Memorial Day, 2020: Grief, War, and the Pandemic
by Kristian Williams
in memory of Robert F. Williams
On Friday, May 22, just after dinner, my father lay down for a nap and peacefully died.
He died at a rather inopportune time, in the midst of a pandemic, one that had already taken more than 300,000 lives around the world. These circumstances prevented me from going to see him in his final days, and have delayed his funeral indefinitely. But he was not a victim of the coronavirus. He was, instead, the latest but by no means the last casualty of the Vietnam War—or what the Vietnamese, more precisely, call the American War. He died after years of illness related to his exposure to Agent Orange, a kind of friendly fire that took half a century to have its final effect. His name will not appear, I don’t think, on that smooth black wall that runs like a scar across the National Mall. It will be just one of thousands of names that are missing, along with those veterans who have died from suicide, heroin, or the effects of chronic homelessness.
About a month before my father finally left this world—he was already in the process of dying, though how slowly or suddenly we could not be sure—journalists struggling to convey the scale of the current pandemic noted that more Americans had died from Covid-19 than had died in the Vietnam War: 58,220 in Vietnam; 58,365 from the pandemic (though the number has far exceeded that by now). The comparison was intended, and in fact did, evoke a kind of emotional response and it attached to the epidemic a sense of moral weight. But it was, for all that, peculiarly inapt. It is notable mostly for what it omits. It gives all of its attention to the number of Americans who have succumbed to the disease, when a pandemic is by definition a global phenomenon. It likewise forgets the vastly larger number of Vietnamese who died as a result of our country’s military action: approximately 3.1 million, according to The Encyclopedia Britannica. By comparison, the number of American causalities looks like a rounding error.
Both Vietnam and Covid-19 exposed our leaders as intellectually as well as morally bankrupt, employing one failed strategy after another, while continuously assuring the public that the worst was behind us and victory certain.
A more complicated question is that of whether disease and war are comparable phenomena at all. From one angle, by relating the two we extend the myth of American innocence. War, like disease, is something that simply happens to us. It is not something for which we are responsible. Such a view is of course self-serving and dangerous, though it is also extremely common. It is possible, however, to look at the issue from the other direction, and recognize that the body count—in the U.S. today, as in Vietnam fifty years ago—is what it is because of specific policy choices and, moreover, because of the nature and the structure of our society. The Vietnam War both reflected and revealed deep inequalities—between the imperialist First World and the colonized Third, and within the U.S., between those young men who got drafted and those who got deferments. The coronavirus crisis has hit poor, Black, and Latino communities hardest, and has proven what those at the bottom of the class system have always known, that the most essential jobs often receive the least pay. Both Vietnam and Covid-19 exposed our leaders as intellectually as well as morally bankrupt, employing one failed strategy after another, while continuously assuring the public that the worst was behind us and victory certain.
These crises have also revealed our country’s hubris and the real limits on our power. The war saw the wealthiest and most technologically advanced country on earth defeated by poorly armed peasants. The pandemic saw the United States responding uncertainly while its infection rate skyrocketed. In contrast, Vietnam— to cite just one particularly pointed example—has a population of 95 million people and borders China, where the coronavirus originated, but at the time of my father’s death, Vietnam had logged a total of 268 Covid-19 cases and zero deaths. It accomplished this epidemiological miracle through a combination of focused testing, contact tracing, rigid quarantining, travel restrictions, pubic education, and services to those self-isolating. And so, while local governments in the U.S. were competing in a vicious biding war for scarce medical supplies, Vietnam was exporting 450,000 hazmat suits to the United States, 550,000 surgical masks to Europe, and 730,000 masks to nearby Laos and Cambodia.
I should say that even with the American health care industry under severe strain, with shortages of medical masks and critical equipment, and health care workers suffering much higher rates of infection, my father was well taken care of. He had been disabled, practically and legally, for most of the last ten years, and he required several surgeries, frequent less-invasive interventions, regular monitoring, and a veritable pharmacopeia of pills. All of that—plus the tireless care provided by my mother, and his own formidable reserve of will-power—was enough to keep him going long after any bookmaker would have stopped offering odds. Given the nature of his ailment and its cause, those crucial, life-preserving medical services came courtesy of the Department of Veterans Affairs. It is a sad irony that, after being wounded in a war against communism, the thing that kept my father alive, for as long as it did, was in effect a minor version of socialism.
My father was proud of his military service, though he almost never spoke of it. I do not know how he felt about the war in political terms, whether he thought it a good policy or a terrible mistake. I only know that he enlisted for idealistic and ultimately admirable reasons, and that decision shaped the rest of his life. The Air Force trained him in computer programming at a time when even the word “computer” was a novelty; with that training he built a good middle-class career. But the experience also took its toll, psychologically as well as physically. I was never able to wake him without having him bolt upright, alarmed but not quite panicked. (My mother told me simply that he had been shelled, though as a child I was not able to attach any meaning to the word.) And of course the U.S. military inadvertently—or carelessly—poisoned him, eventually leading to his death. That death was not merely sad, as the death of a loved one is always sad, but actually tragic in the technical and literary sense. For he enlisted in the Air Force out of a sense of duty, and from that duty he became implicated in a colossal criminal enterprise; it would, finally, be his undoing. Perhaps the most remarkable thing about this story, and maybe the best thing I can say about my father, is that he never gave in to self-pity, even at the end, and that his sense of decency and integrity never wavered.
That death was not merely sad, as the death of a loved one is always sad, but actually tragic in the technical and literary sense. For he enlisted in the Air Force out of a sense of duty, and from that duty he became implicated in a colossal criminal enterprise; it would, finally, be his undoing.
In the last few days of his life, my mother told me, my father was thinking often of Vietnam. As part of his duties there, he loaded the bodies of dead servicemen onto airplanes to be shipped back stateside. He told her that during the Tet Offensive, he and one other airman spent all day — twelve hours, maybe more—every day, loading bodies onto planes, filling them up, one plane after another, seemingly without end. At the close of the day, when their shift was over, they had to burn their clothing. He would have been—what? twenty years old? twenty-one? And fifty years later, that is the thing that occupied his thoughts as he lay dying.
I cannot help but wonder how his experience might compare with that of the prisoners, working in New York City in the early weeks of the outbreak there, filling mass graves with unclaimed bodies.
Now, my father is dead, and life goes on without him. Ordinarily one of the cruelties of grief is that it is so isolating. It is a profound dislocation, as a friend wrote to me in a letter. It seems to disrupt the very flow of time. A precious, irreplaceable individual is suddenly absent from the world, and the world keeps turning without notice of the fact. Friends and family suddenly feel alone, alien, disconnected. For them, everything feels wrong, distorted. Reality feels unreal. How can everyone else go on as though nothing had changed?
In a pandemic, however, all of that is different. The entire world is grieving —if not precisely this person, then someone; if not someone in particular, than the anonymous mass of tens of thousands of lives too abruptly ended; if not the loss of life, then the way of life which has been suspended, and whose return seems uncertain and indefinitely deferred. Everything is altered. And even when society returns to normal—when the quarantine is lifted and businesses open, children return to school, and oil prices start to rise—we may find that somehow none of it is the same. The institutions of society may manage to reestablish themselves, to good and to bad effect. But having passed through this period of uncertainty and grief, we may come to discover that it is not the world that has changed, but us—all of us.
Kristian Williams is the author or Our Enemies in Blue: Police and Power in America, Whither Anarchism?, and Between the Bullet and the Lie: Essays on Orwell, among other works. His most recent book, Resist Everything Except Temptation: The Anarchist Philosophy of Oscar Wilde, was just published by AK Press.