Shrapnel in the Heart

A black-granite structure, erected in Washington, D.C., in 1982, memorializes the American servicemen who died in the Vietnam War. 58,132 names are inscribed on this monument. To Laura Palmer, an experienced journalist who covered the war, this number became more than a sad statistic of a conflict that once roused popular passions but now has become part of history.

Many family members of the young men who lost their lives have left letters and poems at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. Laura Palmer found reading these so affecting that she interviewed as many of the families as she could, traveling all over the United States to do so. Because they fought in an unpopular war, the veterans of Vietnam have not received the usual esteem granted those who have given their lives for their country. Palmer tries to remedy this situation by devoting a few pages to each of twenty-nine veterans. These brief biographies fall into a common pattern. They begin with a photograph of the serviceman, usually a man in his early twenties. Letters of the family or of the G.I. himself follow. These prepare the reader for the interview with the man’s relatives and friends, along with a capsule biography.

Reading this book is a sad experience. What greater loss can there be than for a mother or father to lose an adult son? The family members usually cannot say very much other than that their Eddie or Allan or Clifford was a fine young man and that they will miss him. Nothing extraordinary--yet it is difficult to read a sentence such as this without turning from the page: “Adeline no longer imagines her son coming home, but letters about him still find their way to Gene’s old house on Montana Street.”

What did Palmer hope to achieve by stringing together one sad story after another? That people find the loss of their children painful is hardly news, nor is it unknown that war is a horrible business. The soldiers deserve to be remembered, as Palmer says, but reading these plangent tales will dishearten most readers. Surprisingly, Palmer herself did not find the interviews depressing; she was managing, in a small way, to overcome the forces of indifference and forgetfulness.