The boy I never met

18th April 2003 at 01:00
WHEN I was at university in the early seventies, I fell in love with an American girl and, in due course, was similarly impressed by her hometown in the Midwest.

Washington, Indiana, was a friendly town of around 10,000 people, founded by German and Irish immigrants in the 1850s. Being a crossroads, it had some history as a railroad centre and there was a naval establishment nearby supplying armaments to the US forces.

Other than that, its major claim to fame was that Bobby Kennedy addressed a campaign meeting on Main Street during his last swing through the Midwest in his ill-fated quest for the Democratic nomination in 1968.

It was "Anytown" America, with white-painted wooden houses surrounded by neat lawns, the Five and Dime on Main Street, the water tower with the graduation class graffiti and little league baseball on summer evenings in the park. I loved it all.

I got to know Bill and Julie and Steve and the rest of my girlfriend's school mates and scanned the pages of her high school yearbook, taking in the jokes and dreams contributed by classmates about to graduate.

One smiling face from those pages I didn't meet. Tim Lynch was in the middle of a family of eight; his dad ran the town's barber shop. At the age of 20, in August 1971, the supply depot in which he was working, at Quang Ngai in Vietnam, was hit by "friendly fire". He died of his burns. He had been due to come home three weeks later.

I haven't been to Indiana for more than 20 years, but I've never forgotten Tim Lynch. With the media once again full of young men dying in distant places, I turned to Tim's memory as our students grappled with how to react to the war in a less negative manner than simply walking out of school.

I shared with them Tim's story and showed them a picture of the smiling soldier, available on the Vietnam veterans' website, and taken only weeks before his death.

Without exception, the history of this likeable but ordinary young man moved them to begin considering the human cost of war, its effect on whole generations and the individual suffering that lies behind the orgy of media coverage and political spin. Hopefully it has given some small meaning to the arbitrary death of a young man, 30 years ago, and far from home.

The soundtrack to these memories is provided by Eric Bogle's The Green Fields of France, as he reminds young Willie McBride that the Great War was not "the war to end all wars", for it happened "again and again and again and again". And still it goes on.

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