It was one of those nights when the nightmare came. I was caught in the time warp and transported back to a lonely outpost overlooking the demilitarized zone dividing North and South Vietnam. I was onstage in Quang Tri, singing to a small crowd of soldiers when fighting broke out on the perimeter of the camp and North Vietnamese soldiers began to overrun us. Through explosions and gun fire I ran in terror, not knowing where to find safety.
Drenched in sweat and sobbing, I woke in the refuge of my bedroom.
I have written many times about my Vietnam nightmares. It is not news that people exposed to the stresses and horrors of war are permanently altered by it. It is also not news that there is scarcely any concern about it among anyone but those who suffer from PTSD. My nightmares are horrible enough. I can’t imagine what they must be like for those who actually did the fighting.
Those who came back alive are left to suffer. But after more than 58,000 US casualties and millions of Vietnamese, there is one question I have never heard asked: what have we lost? Lives, of course, of fathers, mothers, sisters, brother, sons, and daughters. But what of the lost potential? The genius unrealized who might have created a cancer cure, or found a way to navigate the stars. We will never know.
The same could be said of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, wars that we were led into with lies—wars that sapped our economy and stole much of our future generation and the contributions they might have made. Because we cannot stop fighting each other.
For a species that boasts of its inventiveness, intelligence, and resourcefulness we have never, ever really put our supposedly unique mental capacity to work solving our addiction to war. We pretend instead to love peace while gearing up for the next bloody conflict.
You wonder which of the 58,282 names etched in the cold, black granite of the Vietnam War Memorial belonged to a young man or woman who might have possessed the rare gifts we all need. The mental ability, creativity, and leadership skill to seize the moment, show the way out of the wilderness of our aggression, and dispel the confusion of our deadly mania for killing. The answer is hidden from us.
“All those moments will be lost in time, like tears in rain.” —the replicant character Roy Batty in Blade Runner.