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Yours was the greater love…

March 29th, 2016 Leave a comment Go to comments


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Today is Vietnam Veterans Day. I joined the Navy in 1972 as the war in Vietnam was winding down. When I enlisted Nixon was President, and when I was discharged Reagan was, and I served through the Ford and Carter administrations. When I enlisted I was offered a choice of duty station and I chose the Mediterranean on the theory that that was about as far from Vietnam as I could get. Even though, I knew and experienced the disdain the American people at that time felt toward the US military. Many people are very critical of Ronald Reagan but one of the things he did do was to help Americans realize the raw deal received by the Vietnam vet. Many of them did not choose to be involved in the war, many in fact were opposed to the war, especially after it became clear that the blood of American kids was being sacrificed in cynical political games. Reagan became the spokesman of the generations of older veterans who had abandoned the Vietnam vet. Veterans finally began to be regarded with the respect they deserved.

Accompanying this re-evaluation of the veteran was a re-evaluation of the use of American military force. After Vietnam the military itself was neglected because it was held to blame for Vietnam. But in the Reagan years we became able to separate the soldier from the conflict. We could acknowledge that American intervention in Vietnam had been an enormous blunder, but at the same time respect those who had been sacrificed to it. We could tell ourselves that American involvement in Vietnam was bad, but that in general American military force was good. Reagan reminded us that it was American military force that liberated the world from Fascism and Japanese militarism. And that was good. Moving away from the questioning of America’s role in the world Carter described as a national malaise, Americans began to once again see the use of military force in terms of our God-given mission to free the world from tyranny.[1]

Beginning with tiny interventions in Granada and Panama Americans once again became comfortable with the extension of American military power. The commitment to an all-volunteer force meant that the public in general had no skin in the game; they could become mere spectators of American military action. Bush 41 was able to assemble a coalition to “liberate” the Kingdom of Kuwait in the name of democracy, setting the stage for Bush 43’s intervention in Iraq. It was a terrible mistake, but it made for great TV. Absent conscription politicians could deploy America’s kids in harm’s way for dubious reasons and silence all critics, foreign and domestic, with accusations of disloyalty and complicity with the enemy. When the public was confronted with news of unspeakable atrocities committed in the name of freedom, we either pointed to the burning twin towers, or we shrugged it off with W.T. Sherman’s observation that war is hell. If you don’t want hell, don’t fight the war.

One of the exercises I have my freshman US history students do is to read testimonies of soldiers who went to fight in Vietnam in 1965 and those who went to fight in Iraq in 2003. One of the things I hope they will notice is that the soldier who went to fight in Vietnam went with starry-eyed Kennedy-esque idealism. They went with the belief they were going to help people. The soldiers who went to Iraq were much more cynical. Many of them joined because military service offered opportunities they couldn’t otherwise take advantage of: a chance to attend college and to achieve a middle-class lifestyle. Many of them were skeptical they were going to liberate anyone, and many of them viewed being sent to Iraq as a terrible disruption of their plans. One soldier who penned a memoir of his experience wrote, “We pretended to help people who pretended to appreciate it.” He had joined the National Guard to take advantage of a free education, and was bitter that before he could graduate he was called to active duty.[2]

I point this out not to take anything away from the men and women who performed and continue to perform their missions in the US military admirably. The failure ultimately is ours, not theirs. By separating the mission from the one who accomplishes it, we are able to venerate the sacrifice and bravery of men and women who spend it in misguided foreign fiascoes.  Any criticism of the fiasco is seen as a criticism of those who are stuck carrying it out. So we hide execrable policy behind excellent people. And we are left with mindless expressions of fake gratitude by a public for whom the suffering and disruptions of war are an unpleasant story on the news, if that. Happy Vietnam Veterans Day.

Vietnam veterans have earned the respect the nation once denied them. The veterans of today no less. But that respect should be accompanied by a national commitment to support future veterans by ensuring the missions we call them to are worthy of the nation they represent. This day of remembrance honors the veteran. It’s not about the war in which they fought or the generals and politicians who played them like pawns in a grisly game. It’s about their spirit of love and sacrifice; what they were willing to give: for each other, and for their country.

I think this memoir by a Vietnam vet for his fallen comrade expresses it best:

So much was lost with you, so much talent and intelligence and decency. You were the first from our class of 1964 to die. There were others, but you were the first and more: you embodied the best that was in us. You were a part of us, and a part of us died with you, the small part that was still young, that had not yet grown cynical, grown bitter and old with death. Your courage was an example to us, and whatever the rights and wrongs of the war, nothing can diminish the rightness of what you tried to do. Yours was the greater love. You died for the man you tried to save, and you died pro patria. It was not altogether sweet and fitting, your death, but I’m sure you died believing it was pro patria. You were faithful. Your country was not. As I write this, eleven years after your death, the country for which you died wishes to forget the war in which you died. Its very name is a curse. There are no monuments to its heroes, no statues in small-town squares and city parks, no plaques nor public wreaths, nor memorials. For plaques and wreaths and memorials are reminders, and they would make it harder for your country to sink into the amnesia for which it longs. It wishes to forget and it has forgotten. But there are a few of us who do remember because of the small things that made us love you — your gestures, the words you spoke, and the way you looked. We loved you for what you were and what you stood for.[3]

[1] You may wince when you encounter the concept of American mission in such blatant terms, but you will notice that every American President who has favored US military intervention in foreign lands has called upon America’s duty to defend or extend “democracy.” They may or may not have believed it, but the American people bought it. And lest you try to consider it in strictly partisan terms, the same appeal was used by every President from Reagan to Obama, with the same result.

[2] Crawford, John. The Last True Story I’ll Ever Tell: An Accidental Soldier’s Account of the War in Iraq. riverhead trade pbk. ed. New York: Riverhead Books, ©2006.

[3] Philip Caputo, A Rumor of War: With a Twentieth Anniversary Postscript by the Author (New York: Henry Holt and Co., 1996), 300.

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