Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Prisoners of War

I don't know anyone who would say that war is ever "good," though there are plenty who think certain wars are "just" or "necessary," or some other word like that. I'm not completely convinced that it's ever worth its horrors. Maybe, who knows? You tell me.

What I do know is that we humans are war-like. We're not the only aggressive species on earth, though our opposable thumbs make possible some truly hideous creations - sophisticated and deadly weapons, for instance. As bad as the shooting and killing (at least in my imagination) is the habit of imprisoning people we see as a threat, whether they are enemy soldiers, Jews, Japanese-Americans, or alleged members of Al-Quaeda. Criminal imprisonment is bad enough, but what we do to prisoners of war is beyond my comprehension.

The stories of the POW's taken during the Vietnam War are particularly awful. There's still a huge government searchable database for families and beloveds of the American soldiers who disappeared without a trace, at least 45 years ago, into the camps in N. Vietnam. After all this time, the MIA's are still lost; people are trying to track them down. The prisoners who came back from that experience were never the same - I'm thinking right now about ex presidential candidate John McCain. Because of the torture he endured, he can't raise his hands above waist-level. Unimaginable.

I'm puzzled by the quotation marks on this sign. Are they trying to convey that staying on the sidewalk isn't "really" honoring those who served but is just a rule they want to guilt you into obeying? Someone please explain?

I came of age during the time of the huge American protests against the Vietnam war, so I remember a lot about it. I remember a friend's older brother who served twice. The first time he went because he was drafted. The second time he went voluntarily because the drugs were so good over there. Within a year after he came back from his second tour of duty, he committed suicide. His story, sadly, is typical. People of my age can tell you countless stories about the sickness of that war. It left us so heartsick, it really did.

In general I have avoided the Vietnam Memorial here in DC, probably because of my memories from the 60's. It's a beautiful sculpture: elegant, powerful, wrenching. That memorial does everything a war memorial "should" do. But every time I visited it (in the past), I always felt like I was being boiled, even in the dead of winter. It felt toxic, harmful, viciously haunted, so I stayed away for the most part.

Yesterday I spent about an hour there, walking back and forth, listening to music on my ipod (mostly so as to avoid overhearing tourist talk - no offense to tourists but those conversations never enhance my experience), dancing around as I do when I'm trying to understand the energy of a place. I've never lingered so long at Maya Lin's wall.

I don't quite have the right language to describe what was happening there yesterday but I can say for certain that it was different than anything I've felt in the past. The walls of the memorial, so shiny and unusually reflective, seemed somehow porous, more like mesh screens than solid rock. Watching people touch the black granite, I half expected to see their hands go right through to another dimension.

Maybe it was the joyousness of the inaugural concert (it took place at that end of the National Mall) that shifted the energy. I felt even that day that the music was bringing a powerful healing to all those awful memorials down there (the Korean War, Vietnam War and the Lincoln).

Yesterday it felt like an exchange was taking place, a soul swap of some kind. The thought in my mind while I danced (mindful that the Park Police were keeping a close eye on my shamanic twirling) was that souls of soldiers from both sides of the conflict have been stuck, like POW's, in a hideous post-life limbo, a prison camp for the dead. Yesterday I sensed that those stuck souls were finally crossing back and forth through the mesh screens of black granite and etched names, guided by Vietnamese ancestors. It felt distinctly like those souls were finally going home.

Could it be true that the stuckness of the Vietnam War is coming unstuck at last? I'm just guessing of course. I wonder, am I the only person feeling this? If so no doubt what I'm experiencing is something in me that's coming unstuck. Felt bigger than that, though. Who knows? Below is a "walking tour" of the memorial. Take a stroll through, will you, and tell me what you feel? Thanks.

"I saw the Vietnam Veterans Memorial not as an object placed into the earth but as a cut in the earth that has then been polished, like a geode." --Maya Lin


ellen abbott said...

I think that war put a gash through this country. It disillusioned the generation that suffered it, created the culture war we have been fighting ever since. I hope, maybe I feel, that this new administration, a generation unaffected by this tragedy can heal that rift.

So many died, their spirits caught here by the continued heated passions from that time. And the ones who came back...spiritless. Our own good friend would not talk about it. He self medicated with drugs until the day he ODed.

So pointless.

Reya Mellicker said...

Ellen that's such a sad story. So many sad stories from that war, so many.

sciencegirl said...

I agree it's appalling how prisoners of war have often been treated. But you say that internment is worse than killing. But would it have been preferable to kill those soldiers outright? (and our interning Japanese-Americans was worse than shooting them??) Perhaps in some cases such as those you cited it might be, but it must be that the large majority of those to eventually be released were glad to be alive, however physically and psychically damaged.

I'm with you - it's war itself that has to go. But given that we still have war, treating prisoners properly is an essential step forward.

Beautiful tour of the Vietnam Memorial. I hope we all take it into our hearts and learn.

Reya Mellicker said...

Did I say killing was better? If so, I didn't mean that! Yikes. I was trying to articulate my sense of horror at the idea of prolonged suffering. None of it is good, none of it!

John Hayes said...

Thanks for this post--I worry very much that the endless war in the Middle East is producing a new generation with similar psychic wounds & scars. I never visited the memorial-- I think it was erected after I left Virginia(?), so I don't have first-hand experience of the place to draw on. I hope there is a healing of that time.

sciencegirl said...

It's in the second paragraph.

And I do understand that the post is really about what you say later, but I was so stunned...

R.L. Bourges said...

War experiences damage everyone's psyche - the immediate victims in the most obvious ways, but also their relatives, kin, friends, neighbors, in ever-widening ripple effects of trauma and denial.

But I also think every individual healing and 'letting go' of painful memories serves to heal the collective damage, lightening the burden of grief and suffering, and increasing the ability to learn from the past, instead of repeating it.

I guess that's the most useful purpose served by memorials like this one where people can congregate and express their respect and their thanks as they best see fit.

Gorgeous photos and text, Reya.

Reya Mellicker said...

R.L. as often happens, I agree with you completely. All healing, even of the most minor variety, brings greater possibilities of healing for everyone. Or ... is that what you said?

Science Girl - heading to paragraph two to fix that. Thanks.

willow said...

Beautiful, beautiful post and slide show. Thank you, Reya. Interesting thoughts of the spirits being freed. I hope so.

A former owner of WM, a troubled VN vet, committed suicide here as a result, leaving a young family. Yes, so pointless and so sad.

Joanne said...

I've never been to the memorial, but pictures alone seem so powerful, so evocative. I'd imagine the sentiment around it might be cyclical at times, depending on the mood of the nation?

Reya Mellicker said...

Joanne that's interesting - the mood of the nation - yes. After I re-read what I wrote this morning, it occurred to me that we elected a president born after the Vietnam generation. We could have elected a POW, but we didn't. Even that seems like a choice to let go.

Tessa said...

Thank you so much for sharing with us the story of your experience at the memorial, Reya. Your word imagery is vital and oh so vivid.

I wonder that had you not been listening to your iPod, you may have heard bird song above the clamour of the tourists?

I went to Verdun a while ago - not because I wanted to, but because my husband did. I saw the rows and rows and rows of white crosses..and listened to the total stillness of it all. But as I turned away, I heard a bird call, flute sweet and long. It made my heart leap and it was then that I felt a soaring sense of freedom. I wonder if those long gone soldiers felt it too?

lakeviewer said...

I love the photo-stream to accompany your story. I have not been to Washington lately, and if I returned I'd want to see this piece too. The Vietnam War is a big canyon in our history, still untraversed by us as a nation. I'm afraid the Iraq War might end up in the same way too, for our soldiers feel abandoned and frustrated. Thank you for keeping the narrative focused. Thank you for 'reporting' from D.C. Thank you for being the voice of common decent folks in a mad world. And thank you for your generous visits to my site.

Meri Arnett-Kremian said...

The photostream was interesting on a number of levels. I couldn't feel the soul swap you felt, probably because the photos didn't hold the energy well. What I did notice is that other than the ceremonial wreath, there was nothing at the base. When "The Wall" was relatively new, people would leave things: birth announcements, photos, little trinkets as love offerings. Those things were catalogued and boxed. I've not visited it for more than 20 years, but never had the feeling of being boiled you described, possibly because the people leaving offerings had left love there, too. I just felt weighed down with sorrow in every cell of my body. And felt this (the ending bit of a poem I wrote after a Veteran's Day visit to the Wall 20+ years ago):

The wall wails its names relentlessly,
hoping against hope the sounds float not into the void,
but into the ears of
pilgrims of peace
that they will heed the message
embedded in the funeral dirge,
that they will undo the deafness.

Reya Mellicker said...

"Boiled" or "heavy in every cell" - I think we're describing the same thing, with different words, Meri. What a beautiful poem. I expect that on Memorial Day there will be a lot more offerings left there.

Lakeviewer you are welcome! I love catching up with you, too, and always love reading your comments around the blog sphere. Would love to take a walk through the memorial with you. That would be so interesting.

Tessa I've read a lot about the WW's (both of them) and would actually love to have been with you at Verdun. next time I go see the Vietnam Memorial, I'll take off the ipod and listen, I promise!

Gregor said...

I'm from Ukraine and I have the same view on Vietnam War. But here, on after Soviet Space, when so many secrets are declassified and published, the most honorable day is "Den Pobedy" (V-Day). We celebrate it on 9 May.
Everybody loves homeland and perhaps sense of patriotism. But
I want you to know, that Military loss USSR in the Great Patriotic War amounted to 8 million 644 000.
Civilians were killed 27-28 million...
It means that there were no family who didn't lost anybody.
We paid a hight price.
But the people stood up. Soviet won the war with most expensive weapons in the world-by human.

But now, our government forgot about it. several years ago we had May Day civil parade in every big city. This year we had only one - in Sevastopol. (
Long-awaited day of victory became bright and happy holiday, which marked the end of bloody and destructive war.

I apologize for my bad English

Angela said...

My grandfather fought in Verdun, my father fought in Russia, his two brothers died there, two other uncles died, my mother with baby, grandmother and her old father had to flee to cellars every night when the bomber pilots dropped bombs on Hamburg...whoever started a war or who has a "good cause" -the suffering is immense, on either side. And the wounds are still there, even in the generations to come. The people in Germany have learned a lot, dealt with their own guilt, are determined to never let such things happen again. But the traumata are not over, maybe never will. Wars are terrible. For everyone.

Andrea said...

I too have avoided the VietNam memorial and I'm not sure why. That was a time during my life where nothing but confusion seemed to make sense to me. I wore a POW bracelet for years. When the man returned home, he wrote me a beautiful letter that I have tucked away somewhere. He had a very unusual name so you can imagine my shock when years later, during Desert Storm, I saw him being interviewed on CNN!

I will get to the memorial. Everyone who visits talks about how hauntingly poignant it is. I will, maybe this summer. Seems you have really connected with the "ghostly" souls you've been writing about lately!

Fidgeting Gidget said...

Wars are terrible, I agree. I've found a lot of wives of military men in the blogosphere, and the strength that they and the men they love have--not to mention the patriotism and dedication--amazes me every day.

I've been to the Vietnam memorial, and I agree, it's a very haunting place...when I was there, I tried to visualize each person that has their name engraved in that wall. So many people killed, so many loved ones affected, and the chain goes on and on.

I know some Vietnam vets, and they are still haunted by what they saw over there. It's so sad. I've often wanted to ask them about it, but I always have decided against it, because it was obviously such a traumatic experience. I wonder if they feel a sense of loss, a sense of failure, or a mixture of the two, plus more emotions that I would probably never understand.

Great post today,'re always so insightful and thought-provoking. Thanks!

northlighthero said...

Thanks for this, Reya. Your walking tour brought me back to my only visit to the Wall, a few years after it was installed. Somehow it does feel different now.

My classmates were the guys who signed up, gung-ho, to fight in our own generation's "just war" the way our fathers had served in WW2. And came home deeply disillusioned, having given up love, limbs, and innocence in service to what they saw as a crass attempt to take charge of somebody else's country. It took me years to even be able to look at the Memorial.

"A time for peace, I swear it's not too late."

Butternut Squash said...

War! huh good God y'all
What is it good for?
Absolutely nothin
Listen to me! - Edwin Starr

Around here I see the bumper sticker "Peace is a luxury, paid for by the blood of warriors."

Either we recognize each others humanity, or we submit to a collective insanity. It takes a lot of faith and courage not to strike back in the face of dangers real or imagined.

May the souls who remained to warn us that we were yet again slipping into insanity know that they were heard, and find peace.

R.L. Bourges said...

yep, that's what I said. :-)

Rose said...

Reading of the trapped souls that are finally crossing over sent severe shivers down my spine. I believe you are right.

Steve said...

Well, time heals all wounds, as they say. I think we've certainly healed, become "unstuck," since the 1970s when everything was still so fresh. That's a very powerful memorial.

Greg said...

"I'm not completely convinced that it's ever worth its horrors. Maybe, who knows? You tell me." Two words: Stopping Hitler.

Lover of Life said...

We visited the Memorial many years ago. My husband one of those drafted, but not having to serve until after college - by then they were starting to pull out of Vietnam. So we knew names on the Memorial, and all I can say is it is a very very powerful place.

If you were feeling healing energy - then I say - finally!

Verily I go. said...

Doing this with a guide now is as close as I can manage.

Ronda Laveen said...

It does seem that the energy of that war is less "sticky." It is important work to help free the souls and help them back home. I hope the spend a little (or alot) of time communing with the lost souls of our recent wars. It would be nice if this process could accelerate.

Reya Mellicker said...

Gregor thank you so much for taking the time to comment. It's a frightening and heartbreaking story! Your English is GOOD. Thank you.

Angela I felt a lot of energy around the war when I was in Germany in 1979. I don't doubt that it's still powerful. I agree with you that people on both sides of every conflict are terribly injured.

Andrea do you want to go to the memorial with me? Let me know.

Northlighthero I remember well how, when the vets returned from their tours of duty, they were received with contempt. Everything was so black and white at that moment in history. We felt that anyone who wouldn't burn his draft card and move to Canada was a bloodthirsty brute, a "sellout" to the establishment. We didn't mean to be so awful to those guys, but we were, we really were. It's yet another piece of the wounding.

I am in awe of how much all of you have helped me flesh out my thoughts around my visit yesterday. I'm reading a book about the war now, picked it up today. I feel immersed in it at the moment. It's always good to learn and think, though this topic is especially challenging.

Reya Mellicker said...

Forgot to say:


deborah said...

why are we in vietnam?

more to come

powerful, thoughtful, graceful post my dear Reya

love to you

Merle Sneed said...

I wish I could envision a world without war, but we are humans.

Barry said...

I hope you're right.

I especially love the slide show. Very moving.

Dani said...

Wow- great post. I visited all the memorials back in third grade- even at a small age I could feel a sense of heaviness looking at the names/figures.

I think everyone's life has been touched by war. Now, it is so accessible with media, it is hard not to ignore it. My dear friend and hero lost his life in Afghanistan two months ago, so your post resonates with me. It really upsets me when people don't support the troops. They have no idea what our brothers and sisters are going through.

Bee said...

There is something incredibly powerful about watching your pictures of people passing by (and sometimes touching) the memorial.

steven said...

your writing of this piece over the last few days has been especially powerful - the unpacking of vietnam for america has been a long long journey that started when america became involved. i too sense something of the possibility for america to unburden and release some of the legacies of that war - despite being involved in wars of a very similar nature at this very moment in other countries.
there are features of the vietnam war that left legacies far beond the borders of america. i clearly remember the day my father came home and showed me the name of the company he worked for in the paper. it was on a list of canadian companies who produced materials that were used by america in vietnam as part of the war effort. it was a horrible moment as we both recognized what this meant and how it put food on my families' dinner table at the expense of other human beings. when he finally formed his own company, some of our work was directly supportive of people like greenpeace and similar organizations. in this way we could begin to provide karmic reparations for that awful legacy.
bear in mind that this story is one very tiny piece of the massive legacy of one war.
dance on reya!!!

Wildeve said...

Reya, I'm glad you are there to do what you are doing.
I lived for thirty five years with what the war did to my ex spouse- Until I couldn't do it anymore. I tried so many things to help him, including Soul Retrieval. The war destroyed him, and the older he got the worse it became. I wish him healing.

I can see what you mean about the feeling of entering into another dimension in the photos.

Reya Mellicker said...

Wild Eve, Dani and Steve, thank you so much for your comments. That war touched almost all of us in such a poisonous way.

Thank you.

Reya Mellicker said...

Bee - It's a powerful place.

I wish I could walk through the memorial with all of you. Together maybe we could make sense of the energy there.

Thank you again and again. Thank you.

Winston Riley said...

Hi Reya, I've read this whole thread about the wall up till today and have enjoyed the development which has taken place including the stranger who offered to take your picture. Both Rick and I are Vietnam era veterans. Rick saw action and the only action I saw were exercises where they put us through the motions of shipping out, so that when we were called, we'd have it down, including how to travel with our M-16s, etc. But thankfully, by the time I served the war was over for all intents and purposes.
I was in the Army in the division called Tropic Lightning. I think that was the division in DeerHunter or Apocolypse Now. Anyway, Tropic Lightning was one of the major fighting units in Nam. Strange that I joined to avoid Nam because I had 16 months guaranteed in Hawaii. Little did I know that I joined the unit which would go next, if we had been called back up.
Anyway, the wall to me has always been so moving that I cry every time I'm there. Just the magnitude of marble with all those names and the sadness that rushes through me at the thoughts of family grief. I'm trembling now at the thought of it. You asked for feedback in one of the posts about the way others thought of war. Mine is this. The worst of mankind. His lowest point. Awful beyond words. Nothing there to be proud of. I certainly will never suggest that good Americans will support their leaders to go fight wars. To support the men and women who are called? Psychologically, yes, of course, but to support the leadership who decides it is the only option--for me, no, never. There are many options. Killing another human isn't, in my opinion, ever a right thing to do, even in self defense. Sorry to seem disrespectful to those who feel otherwise, but that is the Dubby take on the deal. Blessings

Reya Mellicker said...

Dubby, thanks for this. I'm unclear that war is ever a good thing, too. Thanks for all this information.

I didn't know about Rick. You mean Rick Hempy right?

smith kaich jones said...

The very oddest thing happens when I look at your first image posted - the one with the girl's hand against the Memorial. As always, I read the names, searching for a friend's name, and as my eyes moved back & forth, looking only at the names, the girl's hand appeared to move. Every time I tried this, it happened. I was so moved, I didn't even read your words. Sorry! But try it. It's quite mesmerizing.