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I had soldiers on my mind this morning as I went for a brisk walk in the cemetery across from my house. Victor Davis Hanson is partially to blame. I read his fine NRO piece this week about the upcoming 70th anniversary of the D-Day invasion and it stuck with me.
But that’s not the only reason my thoughts have been full of marines, sailors, and infantrymen. I’ve also been working my way through the HBO miniseries The Pacific about Raritan, New Jersey’s own John Basilone, who won both the Medal of Honor for his heroism during the Battle for Henderson Field on Guadalcanal in 1942 and (posthumously) the Navy Cross for his valor at Iwo Jima in 1945. The series is not great, but Basilone is undoubtedly a true American hero and it is right and proper that somebody should make a movie about his life. (My dad would want you to know that Raritan is just 20 miles down Rt. 287 from my hometown of Morristown.)
In the cemetery this morning, I came across some yet-to-be-cleared wreaths from my town’s Memorial Day commemoration. I want to share one of them with you:
I know it says 2013—the DAR is evidently into recycling. But the year on the banner is actually instructive. How was it that last year was the 50th anniversary of the start of the Vietnam War and I somehow missed it? Probably it’s because we think of Vietnam as the bad war. It’s funny the things from our history that we choose to honor with anniversary celebrations and HBO miniseries. The Beatles on Ed Sullivan gets a week of coverage. The start of our long national nightmare goes unremarked upon.
Except—God bless ’em—by the DAR.
When I was a kid, Vietnam was still very fresh in the national memory. They made movies about it, sure, but not in order to tell heroic stories like John Basilone’s. Did you know there were 248 Medals of Honor awarded for service in Vietnam?
Agenda-driven filmmakers such as Oliver Stone, Michael Cimino, Francis Ford Coppola, Stanley Kubrick, and Brian De Palma really just wanted to rub our noses in it. They wanted us to understand that Americans are not so pure, so righteous, so heroic, so exceptional. We’re not John Wayne and John Basilone, they wanted us to know. We’re violent like Colonel Kurtz and Lieutenant Colonel Kilgore. We’re morally compromised like Sergeant Barnes and Private Joker. We’ve got the blood of innocents on our hands.
Later this summer, the media will notice the 50th anniversary of the Gulf of Tonkin. There will surely follow an epidemic of renewed hand-wringing and calls for collective atonement for America’s supposed sins in Vietnam. Maybe some of it will be justified. But will anyone remember Father Vincent Capodanno, killed while administering last rites to the wounded and dying in the Que Son Valley and awarded the Medal of Honor for his selfless sacrifice? Will HBO make a movie about the guys who spent years being tortured for their loyalty to this country, and to each other, in the Hanoi Hilton? Will the New York Times or the Washington Post do a feature about Captain Roger Donlon, who was the first American to be awarded the Medal of Honor for service in Vietnam for his part in a defensive action at Camp Nam Dong that occurred 50 years ago this July? If you have a moment, read a bit about what he did:
Although suffering from multiple wounds, he carried the abandoned 60mm mortar weapon to a new location 30 meters away where he found 3 wounded defenders. After administering first aid and encouragement to these men, he left the weapon with them, headed toward another position, and retrieved a 57mm recoilless rifle. Then with great courage and coolness under fire, he returned to the abandoned gun pit, evacuated ammunition for the 2 weapons, and while crawling and dragging the urgently needed ammunition, received a third wound on his leg by an enemy hand grenade. Despite his critical physical condition, he again crawled 175 meters to an 81mm mortar position and directed firing operations which protected the seriously threatened east sector of the camp. He then moved to an eastern 60mm mortar position and upon determining that the vicious enemy assault had weakened, crawled back to the gun pit with the 60mm mortar, set it up for defensive operations, and turned it over to 2 defenders with minor wounds. Without hesitation, he left this sheltered position, and moved from position to position around the beleaguered perimeter while hurling hand grenades at the enemy and inspiring his men to superhuman effort. As he bravely continued to move around the perimeter, a mortar shell exploded, wounding him in the face and body.
Captain Donlon is still alive. Someone should throw him a party.
Don’t count on the media to memorialize the conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity in action of the fighting men we sent to Vietnam. Three cheers to the DAR for never forgetting. God help us to remember.Published in