PART 6: other wars
|Missing by Margaret Richardson
You're not long born; your mouth a roaring O,
You're shown a mirror. Young astonishment
Breaks your next breath piano. In your face
Your face. Soon you've left it everywhere:
The panes noseprinted, polish mouthed away.
Shop windows next. You and what you want
United in the glass, you check your gear
And wonder what it's like to look at you
And like you. She does. As she lifts her mouth
For kissing, in her eyes two tiny yous
Lean keenly forward.
You remember that
Later, when you're on your own in Nam,
Between two fires, and doing things you thought
You'd never do or want to. Dreadful screams
Beside you turn out to be yours. Then death
Smartly shuts your mouth.
The Wall is built
Of brightly polished granite: a vast black
Mirror carved with sixty thousand names.
Dead; missing. Silent. Living faces crowd
Slowly past them: tourists but more sad,
Uncertain how to handle death-in-life
Or their reflections: ghosts unaptly dressed
For meeting you as you now are, your mouth
A blackened O, your self shrunk to a type-face.
|'O': both the cry 'Oh' and the shape of the printed capital letter
'shown a mirror': some psychologists believe that when a child sees his or her reflection for the first time, it is also the first experience of identity and 'separateness' together
'piano': 'softly' - an instruction to musicians. When he sees himself in the mirror, the baby suddenly stops bawling, with a startled gasp.
'The panes noseprinted....': now a small boy, he still pursues his reflection, pressing his face against reflective surfaces.
'Two tiny yous': reflections of himself in his girlfriend's eyes
'Between two fires': caught between two opposing firing lines in war; also an echo of a poetic phrase 'between two worlds', here referring to East and West on the same battleground (on which fire was a major weapon)
'The Wall': the Vietnam memorial in Washington, USA
'a blackened O': the dead youth's burned and bloodied mouth (open in a scream); and the letter O carved in the black granite Wall
'type-face': printing, in this case the name of the missing soldier whose body was destroyed in war. 'Face' picks up the poem's running image of the boy's face when he was alive.
|Vietnam came under French rule in the 19th century. In the 1930s the Vietminh was founded: a guerrilla resistance force fighting for independence. In 1945 the Vietminh began a war against the French, who were defeated after 9 years of heavy fighting.
Vietnam was now divided in two: North Vietnam under a communist government, and South Vietnam. It was North Vietnam's desire to unite the country under communist rule, and communist guerrillas (the Vietcong) began to infiltrate and attack South Vietnam. In 1964 North Vietnamese forces attacked South Vietnam.
To the American government, in the midst of the Cold War and a fight against communism, which they perceived as an evil force, North Vietnam was a threat to the whole region. Communism must not be allowed to spread, and South Vietnam was seen as a bastion against it.
First, from the late 1950s America provided substantial financial and military aid and advice to South Vietnam. In 1964 US troops (over 500,000 of them by 1968) were sent to support the South Vietnamese army against the communist invaders, though no war was declared by the USA. Many US troops were conscripts under 20 years old, who faced the choice of fighting or going to prison for refusal.
As casualties increased, the war remained unwon, and America's involvement grew controversial, public opinion in the US shifted. Protests increased. In 1970 some troops were withdrawn, and most had been pulled out by 1973 when a ceasefire was negotiated. (Soon afterwards North Vietnam ignored the ceasefire and invaded the south. Vietnam was reunited as a socialist republic.)
All wars are brutal and dehumanising, and the Vietnam war was no exception. A new marker of success was introduced: 'the 'body count' - the US aim was simply to kill off communists. A new weapon of war was employed: Agent Orange - a chemical sprayed from the air to kill off the Vietnamese forests which provided cover for guerrillas. The notorious use of napalm fire bombs resulted in the injury and deaths by fire of many civilians; civilians (believed to be harbouring Vietcong fighters) also suffered from massacres by US forces in what they designated 'free fire zones'; some civilians were forced to act as human mine detectors.
After the war the devastation was seen to be colossal. Huge areas of land, once either forested or used for agriculture, have remained unusable. Vietnam veterans and Vietnamese citizens alike have been affected by the dioxins in Agent Orange: a significant number of US soldiers developed cancers, and in Vietnam there was a significant increase in genetic damage in children born to parents who had been drenched in the infamous defoliant.
The Vietnam Memorial Wall, made of polished black granite and known simply as 'The Wall', was dedicated in November 1982. There are 58,226 names of the dead or missing inscribed on it, listed in the order in which they died or were declared missing from 1959; the last death was in 1975. Of the missing, there are over 1,000 names.
Some people expressed dissatisfaction with the Wall's starkness and simplicity. To meet their needs in 1984 the 'Three servicemen' statue was erected near the Wall. The Vietnam Women's Memorial statue was dedicated in 1993.
The first three verses of the poem swiftly sketch a short life, from infancy through childhood and teens to war and death, all before the age of 20. The character is expressive (images to do with the mouth) and self-absorbed (images of reflection). This self-absorption is part of growing up, which in the case of this unnamed youth is prevented from completion. The poem deplores the waste of a life that had scarcely begun and had ended in violent and pointless death - killing and being killed, under military orders.