That’s how many names are inscribed on the Vietnam memorial. The first name is recorded under 1959. The last, 1975.
58,276 names. Sixteen years.
The first diagnosed U.S. death from the coronavirus is now dated to February 6. Since then, 54,171 have followed.
54,172 deaths. Eighty days.
We were born the year of that first Vietnam death. We got our drivers license the year the choppers evacuated the Saigon embassy. Vietnam was the America we knew growing up, the hubris of it, the divisions from it.
The Wall itself is an artifact of those divisions. Maya Lin’s design was attacked for not being heroic, a gash in the Earth instead of a majestic monument. Even after it was approved and built, pressure continued for something proud, so they commissioned a statue of three soldiers.
Nobody talks about the statues. Everybody talks about seeing names etched in the sky, as reflected in the black granite. The design turned out not to be the political statement opponents made it to be. It was the experience the designer intended.
The Vietnam war was a failure of the American government. The deaths were unnecessary. The lives were wasted. The divisions remain with us today.
But it took sixteen years to play out. We remember a map of Vietnam on our babysitter’s wall, with pins showing the locations of her son the Army cook. We remember the nightly news, the weekly death tolls.
The deadliest week for American soldiers was during the 1968 Tet Offensive. Over just seven days in February, 543 were killed.
3,179 Americans died of Covid-19 just last Friday. The attack on Pearl Harbor, the day that would live in infamy, killed 2,403. The 9/11 attacks killed 2,996.
It’s almost impossible to take in the scale of what’s happening right now — not just the numbers, but the compression of them, so many so quickly. Someone suggested a football stadium 15,000 deaths ago, but that didn’t capture the horror for us.
And then we thought of Vietnam, the numbers, the government, the consequences — and the time everybody had to take it all in. That’s the scale. That’s the comparison.
At least today.
Because the next benchmark is Nagasaki. And after that, Hiroshima. And we’re already more than a third of the way there.