There is no glory in battle worth the blood it costs.
— Dwight David Eisenhower
Late April and it’s already broiling hot at the entrance to the National Infantry Museum and Soldier Center in Columbus, GA. We’re a motley crew of former GIs who served in the 22nd US Army Infantry Division, a few spouses, and me, a Vietnam War widow. Our section of the bus, members of or connected in some way to Alpha Company, behaves like a merry band of war buddies, joking and teasing, ribbing each other about things that happened long ago in the region of Tay Ninh. I didn’t know them back then but they include me in their repartee – as if I had been there.
How amazing to be on a road trip with some of the guys who were with my husband forty-two years ago in the jungles of Vietnam.
In a rare quiet moment, Joe, who had carried the code book back then on the heels of my husband, turns to me and says: “I want you to know that I would have died for him. We all loved Captain Crocker.”
It’s hard to know what to say back except, thank you.
I’m ambivalent about this journey – dubious about visiting infantry tributes and war memorials. My resistance to military fanfare and the seductive power of monuments has helped to sustain me against irrational sentimentality, the state of mind that encourages people to find the good of it all, that going to war was something that had to be. I respect these guys, those who survived and saw their buddies die, but I cannot be convinced that my husband died for a good cause. Can we pay tribute to veterans without joining a “group think” that rationalizes and justifies violence? I try to do this by looking out for inconsistencies, little flaws in the whole cloth of the dramatic, cinematic re-telling of war that we are about to experience at the Infantry Museum.
The museum sits all by itself about a mile outside the heavily guarded gates of Fort Benning and rises up abruptly like the Parthenon in Rome: a monolithic, granite structure in the center of a manicured plateau bordered by Georgia pines. It was built by funds from a private foundation and they cut no corners, supposedly The wide concrete walkway, the huge glass doors, the stone façade are all grand, solid, modern and strong, impervious to tornadoes, hurricanes, and possibly humans..
Our greeter stands ten feet above us on a granite pedestal. He is a bronze statue of a single infantryman, a fifteen-foot Gulliver, lunging forward in WWII fatigues and helmet, glistening under the southern sun with a bayonet rifle in the ready position. We gather beneath him and snap photos of each other.
Walking into the vestibule behind him, we are dwarfed by the domed ceiling three stories above and the broad expanse of cavernous, empty space surrounding us. This is our launch pad, a spot where we must breathe and suck in extra oxygen and take note of the shiny gift shop, the Soldier Store, tucked in the corner on the far left, and the aroma of roast beef from the restaurant on the mezzanine to our right, because – we are about to go to war.
Exuberance is building in the group. My companions, mostly graying men in their sixties, were all young infantrymen once, forty-plus years ago. No one can say that they are nostalgic for those days – Bill a/k/a “Lumpy” said that visiting the country of Vietnam is not on his bucket list – but the chance to visit a simulation of war as a tourist with old comrades has an appeal.
This is only a museum, I think, but tension is mounting. The folks checking our tickets and stamping our hands for re-entry tell us that we are about to be part of the last one hundred yards, the phrase that symbolizes the job location and duties of the infantry. And don’t miss the IMAX movie, they remind us. Up ahead, a darkened tunnel beckons.
We enter. The first part, after the swinging doors slammed shut behind us, was like the boat trip in the Pirates of the Caribbean ride at Disney World except that we were walking through the front lines of a Revolutionary War battle. Simulated flares flew overhead, life-like soldiers on both sides of us were shooting, being shot at, shouting out to each other, and eventually descending over us with parachutes and planes as we made our way to the Second World War. We crept forward up a small incline as one battle flowed into the next and the background sounds changed to match the ping, pop and boom of the weapon du jour, from flintlocks to mortars and submachine guns. Each war had its own musical score from Yankee Doodle to Toby Keith.
The movie showed newsreel clips of men in battle, shoulder to shoulder, preparing to jump from airplanes, slogging through mud, landing on the beaches of Normandy. Face after face of young men with determined looks and unfathomable thoughts flashed by. Close-ups so close their young, acned faces became a topographic map of Everyman. There was little text or discernable speech amidst the cacophony of moving, jumping, shooting and explosions; the message was that the greatest gift you can give your buddy is to protect him, to be on hand for him to die in your arms.
“What did you think of the movie?” I asked the others. Those who answered were unanimous. “It was great,” they said. “That’s how it is in war. You rely on each other. You need each other.”
I’m sure they’re right. It was when they returned that they had to face being alone with their dreams and memories, but that aspect of war is not so easy to represent and codify. That’s why we’re here in this place, this museum, trying to get a handle on what was and what happened.
Four of us entered the Vietnam jungle simulation room. It was dark and too real for some of the guys. They said that the combination of bamboo encroaching on all sides from floor to ceiling, the Punji stake pit exhibit, and sounds of explosions and drenching rain was more than they could handle. We slipped out a side door back into the Cold War.
Sandwiched between areas entitled “Securing our Freedom,” “The Sole Superpower,” and graphic representations of the Revolutionary war, the World Wars, the Korean War, Vietnam, and finally, the Global War on Terror, is a small circular enclosure called the “family gallery.” Photographs and drawings cover the walls. Scores of pictures show women (presumably wives or girlfriends) waving heroically at train stations, clutching letters to their breast, or sitting surrounded by children arranged next to a portrait of a soldier. Young couples jump into each other’s arms on tarmacs next to airplanes and cars. In the center, enclosed by these scenes of parting and reunion, a folded flag sits on a pedestal under a glass case. A recessed light highlights the triangle of red, white and blue. Written above it is a dedication to those who didn’t return from, “the last one hundred yards.”
Ned, who was a platoon leader in my husband’s unit, arrived at the display at the same time that I did. “I was hoping you wouldn’t see this part,” he said. I wanted to say that it is the only part of all this that I can really understand.
The folded flag is a powerful image with the tight, compressed energy it holds. It’s almost a triangular mandala, a symbol in a dream representing the search for completeness, self-unity. But, it’s the surrounding photographs that touch my grief spot. I would have liked to have been one of those young women in the happy reunion photos. This gaudy triangle in front of me, the representation of sacrifice, the consolation prize, reminds me of something in hibernation. I don’t know what they, the folders and presenters, intended to convey.
I remember standing under a tree in the cemetery and watching six crisp spit-shined soldiers in dress uniforms folding a flag with mechanical precision. I caught a whiff of Old Spice as the flag was about to be presented to me. One might imagine that there is a script that accompanies this oft repeated act of an honor guard folding the flag exactly thirteen times with precisely the same gestures each time the flag is “retired,” either at the end of a day or at a military funeral. I researched this recently. In fact, there is no “official” text – there is, however, a “generally known script” underlying the folding process (supposedly known by those who do the folding). But, the U.S. Flag Code (Public Law 94-344) states that there is a prohibition against the acknowledgement of the words and they cannot be mentioned in official ceremonies. To do so would be a violation of the First Amendment which requires that verbal expression not create the reasonable impression that the government is sponsoring, endorsing, or inhibiting religion generally, or favoring or disfavoring a particular religion.
The following is the unofficial script. The origin of the script is unknown. A chaplain, considering the Judeo-Christian overtones, may have written it. (Some non-Christians who also consider themselves patriots and who may have received a folded flag on behalf of a deceased veteran may not appreciate decoding this experience.)
- The first fold of our flag is a symbol of life.
- The second fold is a symbol of our belief in the eternal life.
- The third fold is made in honor and remembrance of the veteran departing our ranks who gave a portion of life for the defense of our country to attain a peace throughout the world.
- The fourth fold represents our weaker nature, for as American citizens trusting in God, it is to Him we turn in times of peace as well as in times of war for His divine guidance.
- The fifth fold is a tribute to our country, for in the words of Stephen Decatur, “Our country, in dealing with other countries, may she always be right; but it is still our country, right or wrong.”
- The sixth fold is for where our hearts lie. It is with our heart that we pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America, and to the republic for which it stands, one nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.
- The seventh fold is a tribute to our Armed Forces, for it is through the Armed Forces that we protect our country and our flag against all her enemies, whether they be found within or without the boundaries of our republic.
- The eighth fold is a tribute to the one who entered into the valley of the shadow of death, that we might see the light of day, and to honor mother, for whom it flies on Mother’s Day.
- The ninth fold is a tribute to womanhood; for it has been through their faith, love, loyalty and devotion that the character of the men and women who have made this country great have been molded.
- The tenth fold is a tribute to father, for he, too, has given his sons and daughters for the defense of our country since they were first born.
- The eleventh fold, in the eyes of a Hebrew citizen, represents the lower portion of the seal of King David and King Solomon, and glorifies, in their eyes, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.
- The twelfth fold, in the eyes of a Christian citizen, represents an emblem of eternity and glorifies, in their eyes, God the Father, the Son, and Holy Ghost.
When the flag is completely folded, the stars are uppermost, reminding us of our national motto, “In God we Trust.”
After the flag is completely folded and tucked in, it takes on the appearance of a cocked hat, ever reminding us of the soldiers who served under General George Washington and the sailors and marines who served under Captain John Paul Jones who were followed by their comrades and shipmates in the Armed Forces of the United States, preserving for us the rights, privileges, and freedoms we enjoy today.
I’ve got one of those. I never imagined it to resemble a hat. For me it’s only a sad reminder of a terrible time, but that “cocked hat” is still with me. I’ve never taken it out of the triangular plastic case in which it was presented; it sits by itself in a cupboard. I didn’t keep it because of what it says in Section 8j of the U.S. Flag Code: “The flag represents a living country and is itself considered a living thing.” I kept it because it’s the only object I have that was close to his body on his trip back from Vietnam in 1969 and it’s a powerful symbol of his egregious end. A convoluted sentiment, perhaps, certainly not related to patriotism – I can’t recognize myself among those folds – but my reason for keeping it is no more inexplicable than the way we have canonized the act of war and military proliferation in our culture.
At the Infantry Museum, this small, intimate enclosure with its cocked hat behind glass in the center of the building is the only place that speaks directly to the cost of war. There are no pictures of caskets, or “cases,” as they are referred to these days. As yet, there is no area in the building that acknowledges the wounded and maimed, those who return without limbs or without themselves otherwise intact.
After experiencing the entire museum, it seems odd that he’s alone up there, that big bronze guy in the front, the infantryman who greeted us. So much of the tone throughout the exhibits repeats the notion of brotherhood and willingness to give one’s life for a comrade in arms. One leaves with the impression that war begets a “perfect union” rather than horror and chaos. Survival is dependent on teamwork.
I can’t argue with the brotherhood part. I’ve experienced the magical phenomenon of meeting my “brothers” recently, my bus mates on this trip, the guys who served with my husband long ago. I discovered them by chance in 2006 and now they are as protective towards me as they are towards each other. I feel bathed in unconditional positive regard when we get together for reunions. It was because of a reunion with them in Atlanta that I am here at this museum, a place I would never visit alone.
But I’m puzzled. After all the money that was spent on this museum, I wonder why they didn’t spend a little more and put two bronze infantrymen out front, side by side. He looks so lonely up there on his pedestal, as if he’s going the last one hundred yards all by himself. Perhaps some people do understand the cost and loneliness of war even if they don’t or can’t demonstrate it, officially. Otherwise, wouldn’t the creators of this memorial have spent a few more bucks to splurge on another statue and given him a buddy?
Beautiful, intelligent, insightful writing.
A moving tribute. “Cacophony” – the dreadfulness of war: I could feel, hear, and see its horrors. Sobering; grief beautifully expressed. My dad, a chaplain in WWII, would never talk about his experience. This essay helps me understand that maybe he couldn’t talk about it or maybe he didn’t want us to have to experience it too.