Sure, let’s talk about the Vietnam War
As many news organizations have noted, in just three months the American death toll from the coronavirus has exceeded the number of Americans who were killed in the Vietnam War.
This may feel like just another statistic to younger generations, but many who lived through that war hear it and might need a moment. This is not ancient history for us.
Of the 59,220 who died in Vietnam, 26 were from my home county in northeast Ohio. We didn’t have many college or bone-spur deferments in Ashtabula County, which was full of working-class and rural families. Of those who survived, so many came home irreparably different, having left big parts of themselves behind.
For too many, the war has never ended. Decades later, many of our Vietnam War veterans are suffering, and dying, from their exposure to Agent Orange. We should never forget the ongoing toll of that war; certainly, they cannot.
Any number I give you for those lost to the coronavirus will be inaccurate, as it continues to grow. As of Tuesday night, April 28, Johns Hopkins University reported the number to be 53,365.
Another important tally as of that date, and one that is too seldom reported, represents how many in America have recovered: 117,114. We can’t know how many of their lives will be permanently worse, or possibly shortened, because of this monstrous virus. Uncertainty is the current game plan.
April 28’s death toll of 53,365 isn’t the whole story. Untold numbers of relatives, friends and colleagues are now grieving, and their suffering has been compounded by the necessary restrictions that kept them away in their loved ones’ darkest, final hours. Funerals are on hold; no wakes or sitting shiva, no multiple embraces that assure them they are not alone. Our country will feel the impact of this pandemic long after it is finally over.
The Vietnam War comparison carries an additional significance here in Ohio because of its timing. On Monday, May 4, Kent State University had planned a number of public events, but will now quietly commemorate the 50th anniversary of a tragedy on its campus that shocked the world.
On that day in 1970, the campus was crawling with Ohio National Guardsmen because of Ohio Gov. James Rhodes, who two days earlier compared anti-war protesters there to Nazis and the Ku Klux Klan.
“They’re worse than the brownshirts and the communist element and also the nightriders and the vigilantes,” he said. “They’re the worst type of people that we harbor in America.”
Such dangerous rhetoric from an elected leader sounds so recent, so familiar.
Hundreds of students had gathered around noon to protest U.S. bombings in Cambodia a clear escalation of the Vietnam War. Suddenly, 28 National Guardsmen turned on the unarmed crowd and fired between 61 and 67 shots in 13 seconds. Four students were dead, and nine others were injured.
There’s something else we should be talking about if we’re going to compare the death tolls of the Vietnam War and the coronavirus.
Earlier this week, Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine, who has been showing exemplary leadership during the pandemic, suddenly announced that face masks are now only recommended, instead of mandated. He had changed his mind, he said, because he had heard that requiring masks was “offensive to some of our fellow Ohioans.”
Two hours later, his office amended this new policy to stipulate that masks would still be required in the workplace and for store employees.
Fabric face masks can limit the spread of the virus by an infected person, but they do not protect the wearer. They are effective in preventing the spread of COVOID-19 only if all of us wear them.
With this new policy, hourly wage workers are required to protect customers, but they will be at greater risk of contracting the virus and dying from it.
These workers are the same population of Americans who were more likely to be drafted to fight in the Vietnam War, and to die there. Except now, it includes women.
If we want to talk about what’s offensive, let’s start there.
Connie Schultz is a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist and professional in residence at Kent State University’s school of journalism. Email at schultz.connie @gmail.com.