Facing It

by James Willie Brown

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Last Updated on September 5, 2023, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 469

"Facing It" is a deceptively simple poem in which, in a few brief lines, multiple themes involving not just the Vietnam War but the broader problems of America, past, present, and future, are articulated. As the speaker views the Vietnam Veterans' Memorial, he imagines himself almost physically merging with it, or fading and "hiding" within it. He alludes to the color of his face and to that of the granite. Therefore the theme of race is touched upon at the start, and implicit in the speaker's words is a connection between his race and the war in which he served.

Vietnam was a conflict in which African American men served disproportionately, as did working-class white men, in relation to the overall population at home. The speaker does not mention this specifically, since it is something most people are already aware of. But just before the close of the poem he mentions the presence at the Memorial of a white veteran who has lost an arm. That the speaker mentions the race of both himself and his fellow soldier indicates, in my view, this subtext of racial division that unfortunately persists, but perhaps also of the even greater cleft between the races during the Vietnam period. A corollary of this point is the theme of why the US was even fighting this war, 10,000 miles from home, and the possibility that there is a connection between the racial dynamic of America and the reasons for the war. None of this is stated explicitly, but it doesn't have to be.

The theme of guilt experienced by survivors of any conflict is implied in the speaker's impression that a bird of prey is embodied in the reflection that stares back at him from the surface of the monument. Is it the survivor's eternal question of why he was spared, or is it the ongoing menace that lingers from the conflict and the suffering that continues even after the fighting has ended? We do not know. When he tells us that he half expects to find his own name on the wall, the implication is that those who have come home have not fully survived—that some part of them has been killed in spite of their having continued physically to live.

But perhaps the most significant of the poem's themes is that the war—this war or any war—has never really ended. The images from it persist in the speaker's mind: the "booby trap's white flash," the "plane in the sky." Yet those who have not been there, we do not have to be told explicitly, are disconnected from the phenomenon of war. The speaker at the close imagines a woman is trying to "erase the names" on the black mirror of the monument, but she is merely brushing a boy's hair.

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