Chance rules. Leaders lie. Deaths become statistics. The parallels between the disease and the war are everywhere.
By David Gerstel
Mr. Gerstel is a Vietnam veteran.
May 9, 2020
SARNANO, Italy — A very long time ago, I was one of more than two million American men and women who served their country in Vietnam. We fought; too many of us became casualties and died. We were gone from home and half forgotten, living and dying in an alternative reality.
It was chance that determined survival: which unit required replacements, what transportation was available that day, where the fighting was heaviest and needed support — as random as a typewriter keyboard strike, the list of names carried in a sergeant’s shirt pocket, even a person’s height, which might determine the weapon you carried and where you were placed in the line on patrol.
Some of us felt friends would get you through; others knew that being alone was safer, with less feeling and connection. In the end it was chance. The numbers could be improved but not enough to offset random death. The process of division created us and them, those who walked home and those who were carried.
Now I live in a small hill town in Italy, constructed with old walls to keep out strangers and the Black Death. The country, like the United States, has been hit hard by the coronavirus outbreak, and I cannot help thinking how much the experience echoes Vietnam — a comparison brought sharply into focus in recent days, as the number of Americans killed by Covid-19 shot past the number killed in Southeast Asia, a half century ago.