Elder Lance B. Wickman, emeritus member of the First Quorum of the Seventy, addressed veterans and their families at the Saints of War conference Nov. 11 at BYU. Elder Wickman served as a U.S. Army Ranger and captain from 1964 to 1969, serving twice in Vietnam as an infantry platoon leader and as military advisory to the Army of the Republic of Vietnam, receiving a Bronze Star, the Purple Heart, the Valorous Unit Award and the Combat Infantryman Badge.
With the circumstances of that war steeped in controversy, Wickman said Americans have struggled to find the purpose for the Vietnam War. To the servicemen and families who gave everything, that is a difficult wound to salve.
Wickman’s address, titled “The Wall: Reflections on the Legacy of Vietnam,” reminded veterans that their service, their honorable response to their country’s call was their legacy, for the nation and for their personal lives.
The Wall, the Vietnam memorial in Washington, D.C., is unique among monuments. No heroic statues or commanders on horses. The monument is merely a list of names, Wickman said. “But no ordinary list. Panel after panel of names, column upon column, row upon row of names. At present, more than 58,000 names, most of them young men.”
Wickman said of those who came home living or dead, few beyond families and loved ones noted their return because the country was preoccupied with the controversy surrounding the war.
“But there is a serenity, a deep sense of nobility that permeates the aura surrounding the Wall,” he said. “One is struck by the spirit of sacrifice, of consecration that the wall represents. The conflict was distant. Many of the dead may never have known exactly why they were fighting; they knew only that their country had called, and ultimately, they gave all. It is a legacy to the nation, to the Church and to each veteran who served there.”
With a rosy hue cast on each of the previous wars, the war in Vietnam took the nation to new depths of controversy. The history of the time was complicated, with a two-decade long Cold War tension, an emerging Civil Rights movement and the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.
After a near decade-long descent in to the maelstrom of the Vietnam War, and more than 58,000 combat deaths, Wickman said the United States withdrew and watched “as the anemic forces of the corrupt South Vietnamese regime succumbed to communist North Vietnam.”
With the Vietnam War labeled a failure by history experts and analysts, many asked, “And what for?”
“Was our nation’s involvement in Vietnam worth the time, treasure, tears and most of all the tragedy and individual lives that it cost?” Wickman asked. “The overwhelming verdict has been a negative.”
In the middle of the declaration that Vietnam was a failed policy, he said, largely forgotten was the veteran who bears the scars of the conflict. “Was it really all for naught?” he asked.
The balm, he suggested, is in an alternative viewpoint.
“It is well to note that there is a different perspective; not every present day commentator has viewed it as a defeat. Viewed as a long battle in an even longer Cold War, some observers see the Vietnam War as ‘the necessary war,’” Wickman said.
Michael Lind, a senior fellow at the New America Foundation, wrote, “Only now is it possible to view the cold war as a whole and to evaluate the U.S. strategy of global containment that led to U.S. wars in defense of South Korea and South Vietnam… Once the Vietnam War is viewed in the context of the Cold War it looks less like a tragic error than like a battle that could hardly be avoided. The Cold War was fought as a siege in Europe and as a series of duels elsewhere in the world, chiefly in Korea and Indochina. Had the United States repeatedly refused to take part in proxy war duels with the Soviet Union and with China during its anti-American phase, it seems likely that there would have been a dramatic post-Soviet realignment in world politics, no matter how many missiles rusted in their silos in the American West and no matter how many U.S. troops remained stationed in West Germany. The United States then was fated to either forfeit the Cold War or alternatively to fight in difficult conditions on battlefields that its enemies chose.”
“So there it is,” Wickman said, “a contemporary view that Vietnam was less about winning territory than it was about the United States demonstrating to friend and foe alike that it would meet its commitments, and that it would not back away from Soviet aggression. What matters in war ultimately is not the outcome of a particular battle, but that the war itself ends in victory, as the Cold War most certainly did for the United States.”
Wickman said it can’t be known if this will be the view that is taken as generations pass and historians reflect on the Vietnam War.
“It is enough today to simply offer the perspective that the cause was worthy, and undertaken in the best interest of our country as seen by the nation’s leader in the challenging crucible of that perplexing time. Those who served, those who fought and especially those who died were willing to offer themselves in that crucible in order that America remain true to its loadstar of liberty and justice for all.”
Along with a national legacy, part of the personal legacy that Elder Wickman gleaned from Vietnam was a deepening experience with the Book of Mormon.
“I came to know Mormon and Captain Moroni,” he said. “As Mormon described combat as dreadful, and the work of death, I knew exactly what he meant. Even more important under the circumstances, I knew that they knew what I was experiencing. For the first time, I gained an appreciation for the war chapters. I realized that they had been written for me, and for every other Mormon soldier who would be drawn into the wars of the last days. I learned from these great soldier prophets that one could be a combat soldier and still be free from the blood and stains of war. I drew great reassurance for the welfare of my own soul from these magnificent passages.”
“To this day when I gaze at the image of the Angel Moroni atop one of our temples, I remember that this angel of the restoration was once a soldier.”
While he would not care to repeat the Vietnam experience, Wickman said it was defining. “In my case I treasure and would not trade those defining experiences that have had the convincing power of God, His love, and the reality of the Restoration.”
To his peers, he prayed that in their own customized Vietnam experience, they would each see their personal nuggets of truth, testimony and tender mercies.