For many of us, Veterans Day has come and gone. That was, let’s see, Monday, right? Working parents knew if their kids were out of school, and others missed getting the mail, but whatever the inconvenience, the day was just that–a day. Even among those few who attended the commemoration ceremonies, the time spent there will have been brief. And so it is that a well-intentioned civic ritual perpetuates a lie. For those who grieve, there is no Veterans Day. To understand this painful truth, we need look no farther than this photograph:
The caption read, “Terry Giannoni (right) found names of friends of the wall of dead at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Plaza in Chicago on Sunday.” (The official day of commemoration was Sunday, November 11, with Monday the 12th becoming the federal holiday.) I’m not sure which is more revealing, the simple statement that he found “the names of friends” or the heavy sadness in his grim expression and hunched, protective posture. Those soldiers have been dead for over thirty years, and yet they are still remembered as friends. Their deaths still weigh down the heart. Those who once were laughter and good times and the simple pleasure of being together, have lingered long after as loss, regret, and who knows what other difficult emotions. And if friends still grieve, imagine how parents and lovers have suffered. War never lasts a day; it lasts forever.
The photograph is eloquent because of how it draws together simple things to reveal the truth of war’s continuing harmfulness. This is a local memorial with ordinary people–no national site, color guard, or officials–and so the emotional tone is honest and direct. Those feelings are the more deeply sensed for not being highly expressive, and that mute recognition is reflected in the simple decor and design of the memorial. The numbing isolation of grief is communicated by the distances between the two men in the picture and between Giannoni and the panel of names, while the black/white divide on the wall reminds us of the terrible finality of death.
There is one more thing: the way that time saturates the image. Giannoni’s grey/white hair and craggy features mark the years since the Vietnam War. The man in the left rear reinforces this passage: long hair now comes with a bald spot, and the blue jeans and jacket now are worn on a middle-aged body. On the panel behind them we can see two dates: 1969 and 1970. These were the first two years of the Nixon administration, the first two years of the “secret plan” to bring us “peace with honor,” a plan that brought an additional 20,000+ American deaths and somewhere around a million Vietnamese deaths to secure disengagement on terms very similar to those available in 1968. Time was not on anyone’s side in Vietnam. Since then, it has carried grief and anger relentlessly through the years.
Photograph by Chuck Berman/Chicago Tribune.