For the Birds Radio Program: Veterans Day

Original Air Date: Nov. 11, 1988

Laura remembers the boys she went to elementary school with who died in Vietnam.

Duration: 4′06″


(Recording of a Mockingbird)

Many people who care about the problems facing the human race get annoyed with those of us who care about animals. These people often complain that in a world of human suffering, it’s an outrage to devote human resources to mere animals, whether they be laboratory rabbits or endangered whales. But to me, the ability to feel compassion for all creatures is part of what marks humanity as unique in the animal kingdom. And how we care for the least loved of our brethren, from the hungry and homeless people on city streets to begging House Sparrows at McDonalds, tells more about our basic decency than how many children and teachers we can force into reciting the Pledge of Allegiance.

People who love birds seem for the most part to be non-militaristic, though that rule does have exceptions. James Schlesinger, who advised Richard Nixon during the Vietnam War, was an avid birder. And on the other hand, you’ll never see Mother Teresa or Bishop Tutu whipping out binoculars to identify a rare bird. But overall, the people who care about birds don’t turn their backs on humanity, and don’t approve of bombing other people simply to make a point.

Back in World War II, which had more of a purpose than most wars, many ornithologists found work in the Army Signal Corps working with carrier pigeons, or serving as lookouts because their ability to discern subtleties in silhouettes and flight patterns of birds made them uniquely qualified to recognize enemy planes from a distance. World War II had a place for everyone, and people from the upper classes fought side by side with those from the working class. But the war in Vietnam was different—it was fought by the poor and uneducated—the kind of people who seldom have a chance to learn about birds.

The Catholic Church in the working class suburb of Chicago where I grew up has a list of the parish’s Vietnam war dead and missing engraved on a wall in the lobby. The names of several boys I went to elementary school with are among them. Nobody at my school knew much about nature—I taught myself about birds long after the church wall was filled up with boys’ names. My brother, one of the ones who came back in one piece, used to play Davy Crockett when he was a kid, and taught himself how to shoot squirrels and birds. He went into the army a skilled marksman, and went hunting whenever he got leave time. He’s no birdwatcher, but he is the only one in my family who doesn’t find my habit eccentric and even a little disappointing. He and I have worked out an unstated pact—I don’t make him feel like scum for shooting birds, and he doesn’t make me feel like Miss Jane Hathaway for watching them.

But there were too many other boys who have stayed boys in their tombs as the rest of us grew up, boys who will never have a chance to learn about the wonders of the natural world, who will never again hear birdsong. Thinking of them brings to mind the words written by Maj. Michael Davis O’Donnell two months before he was reported missing in action in 1970, and published in the federal guide to the Vietnam Memorial:

If you are able,
save for them a place
inside of you…
and save one backward glance
when you are leaving
for the places they can
no longer go…
Be not ashamed to say
you loved them,
though you may
or may not have always…
Take what they have left
and what they have taught you
with their dying
and keep it with your own…
And in that time
when men decide and feel safe
to call the war insane,
take one moment to embrace
those gentle heroes
you left behind....

(Recording of a Mockingbird)

This is Laura Erickson, and this program has been “For the Birds.”