars (strategy, tactics, weaponry, leadership, etc.) than how to win (and keep) the peace. The natural tendency for a country that wins a war is to pursue a vindictive peace. Naturally, the loser vows revenge. And so the wars continue, generation after generation.

      • And of course Congressman (now retired) Dennis Kucinich could gain no traction whatever when he proposed that the US government needs a new branch, to be called the Department of Peace. Greeted by a wall of silence was he, except for those who snickered aloud at the notion.

  2. Greg…Thank you for a thoughtful and beatiflully crafted statement. Young men fight the wars to cover the grievous errors of the old and rich men who send them off to die. I was once proud of my service in WW II but now feel that our victory in what was a necessary defensive effort has been used by those in power to justify their fascistic domestic and international goals of aggrandisement.

  3. “So, thank you. I know you share this wonderful feeling that I have of joy in my heart. But it is overwhelmed by the gratitude I feel — not just to the troops overseas but to those who have assisted the United States of America, like our Secretary of Defense, like our Chairman of our Joint Chiefs, and so many other unsung heroes who have made all this possible. It’s a proud day for America. And, by God, we’ve kicked the Vietnam syndrome once and for all.” — U.S. President George H. W. Bush in remarks made to the American Legislative Exchange Council (March 1, 1991)

    Just think of it, my fellow Vietnam Veterans, living and dead. The lesson that you fought, suffered, and died to teach your fellow countrymen: namely, Don’t Ever Do This Again, has now become — after the industrialized, cakewalk slaughter of Iraq’s pitifully over-matched conscript army — not timeless wisdom, but the symptom of a sickness. So, in rueful solidarity with you, my fellow sicko veterans, I offer a few thoughts in verse:

    Syndromes of Wisdom

    “You must not invade Mother Russia,” it’s said
    In the vast, bitter wintertime cold
    Napoleon, though, thought he’d figured a way
    So did Hitler, or so we are told.

    “Do not get bogged down in an Asian land war,”
    So they once taught cadets at West Point
    Not that France or America listened, of course
    Till their noses got wrenched out of joint

    “Do not spit to windward,” the sailors will say
    Or you’ll get the snot back in your face
    Still the landlubbers scorn these instructions so wise
    Which accounts for their loss with no trace

    “Do not use a puppet to run your affairs”
    If you don’t know the nature of string
    With two ends, you know, it can pull either way
    As the bad puppet chorus will sing

    As they train the young dogs not to shit where they live
    And the cats not to pee on the rug
    So America ought not to jump in the hole
    That it has only recently dug

    Latrines have their uses, but swimming ain’t one
    Not unless you like stinking and slimed
    So America ought not to dive in the ditch
    Out of which it has only just climbed

    We haven’t yet found our way out of this mess
    Still, before any learning can start
    All the ones who so brazenly lit the last fuse
    Seem to fear that we might lose the art

    They’ve gone back again to the tried and the trite
    Seeking slogans to mask their retreat
    In a panic that soon we won’t do this again
    “Isolationist!” now they repeat

    In the land of the blind rules a king with one eye
    Whose perspective is greatly obscured
    Like the fabulous realm of the learning impaired
    Where the people know only one word

    The sunken investments run deep, far, and wide
    And to give them up now would be bad
    Never mind all those kids with the lost legs and arms
    We must not make the stockholders sad

    The headstones grow grim in the grass ‘round their graves
    As the rows of their ranks slowly fill
    While the numbers and dates tell a story of lives
    Ended short, not for good but for ill

    What remains of their bodies lies buried away
    While their souls through eternity fall
    Leaving only their memories fading in friends
    And their names on a black-granite wall

    They bang the drum slowly; they play the horn sad
    They preach and console and reprise
    Their denials that youth really dies for the old
    While the story the statesmen revise

    Now furious fear flings more sand in the face
    As the trial balloons litter the sky
    Once again it’s a “syndrome” to think of the waste,
    To remember, and understand why

    What kind of a people would coin a cliché
    Using “syndrome” to lie and appease
    All to cover a wish to make wisdom passé
    Just a symptom of one more disease?

    Michael Murry, “The Misfortune Teller,” Copyright © 2005

  4. You may not be interested in war, but war is interested in you. – Leon Trotsky

    (While I was looking up that Trotsky quote about war to make sure I got it right [I had long forgotten this, until the early ’90’s when I came across it again in the first of Alan Furst’s excellent novels], I noticed two others by him that stand out to me right now):

    Tell me anyway — maybe I can find the truth by comparing the lies.

    Our planet is being turned into a filthy and evil smelling imperialist barrack.

  5. A comment by b. traven.
    Myron (Mike) Swack and I were raised in a Jewish orphan home. Mike was a year younger than I. I volunteered for the U.S. Army Air Corps cadet program and was accepted in early 1943. Mike volunteered for the army shortly after me but he was only 17 years old.

    While I was still in training in late 1944 Mike was sent into the Battle of the Bulge as an infantry replacement. His squad was surrounded in their foxholes in that ferocious winter battle. His squad was murdered when they tried to surrender to the Germans in the story he told after the war.

    His “dog tags” told the Germans that he was a Jew and they sent him to a concentration camp rather than POW camp as mandated by the Geneva Convention governing the treatment of POWs. In the camp he was tortured and only escaped as the Allied armies swept into Germany.

    Just before his death a few years ago, Mike wrote this poem. He wanted to tell those who have never experienced war about its horrifying nature. I miss Mike and I miss those of my generation who understood the horrors of war and who, like Mike, “just wanted to go home.”

    By Myron Swack, Ph.D.
    106th Division, Bulge/Berga Survivor

    I am sad on every Veteran’s Day.
    I remember the horror of war,
    I remember being on the front line.
    It was the coldest winter in the Ardennes
    Mountains in 1944-45.
    I remember the high casualty rate.
    War is an ugly, ugly scene.
    It begins ugly and it gets worse.
    I remember losing my closest friends
    And seeing their bodies.
    I remember how hungry I was and
    How cold my feet were.
    I remember being captured by the Germans.
    I remember being taken by cattle car to prison camp.
    I remember the hell of being a prisoner.
    I remember escaping and sneaking through
    Germany back to the American lines.
    I remember the ambulance and the hospital.

  6. I am very well read in Trotsky. His achievement may be unique in (modern, surely) history: with no military background himself, he was tasked with creating virtually from scratch a Red Army (and Navy). This organization successfully defended the young Soviet Union against the marauding forces of some 19 capitalist nations and internal enemies during the Civil War. Stalin’s rise to control brought changes, like expansion of privileges for commissioned officers and a more hardened bureaucratic structure, but this military nevertheless halted Hitler’s army in its tracks and chased it all the way back to Berlin. Trotsky was also a brilliant writer.

    All that being said, I mean to argue that “War” should not be treated as an inevitable result of human activity or some phenomenon of independent, eternal existence that dwells outside the realm of humans (the way the concept of “Evil” is sometimes treated). War was a terribly costly and painful necessity for the people of Vietnam. The alternative would have meant continuing to be treated as inferior beings on their own soil by colonial powers. Their war was a just one. Not so for the US invaders, regardless of the reluctance of many of those troops to be thrust into the situation. Allow me to repeat what I have stated previously in this forum: the US has not undertaken a military operation in my lifetime (i.e. post-World War II) that I can deem just.

    Returning to Trotsky: from his exile in Mexico he observed Europe marching inexorably toward World War II (for those not aware, Trotsky was assassinated in Mexico in 1940). He turned his gaze north and noted that the United States was the pre-eminent industrial, and potentially military, power on Earth. He made bold to declare nothing less than that the future of Humanity would be forged in the oven of the class struggle in the US. That is, if the working class could seize control of this productive might it could wield it in the interest of all, and a much better world would come into being. As we know, reality proved quite the opposite, as militant trade union leaders were tarred with the brush of “communist agents” after our World War II ally, the USSR, was utterly demonized. The American masses, with rare exception, swallowed this propaganda hook, line and sinker. And just look at the state of the world today! Trotsky did not mince words and he wasn’t afraid of ridicule. He declared that the future of Humankind, failing a successful rise to power of the working class, might entail a backsliding into barbarism. Barbarism. Ponder that for a while, folks.

    • The window of opportunity for workers in America Trotsky refers to is permanently closed, I think, for too many reasons to try to list here. Perhaps at some point humans will evolve to live sustainably and harmoniously, hopes the optimist in me.

      Presently, though, this Emerson observation remains accurate: “I hate this shallow Americanism which hopes to get rich by credit, to get knowledge by raps on midnight tables, to learn the economy of the mind by phrenology, or skill without study, or mastery without apprenticeship” (Self-Reliance).

      • And for that matter cheap grace. Whatever grace is or should be, it’s not granted cheaply.

  7. Pingback: Greg Laxer: Letter to the American Dead of the Vietnam War | Vox Populi

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