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This is written the day after Memorial Day. I awoke that morning aware of what day it was. I put up the flag. I stood up as straight as I could. and saluted, in the way that old veterans do. With my mug of tea in hand, I sat outside for a while, with one eye on the flag and the other on the beautiful day. I was grateful for the day and to be alive, but I was sad, because I thought of my old friend, Dave Wax.

Let me explain.

Dave was my first friend in kindergarten when we began school in the fall of 1946. We stayed together for the next twelve years until we graduated in the class of 1959 from Brookline High School in Brookline, Massachusetts. We had a paper route together in our seventh-grade year. Dave was a good guy, and I was glad to be his friend.

He once told me his family’s original name in Polish, but, because it was unpronounceable for most Americans, they changed it to Wax. This was done in the 1940s and 1950s by a lot of the Jewish families in my school. His family had escaped the holocaust in Europe, and they were very glad to be Americans now. As in my own family, also immigrants, being an American was a big deal. We were patriotic.

David Wax, graduation from the Air Force Academy, 1963.

Dave was a hero of our graduating class, as he was accepted to the Air Force Academy. He had it in his mind that he wanted to fly airplanes, and he wanted to serve his county.

In my family it was assumed that I would serve too. When information came from Boston University, where I was to attend, about the ROTC program, my parents and I discussed it at the kitchen table. We reckoned that since I was to be drafted later on, in any case, why not accept the honor of going in as an officer. I enrolled in ROTC.

Dave and I were commissioned as officers about the same time in the spring of 1963. He graduated in Colorado, I in Massachusetts. I was given a deferment to do PhD studies, as the Army was then in a phase of wanting well educated officers. I guess they hoped I would be a careerist. While I was in grad school, Dave had completed flight school, and was ordered to serve in Vietnam.

In one of his missions, he was shot down over North Vietnam, and, it was presumed, killed. His remains have never been found. His name is on the wall in Washington DC. I have reached up on that wall and touched the etched letters, “David Wax.” It was moving in a way that is hard to describe here…

With my PhD in hand at age 25, I was ordered to active duty. This was 1967, when the Vietnam war was raging at its worst. After officers basic training in Georgia, I received orders to go to Vietnam, assigned as a company commander in an infantry unit. (Not to put too fine a point on it – but not a hopeful life expectancy).

Before I was to deploy, my orders were changed. I was sent to Germany, where I was assigned as “commanding officer” of the History Detachment at the Headquarters of the United States Army in Europe (USAEUR) in Heidelberg. Some “command” – just me and three enlisted men! I spent the rest of my active duty writing history for USAEUR and performing other duties that required access to highly classified documents. In 1969, I returned home, happy to be alive and uninjured, but, in truth, feeling a bit guilty, because others – especially Dave – didn’t make it home.

Later, I was told by a friend that she had seen Mrs. Wax and found her unhappy. By then, in the late 1970s, there was a growing awareness that Vietnam had been an unnecessary war, that it was, in fact, a war we didn’t have to fight. Dave’s mother was, apparently, affected by this, because she had given her son to her adopted country. He had died in its service. But she apparently wondered if he had died for nothing.

That has haunted me ever since. And, on this Memorial Day, I thought of all that, outside my garage, with the flag waving. I recalled Archibald MacLeish’s poem, composed at the World War I Memorial in Washington, DC.

The Young Dead Soldiers Do Not Speak

Nevertheless, they are heard in the still houses. Who has not heard them?
They have a silence that speaks for them at night, when the clock counts.
They say, we were young, we have died. Remember us.
They say, we have done what we could, but until it is finished, it is not done.
They say, Our deaths are not ours but yours; they will mean what you make them.
They say, whether or not our lives and our deaths were for peace and a new hope or for nothing, we cannot say: it is you who must say this.
They say, we leave you our deaths, give them their meaning.
We were young, they say; Remember us.

For the generations that fought in the two great world wars of the twentieth century, MacLeish’s poem can be a satisfactory rhetoric. We died and paid a price for the common good, especially in the preservation of democracy. Now future generations can be called to do their part in the same effort.

But, what if a later war, that took the lives of our brightest and best, was not worthy of such rhetoric?

When I was in Germany, we had a high-level visit by a group of officers from NATO Headquarters in Brussels. The commanding General spoke to a gathering of all the officers at USAEUR — including very junior ones like me. He asked us to remember the vocation of NATO, that we were the “freedom fighters,” so to speak, in defense of liberal democracy.

That was a good and satisfying pep talk for us gathered in Heidelberg that day. And it speaks to the outstanding work that NATO continues to do (Vladimir Putin, are you listening?).

But the realities of the Vietnam War do not resonate with that admirable ideal. Just try to explain that to the parents of David Wax. He died young and that robbed his parents of seeing him married and having a family, and them having grandchildren. And, as his mother asked, “for what?”

You can see why Memorial Day can be a hard day to reckon with. On the one hand, we celebrate the service of “the greatest generation,” like my uncle, Graham Wells, who served in Europe, where his Newfoundland regiment was folded into the British Army command. He never forgot the scenes he saw when his unit liberated a concentration camp. He was proud of serving where and when he did. His extended family was proud of him too.

Vietnam was not the same sort of war. So, when Memorial Day comes around, I lament for my friends and age mates who served, and were wounded or killed, in that war. It is hard merely to say to my friend Dave “thank you for your service.” Instead, I say, “may you rest in peace.”

Header photo is a Vietnam era C-130E Hercules transport plane, the type of plane First Lieutenant Wax was in when he was killed.
Vietnam Memorial photo by David Trinks on Unsplash

Ronald Wells

Ronald Wells is Professor of History, Emeritus at Calvin University, and Captain, United States Army, 1967- 69.


  • Dale Cooper says:

    Deeply moving–and arresting, Ron. My thanks.

  • Tom Boogaart says:

    Dr. Wells,

    I remember sitting in your class in 1971. You were telling a story about sitting in a pub and listening to a band singing various rock and roll songs. The band asked for requests from the audience and you called out, “Sing a song of social significance!” It caught them off guard and changed the atmosphere. Now I know some of the history behind your challenge.

  • James C Dekker says:

    Thank you so very much, Ron. Living in Canada as a US Army veteran and dual citizen, I rarely remember Memorial Day. Your deep-hearted words will, I pray, blot out that forgetfulness from now on. I too served in Germany in the early 70s, a cushy Army job if ever there was one. But several good friends were wounded profoundly in Viet Nam, the wounds of which are unseen, but life-altering. As a CRC kid, I tried to go C.O., but that simply could not be. Thus I was drafted out of grad school, b/c the study of German language and literature was not deemed crucial for national security. But the Chaplain’s Assistant job gave birth to an unexpected sense of respect for my fellow draftees and volunteers, b/c my bosses were good men who’d served in Nam and already then expressed powerfully ambivalent attitudes to that war, attitudes they saw as crucial and healing in their vocations as pastors to men wounded inside and out.

  • Jim says:

    Now everyone can see why you were—and are—such a powerful teacher. My enduring thanks.

    • Ruth says:

      Yes! Grateful for my many Ron Wells classes and a single Paul Henry class that nurtured my ability to think seriously, deeply, and critically.

  • Steven Tryon says:

    Thanks, Ron. I went on active duty in 1973. Flew Army UH-1H helicopters out of Fort Richardson, Alaska. (What a place for a flying job!) Many of the warrants and RLOs I flew with were straight back from Vietnam. It had changed them.

  • Tony Diekema says:

    Hey, Ron, thank you so much for this powerfully moving story! It prompted me to specific action on this beautiful Flag Day in West Michigan. I quickly replaced my Friesian flag (this is Holland Home after all!) with my Old Glory flag and, like you, saluted it in the midst of similar solemn stories of those many events in the 70s. You’ve awakened many memories, and you have made my day! Thanks!

  • Dear Ron,
    Thank you for your service to our country and the Calvin community. I enjoyed your classes and always remember your quote ” the business of our country is Business!” You were an inspiring teacher of American history, Hope you are well and enjoying your retirement years.

  • David E Stravers says:

    Thanks for helping us to better understand the human toll of war. So sorry that the Vietnam conflict cut off David Wax from all of his relations and friendships, not to mention the 50,000+ others so affected. Having enrolled at Calvin at the height of the conflict, I could have joined them, but by God’s grace you and I are still here to loudly declare that what happened back then was wrong. The wars that followed were also wrong. When will it end?

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