[Robert J. Sawyer] Science Fiction Writer
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"The Vietnam Memorial" From


Volume 2 of The Neanderthal Parallax Trilogy

by Robert J. Sawyer

Copyright © 2003 by Robert J. Sawyer
All Rights Reserved.

"Sawyer takes on guns, religious assumptions, automobiles, and even the Big Bang in this highly entertaining tale of a (more or less) rational Outsider. The chapter at the Vietnam Wall should be required reading for anyone who wishes to sit in the oval office."Jack McDevitt

Chapter 22

       "We've only got one day here in Washington before the conference begins," said Mary, "and there's so much I want to show you. But I wanted to start with this. Nothing else says more about this country, and about what it means to be human — my kind of human."

       Ponter looked at the strange vista in front of him, not understanding. There was a scar in the grass-covered landscape, a deep welt that ran for eighty paces then met, at an obtuse angle, another similar scar.

       The scars were black and reflective — a ... what was that word again? An ox-uh-mor-on, that was it; a contradiction in terms. Black, meaning it absorbed all light; reflective, meaning it bounced light back.

       And yet that's precisely what it was, a black mirror, reflecting Ponter's face, and Mary's, too. Two kinds of humanity — not just female and male, but two separate species, two different iterations of the human theme. Her reflection showed what she called a Homo sapiens and he called a Gliksin: her strange upright forehead, minuscule nose, and — there was no word in Ponter's language for it — her chin.

       And his reflection showed what she called a Homo neanderthalensis and he called a Barast, the word for "human" in his language: a Neanderthal's broad countenance, with a doubly arched browridge and a proper-sized nose extending across a third of his face.

       "What is it?" asked Ponter, staring at the oblong blackness, at their reflections.

       "It's a memorial," said Mary. She looked away from the black wall and waved her hand at objects in the distance. "This whole mall is filled with memorials. The pair of walls here point at two of the most important ones. That spire is the Washington Monument, a memorial to the first U.S. president. Over there, that's the Lincoln Memorial, commemorating the president who freed the slaves."

       Ponter's translator bleeped.

       Mary let out a sigh. Evidently there was still more complexity, more — what had she called it? — more dirty linen to be aired.

       "We'll visit both those memorials later," said Mary. "But, as I said, I wanted to start here. This is the Vietnam Veterans Memorial."

       "Vietnam is one of your nations, is it not?" said Ponter.

       Mary nodded. "In southeast Asia — southeast Galasoy. Just north of the equator. An S-shaped bit of land" — she drew the letter with a finger in the air so that Ponter would understand — "on the Pacific seaboard."

       "We call the same place Holtanatan. But on my version of Earth it is very hot, very humid, rainy, full of swamps, and overrun by insects. No one lives there."

       Mary lifted her eyebrows. "Over eighty million people live there in this reality."

       Ponter shook his head. The humans of this version of Earth were so ... so unrestrained.

       "And," continued Mary, "a war was fought there."

       "Over what? Over swamps?"

       Mary closed her eyes. "Over ideology. Remember I told you about the Cold War? This was part of that — but this part was hot."

       "Hot?" Ponter shook his head. "You are not referring to temperature, are you?"

       "No. Hot. As in a shooting war. As in people died."

       Ponter frowned. "How many people?"

       "In total, from all sides? No one really knows. Over a million of the local South Vietnamese. Somewhere between half a million and a million North Vietnamese. Plus ..." She gestured at the wall.

       "Yes?" said Ponter, still baffled by the reflecting blackness.

       "Plus fifty-eight thousand, two hundred and nine Americans. These two walls commemorate them."

       "Commemorate them how?"

       "See the writing engraved in the black granite?"

       Ponter nodded.

       "Those are names — names of the confirmed dead, and of those missing in action who never came home." Mary paused. "The war ended in 1975."

       "But this is the year you reckon as" — and Ponter named it.

       Mary nodded.

       Ponter looked down. "I do not think the missing are coming home." He moved closer to the wall. "How are the names arrayed?"

       "Chronologically. By date of death."

       Ponter looked at the names, all in what he'd learned were known as capital letters, a small mark — a bullet, isn't that what they called it, one of their many words that served double duty? — separating each name from the next.

       Ponter couldn't read English characters; he was only beginning to grasp this strange notion of a phonetic alphabet. Mary moved in beside him, and, in a soft voice, read some of the names to him. "Mike A. Maksin. Bruce J. Moran. Bobbie Joe Mounts. Raymond D. McGlothin." She pointed at another line, apparently chosen at random. "Samuel F. Hollifield, Jr. Rufus Hood. James M. Inman. David L. Johnson. Arnoldo L. Carrillo."

       And another line, farther down: "Donney L. Jackson. Bobby W. Jobe. Bobby Ray Jones. Halcott P. Jones, Jr."

       "Fifty-eight thousand of them," said Ponter, his voice as soft as Mary's.


       "But — but you said these are dead Americans?"

       Mary nodded.

       "What were they doing fighting a war half a world away?"

       "They were helping the South Vietnamese. See, in 1954, Vietnam had been divided into two halves, North Vietnam and South Vietnam, as part of a peace agreement, each with its own kind of government. Two years later, in 1956, there were to be free elections throughout both halves, supervised by an international committee, to unify Vietnam under a single, popularly elected government. But when 1956 rolled around, the leader of South Vietnam refused to hold the scheduled elections."

       "You taught me much about this country, the United States, when we visited Philadelphia," said Ponter. "I know how highly Americans value democracy. Let me guess: the United States sent troops to force South Vietnam to participate in the promised democratic election."

       But Mary shook her head. "No, no, the United States supported the South's desire not to hold the election."

       "But why? Was the government in the North corrupt?"

       "No," said Mary. "No, it was reasonably honest and kind — at least up until when the promised election, which it wanted, was canceled. But there was a corrupt government — the one in the South."

       Ponter shook his head, baffled. "But you said that the South was the one the Americans were supporting."

       "That's right. See, the government in the South was corrupt, but capitalist; it shared the American economic system. The one in the north was Communist; it used the economic system of the Soviet Union and China. But the northern government was much more popular than the corrupt southern one. The United States feared that if free elections were held, the Communists would win and control all of Vietnam, which in turn, would lead to other countries in southeast Galasoy falling to Communist rule."

       "And so American soldiers were sent there?"


       "And died?"

       "Many did, yes." Mary paused. "That's what I wanted you to understand: how important principles are to us. We will die to defend an ideology, die to support a cause." She pointed at the wall. "These people here, these fifty-eight thousand people, fought for what they believed in. They were told to go to war, told to save a weaker people from what was held to be the great Communist threat, and they did so. Most of them were young — eighteen, nineteen, twenty, twenty-one years. For many, it was their first time away from home."

       "And now they are dead."

       Mary nodded. "But not forgotten. We remember them here." She pointed discreetly. Ponter's guards — now members of the FBI, arranged by Jock Krieger — were keeping people away from him, but the walls were long, so incredibly long, and farther down someone was leaning up against the black surface. "See that man there?" asked Mary. "He's using a pencil and a piece of paper to make a rubbing of the name of someone he knew. He's — well, he looks in his midfifties, no? He might have been in Vietnam himself. The name he's copying might be that of a buddy he lost over there."

       Ponter and Mary watched silently as the man finished what he was doing. And then the man folded the piece of paper, placed it in his breast pocket, and began to speak.

       Ponter shook his head slightly in confusion. He gestured at the Companion embedded in his own left forearm. "I thought you people did not have telecommunications implants."

       "We don't," said Mary.

       "But I do not see any external receiver, any — what do you call it? — any cell phone."

       "That's right," said Mary gently.

       "Then who is he talking to?"

       Mary lifted her shoulders slightly. "His lost comrade."

       "But that person is dead."


       "One cannot talk to the dead," said Ponter.

       Mary gestured at the wall again, its obsidian surface pantomiming the sweep of her arm. "People think they can. They say they feel closest to them here."

       "Is this where the remains of the dead are stored?"

       "What? No, no, no."

       "Then I —"

       "It's the names," said Mary, sounding somewhat exasperated. "The names. The names are here, and we connect with people through their names."

       Ponter frowned. "I — forgive me, I do not mean to be stupid. Surely that cannot be right, though. We — my people — connect through faces. There are countless people whose faces I know but whose names I have never learned. And, well, I connect with you, and although I know your name, I cannot articulate it or even think it clearly. Mare — that is the best I can do."

       "We think names are ..." Mary lifted her shoulders, apparently acknowledging how ridiculous what she was saying must sound "... are magical."

       "But," said Ponter again, "you cannot communicate with the dead." He wasn't trying to be stubborn; really, he wasn't.

       Mary closed her eyes for a moment, as if summoning inner strength — or, thought Ponter, as if communicating with someone somewhere else. "I know your people do not believe in an afterlife," said Mary, at last.

       "`Afterlife,'" said Ponter, serving up the word as though it were a choice gobbet of meat. "An oxymoron."

       "Not to us," said Mary. And then, more emphatically, "Not to me." She looked around. At first Ponter thought it was simply an externalization of her thoughts; he presumed she was seeking some way to explain what she was feeling. But then her eyes lighted on something, and she started walking. Ponter followed her.

       "Do you see these flowers?" said Mary.

       He nodded. "Of course."

       "They were left here, by one of the living, for one of the dead. Somebody whose name is on this panel." She pointed at the section of polished granite in front of her.

       Mary bent low. The flowers — red roses — still had long stems, and were bundled together by string. A small card was attached to the bundle with a ribbon. "`For Willie,'" said Mary, evidently reading from the card, "`from his loving sister.'"

       "Ah," said Ponter, having no better response at hand.

       Mary walked farther. She came to a fawn-colored sheet of paper leaning against the wall, and picked it up. "`Dear Carl,'" she read. She paused, and searched the panel in front of her. "This must be him," she said, reaching forward and lightly touching a name. "Carl Bowen." She continued to look at the incised name. "This one is for you, Carl," she said — apparently her own words, since she wasn't looking down at the sheet. She then lowered her eyes and read aloud, starting over at the beginning:

Dear Carl —

       I know I should have come here earlier. I wanted to. Honest, I did. But I didn't know how you would take the news. I know I was your first love, and you were mine, and no summer has been as wonderful for me as that summer of '66. I thought of you every day you were gone, and when word came that you had died, I cried and cried, and I'm crying again now as I write these words.

       I don't want you to think I ever stopped mourning you, because I didn't. But I did go on with life. I married Bucky Samuels. Remember him? From Eastside? We've got two kids, both older now than you were when you died.

       You wouldn't recognize me, I don't think. My hair has got some gray in it, which I try to hide, and I lost all my freckles long ago, but I still think of you. I love Buck very much, but I love you, too ... and I know someday, we'll see each other again.

       Love forever,


       "`See each other again'?" repeated Ponter. "But he is dead."

       Mary nodded. "She means, she'll see him when she dies, too."

       Ponter frowned. Mary walked a few steps farther along. Another letter was leaning against the wall, this one laminated in clear plastic. She picked it up. "`Dear Frankie,'" she began. She scanned the wall in front of her. "Here he is," she said. "Franklin T. Mullens III." She read the letter aloud:

Dear Frankie,

       They say a parent shouldn't outlive a child, but who expects a child to be taken when he's only 19? I miss you every day, and so does your pa. You know him — he tries to be strong in front of me, but I hear him crying softly to this day when he thinks I'm asleep.

       A mother's job is to look after her son, and I did the best I could. But now God Himself is looking after you, and I know you are safe in his loving arms.

       We will be together again, my darling son.



       Ponter didn't know what to say. The sentiments were so obviously sincere, but ... but they were irrational. Couldn't Mary see that? Couldn't the people who wrote these letters see that?

       Mary continued to read to him from letters and cards and plaques and scrolls that had been left leaning against the wall. Phrases stuck in Ponter's mind.

       "We know God is taking care of you ..."

       "I long for that day when we will all be together again ..."

       "So much forgotten / So much unsaid / But I promise to tell you all / When we meet among the dead."

       "Sleep now, beloved ..."

       "I look forward to when we are reunited ..."

       "... on that wonderful day when the Lord will reunite us in Heaven ..."

       "Goodbye — God be with ye! — until we meet again ..."

       "Take care, bro. I'll visit you again next time I'm in D.C. ..."

       "Rest in peace, my friend, rest in peace ..."

       Mary had to pause several times to wipe away tears. Ponter felt sad, too, and his eyes were likewise moist, but not, he suspected, for the same reason. "It is always hard to have a loved one die," said Ponter.

       Mary nodded slightly.

       "But ..." he continued, then fell silent.

       "Yes?" Mary prodded.

       "This memorial," said Ponter, sweeping his arm, taking in its two great walls. "What is its purpose?"

       Mary's eyebrows climbed again. "To honor the dead."

       "Not all the dead," said Ponter, softly. "These are only the Americans ..."

       "Well, yes," said Mary. "It's a monument to the sacrifice made by American soldiers, a way for the people of the United States to show that they appreciate them."

       "Appreciated," said Ponter.

       Mary looked confused.

       "Is my translator malfunctioning?" asked Ponter. "You can appreciate — present tense — what still exists; you can only have appreciated — past tense — that which is no more."

       Mary sighed, clearly not wishing to debate the point.

       "But you have not answered my question," said Ponter, gently. "What is this memorial for?"

       "I told you. To honor the dead."

       "No, no," said Ponter. "That may be an incidental effect, I grant you. But surely the purpose of the designer —"

       "Maya Ying Lin," said Mary.


       "Maya Ying Lin. That's the name of the woman who designed this."

       "Ah," said Ponter. "Well, surely her purpose — the purpose of anyone who designs a memorial — is to make sure people never forget."

       "Yes?" said Mary, sounding irritated by whatever picayune distinction she felt Ponter was making.

       "And the reason to not forget the past," said Ponter, "is so that the same mistakes can be avoided."

       "Well, yes, of course," said Mary.

       "So has this memorial served its purpose? Has the same mistake — the mistake that led to all these young people dying — been avoided since?"

       Mary thought for a time, then shook her head. "I suppose not. Wars are still fought, and —"

       "By America? By the people who built this monument?"

       "Yes," said Mary.


       "Economics. Ideology. And ..."


       Mary lifted her shoulders. "Revenge. Getting even."

       "When this country decides to go to war, where is the war declared?"

       "Um, in the Congress. I'll show you the building later."

       "Can this memorial be seen from there?"

       "This one? No, I don't think so."

       "They should do it right here," said Ponter, flatly. "Their leader — the president, no? — he should declare war right here, standing in front of these fifty-eight thousand, two hundred and nine names. Surely that should be the purpose of such a memorial: if a leader can stand and look at the names of all those who died a previous time a president declared war and still call for young people to go off and be killed in another war, then perhaps the war is worth fighting."

       Mary tilted her head to one side but said nothing.

       "After all, you said you fight to preserve your most fundamental values."

       "That's the ideal, yes," said Mary.

       "But this war — this war in Vietnam. You said it was to support a corrupt government, to prevent elections from being held."

       "Well, yes, in a way."

       "In Philadelphia you showed me where and how this country began. Is not the United States's most cherished belief that of democracy, of the will of the people being heard and done?"

       Mary nodded.

       "But then surely they should have fought a war to ensure that that ideal was upheld. To have gone to Vietnam to make sure the people there had a chance to vote would have been an American ideal. And if the Vietnam people ..."


       "As you say. If they had chosen the Communist system by vote, then the American ideal of democracy would have been served. Surely you cannot hold democracy dear only when the vote goes the way you wish it would."

       "Maybe you're right," said Mary. "A great many people thought the American involvement in Vietnam was wrong. They called it a profane war."


       "Umm, an insult to God."

       Ponter rolled his eyebrow up his browridge. "From what I have seen, this God of yours must have a thick skin."

       Mary tilted her head, conceding the point.

       "You have told me," said Ponter, "that the majority of people in this country are Christians, like you, is that not so?"


       "How big a majority?"

       "Big," said Mary. "I was actually reading up on this when I moved down here. The U.S. has a population of about 270 million." Ponter had heard this figure before, so its vastness didn't startle him this time. "About a million are atheists — they don't believe in God at all. Another twenty-five million are nonreligious; that is, they don't adhere to any particular faith. All the other faith groups combined — Jews, Buddhists, Muslims, Hindus — add up to about 15 million. Everyone else — almost 240 million — say they are Christians."

       "So this is a Christian country," said Ponter.

       "Welllll, like my home country of Canada," said Mary, "the U.S. prides itself on its tolerance of a variety of beliefs."

       Ponter waved a hand dismissively. "Two hundred and forty million out of two hundred and seventy million is almost ninety percent; it is a Christian country. And you and others have told me the core beliefs of Christians. What did Christ say about those who would attack you?"

       "The Sermon on the Mount," said Mary. She closed her eyes, presumably to aid her remembering. "`Ye have heard that it hath been said, An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth: But I say unto you, That ye resist not evil: but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also.'"

       "So revenge has no place in the policies of a Christian nation," said Ponter. "And yet you say that is a reason it fights wars. Likewise, impeding the free choice of a foreign country should have had no place in the policies of a democratic nation, and yet it fought this war in Vietnam."

       Mary said nothing.

       "Do you not see?" said Ponter. "That is what this memorial, this Vietnam veterans' wall, should serve as a reminder of: the pointlessness of death, the error — the grave error, if I may attempt my own play on words in your language — of declaring a war in contravention of your most dearly held principles."

       Mary was still silent.

       "That is the reason why future American wars should be declared here — right here. Only if the cause stands the test of supporting the most dearly held fundamental principles, then perhaps it is a war that should be fought." Ponter let his eyes run over the wall again, over the black reflection.

       Mary said nothing.

       "Still," said Ponter, "let me make a simpler proposition. Those letters you read — they are, I presume, typical?"

       Mary nodded. "Ones like them are left here every day."

       "But do you not see the problem? There is an underlying belief in those letters that the dead are not really dead. `God is taking care of you.' `We will all be together again.' `I know you are watching over me.' `Someday I will see you again.'"

       "We've been down this road before," said Mary. "My kind of humanity — not just Christians, but most Homo sapiens, no matter what their particular religion — believe that the essence of a person does not end with the death of the body. The soul lives on."

       "And that belief," said Ponter firmly, "is the problem. I have thought this since you first told me of it, but it is — what do you say? — it is driven home for me here, at this memorial, this wall of names."

       "Yes?" said Mary.

       "They are dead. They are eliminated. They no longer exist." He reached forward and touched a name he could not read. "The person who was named this." He touched another. "And the person who was named this." And he touched a third. "And the person who had this name. They are no more. Surely facing that is the real lesson of this wall. One cannot come here to speak with the dead, for the dead are dead. One cannot come here to beg forgiveness from the dead, for the dead are dead. One cannot come here to be touched by the dead, for the dead are dead. These names, these characters carved in stone — that is all that is left of them. Surely that is the message of this wall, the lesson to be learned. As long as your people keep thinking that this life is prologue, that more is to come after it, that those wronged here will be rewarded in some there yet to come, you will continue to undervalue life, and you will continue to send young people off to die."

       Mary took a deep breath and let it out slowly, apparently composing herself. She gestured with a movement of her head. Ponter turned to look. Another person — a gray-haired man — was placing a letter of his own in front of the wall. "Could you tell him?" asked Mary, speaking sharply. "Tell him that he's wasting his time? Or that woman, over there — the one on her knees, praying? Could you tell her? Disabuse her of her delusion? The belief that somewhere their loved ones still exist gives them comfort."

       Ponter shook his head. "That belief is what caused this to happen. The only way to honor the dead is by ensuring that no more enter that state prematurely."

       Mary sounded angry. "All right, then. Go tell them."

       Ponter turned and looked at the Gliksins and their ebony reflections in the wall. His people almost never took human lives, and Mary's people did it on such large scales, with such frequency. Surely this belief in God and an afterlife had to be linked to their readiness to kill.

       He took a step forward, but ...

       But, right now, these people did not look vicious, did not look bloodthirsty, did not look ready to kill. Right now, they looked sad, so incredibly sad.

       Mary was still upset with him. "Go on," she said, gesturing with a hand. "What's the holdup? Go tell them."

       Ponter thought about how sad he himself had been when Klast had died. And yet ...

       And yet, these people — these strange, strange Gliksins — were taking some comfort from their beliefs. He stared at the individuals by the wall, kept away from him by armed agents. No, no, he would not tell these mourners that their loved ones were truly gone. After all, it wasn't these sad people who had sent them off to die.

       Ponter turned toward Mary. "I understand the belief provides comfort, but ..." He shook his head. "But how do you break out of the cycle? God making killing palatable, God providing comfort after the killing is done. How do you keep from repeating it over and over again?"

       "I have no idea," said Mary.

       "You must do something," Ponter said.

       "I do," said Mary. "I pray."

       Ponter looked at her, looked back at the mourners, then turned once more to Mary, and he let his head hang, staring down at the ground in front of him, unable to face her or the thousands of names. "If I thought there was the slightest possibility it would work," he said softly, "I would join you."


An excerpt from Humans by Robert J. Sawyer. Copyright © 2003 by Robert J. Sawyer. All rights reserved.

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