During the Cold War era, the USA viewed Vietnam as a domino; it was the first in line that could knock down an extensive trail of others. However, these dominoes were not recreational. To the contrary, their fall would mean a dangerous spread of communism across Southeast Asia. Therefore, in 1954 the United States of America, the ultimate defender of capitalism, sent troops to Vietnam in an effort to disassemble the dominoes of communism and secure capitalism. (Eisenhower, Dwight. “Domino Theory”)
The United States’ involvement in Vietnam was a failure.
When the external world forces withdrew from Vietnam in 1973, North Vietnam usurped the South and indeed, the country became communist. However, the Domino Theory did not occur. Ironically, an unintended “domino effect” of another sort occurred in the United States. America’s internal “domino effect” was tipped off by the deaths of American soldiers abroad and consequently led to a range of long-lasting impacts and lessons for their families at home. Just like a domino, any story of selflessness is destined to survive the passage of time and be passed along the generations because it is fundamental to what we as humans hold on to when times seem darkest. For my family, because of one soldier, the dominoes are still falling three generations later.
Decades ago in a foxhole on the grounds of Vietnam, my uncle Larry performed a powerful and beautiful act during that captures the essence of what it means to be “giving”. Although we are separated by time and space, uncle Larry taught that giving means selflessness to a domino line of people including his mother, brother, my father, me, as well as the lineages of the two men to whom he gave his life for.
One act, an act I consider truly “giving”, earned my uncle Larry the Distinguished Service Medal, the second highest honor that the United States of America can bestow upon servicemen. During a ferocious fight in 1967, Larry threw himself on top of an enemy hand grenade, giving his life so that his brothers in arms might live. With this sacrificial act, my uncle Larry physically taught us what “giving” is. This single manifestation of selflessness had far-reaching and long-lasting effects. Because in addition to giving up his life for the sake of two companions, he also gave up a future of growing old with his brother and with his mother. He gave his cousin—my father—his first experience of death, and he gave me a profound understanding of what a soldier’s sacrifice means.
“It was like a scene right out of a movie”, my uncle Armando said. It was a normal Sunday morning, and he and his mother were preparing to go to church when two men in military uniforms knocked at the door. They informed Armando that his brother Larry had been killed in action in Vietnam, just three months short of his return home. In a steady and slow voice, my uncle Armando recalls what his mother told him that morning: “The hurt of a mother who has lost a son is a hurt like no other.” Any parent would agree that they want their children to outlive them; no parent should have to bury a child.
Like falling dominoes, an act of selflessness has far-reaching impacts. Armando feels that he was robbed of a future with his brother. I could feel the pensiveness in his voice when he said he wishes they had had the opportunity to bond and make more memories together once Larry returned home. In letters, Larry would frequently describe in detail the plans that he had in mind for them upon his return. Larry’s decision to give his own life had a domino effect that continues to force Armando and their mother to also give up a part of their own lives—the portion that was saved for Larry.
This domino effect reached people past the scope of Larry’s immediate family: my father was seven years old when Larry gave him his first experience of a death. My dad did not understand what was happening at Larry’s funeral service because before that day, he had viewed war as a game; he and the neighborhood kids would play “army” pretending to kill each other hours on end. They had a glamorous image of war because of the way TV portrayed it. In a popular show called Combat, my dad recalls watching soldiers fight the “evil Germans”. In it, “the main characters never died. Never. Only the bad guys did.” For the first time in his life, my father realized that even a good guy could die and that death was not glamorous but instead painful.
At the burial site, my dad remembers hearing the bugles playing “Taps” and the anguished cries of mourning. The scene that struck him the most was Larry and Armando’s mother who, wailing loudly, threw herself onto the coffin. My father describes, “She wouldn’t let go; she was speaking in Spanish asking someone in heaven to take care of him.” She was giving Larry to someone else, to the next domino.
Forty-seven years later, Larry’s story continues to teach what true giving means. When I was in the 8th grade, my father and I visited the Vietnam Memorial Wall in Washington DC. The Vietnam Wall, just like Alice Oswald’s Memorial: A Version of Homer’s Iliad, has “a strange, luminous quality” (Logan, “Plains of Blood.”). The names inscribed on the Wall, “all that life almost [five decades] old, have been reduced to little more than a bureaucracy of death.” Yet, the Vietnam Wall’s simple imposition is just as moving as Oswald’s quiet way of facing death. If Oswald calls her Memorial an “oral cemetery”, then I call the Vietnam Wall a physical history of the fallen; it was there that I first learned about my relative.
Although the Vietnam War did not personally impact me, Uncle Larry’s story of selflessness did. Touching his name and those of the many other fallen on the Wall made me realize that war is a grand-scale story of giving; everyone listed on those granite panels made a selfless sacrifice. This is something that is fundamentally more profound, powerful, and beautiful than the outcome of any war. After reflecting, I came to the conclusion that as poignant as the idea that war is the manifestation of death is, the belief that soldiers are the manifestation of giving is a hopeful reminder that humanity is not lost when we reduce ourselves to the evils of war but rather, transcends when times are darkest.
Larry is just one man among countless individuals who, throughout history, have given their lives in the name of defending freedom. But I don’t think they realized that their selflessness would start a domino effect that would give so much more than that. They gave those on the home front stories. They gave us a sense of identity. They gave us culture, and their histories taught us lessons. They brought us unity during trying and stressful times. They gave us the paragon of what it means to be giving. My Uncle Larry showed me that goodness is more powerful than the drama and evils of war.
Eisenhower, Dwight. “Domino Theory.” News Conference. 7 April 1954.
Spector, Ronald H. “The United States Enters the War.” Encyclopedia Britannica Online. Encyclopedia Britannica, n.d. Web. 22 Apr. 2014.
Logan, William. “Plains of Blood.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 22 Dec. 2012. Web. 24 Apr. 2014.
Oswald, Alice. Memorial: a Version of Homer’s Iliad. New York: W. W. Norton, 2011. Print.