25 February 2016

Dulce et decorum est...

This year marks the 50th year since we started bombing North Vietnam, a strange anniversary, to be sure. However, as part of this commemoration, some organizations have taken it upon themselves to try to make amends for the way Vietnam era vets were treated in the 60s and 70s. When the debate about the invasion of Iraq started, some of those who objected argued that, since it had no real objective other than to take down Saddam Hussein, it would end up “just like Vietnam.” The Vietnam War has become the means by which we measure war. “This [fill in the name of a war or conflict] will be just like Vietnam” has been the opposing argument for all conflicts. However, during those arguments about Iraq, people were quick to point out that they were opposed to the war but NOT the military. Even those who supported the war expressed concern that an unpopular war might result in the abuse of military personnel. No one wants to treat the soldier, sailor, airman, pilot, Marine the same way they were treated in the 60s and 70s.

As part of this 50th anniversary commemoration, events are being held all over the U.S. to which Vietnam vets are invited. They are lauded during these events and offered a considerably belated “welcome home” by the attendees. I attended one of these events recently, but it didn’t sit well with me. Granted, I attended under protest because my husband asked me to go with him. We are both Vietnam era vets, but he served in-country while I did not. We don’t talk much about how we were treated during the war, but it is an unspoken agreement that we were sometimes treated badly. So we attended this event, held in a local church, sponsored and organized by the Daughters of the American Revolution…women who not only celebrate the military service of ancestors who lived more than 200 years ago but sometimes act as if this makes them better than other people. They also invited a state senator and a state representative, as well as an Air Force veteran who had been a Vietnamese prisoner of war. They invited a local musician who played “The Green Berets” (which I hate) and Toby Keith’s “American Soldier.” Most remarks, as well as much of the music, assumed the veterans gathered were male. And I’ll admit that besides me, there was only one other woman, also a Navy veteran.

The state senator, while conservative and supportive of many things I do not support, had a sense of humor, was himself a veteran and had also been critically burned during the attack on the Pentagon, September 11, 2001. His remarks on the whole were heartfelt and sincere. However, the state representative, whose father was a Vietnam veteran, has spent his whole life in agriculture and politics. He did not serve. He was born in 1972, so perhaps he was a bit long in the tooth to serve in Afghanistan or Iraq. Yet, while not having lived through the Vietnam era, he still had the nerve to divide those who were adults then into two groups – those who were selfless and served in the military and those who were “self-serving (his words) and protested the war. There are several problems with this claim, the first being that if the men and women who served during the Vietnam era were arguably protecting our freedoms, then they were serving (and some were fighting and dying and putting themselves in harm’s way) to protect that very right to protest. Sure some of the protestors went to extremes; some treated those very men and women who were “protecting” in a negative way. But that’s the price of free speech. Either everyone gets to protest within just law or no one does. You can’t make a million exceptions. (And, yes, some broke the law.) 

But I’d like to clear up a misconception that many civilians (by “civilian” I mean those who never served) hold. That is the misconception that all members of the military are flag-waving, dyed in the wool, radical patriots. That’s just not true; and it’s probably less true today – with the all-volunteer military – than it was during the Vietnam era. You can’t argue that a draftee is a patriot. You can’t argue that someone living at the poverty level who joins the military to earn an income is a patriot. I wonder what the results would be of a survey that asked all officers and enlisted persons if they even considered they might have to go to war when they signed that contract with the government. Most of these people are in their early 20s. If one is to believe current neuroscience, the part of the brain that evaluates consequences of one’s actions isn’t fully formed until one is about 25. You join, you train, then you find yourself in a jungle, surrounded by the enemy, or triaging wounded in a field hospital, or sending patrols of 18- and 19-year olds out to look for the enemy, or acting as public relations liaison for the executive officer in a Force 1 hurricane, or a military journalist cataloguing stories of veterans who have seen multiple tours in a war zone. But you do your job because that’s your training.

Don’t get me wrong. I was proud to have served. Having been in the U.S. Navy opened doors for me, molded my character and personality, and had a positive effect on my entire life. I can imagine what it’s like to be a civilian because I was one before I joined, and I’m a civilian once again. However, you cannot know what it is like to serve unless you have served as well. So don’t presume to know what I think about war or politics or life in this country. Don’t presume you know why I served, because you don’t. And don’t think that a prayer, no matter how passionate or sincere, can heal old wounds or five decades of neglect. As the two-hour ceremony ended, veterans were asked to depart down the center aisle of the church and other attendees were encouraged to move to the end of the pews near the aisle and wave their little American flags and welcome us home. It was nice, if a bit embarrassing. But these people were not the ones who treated us badly. These people are not the ones who need to apologize. The only apology needed is really from the government back then, Johnson, Nixon, and their aides, and the Pentagon officials who sent us all out to fight and support a war that ended so many lives and wounded so many more.

If you truly are grateful for a veteran’s service, if you truly regret his or her being in harm’s way for you (so you could build a career and stay safe at home, going out for dinner and spending time with family) then find a way to keep anyone else from having to do that. Stop sending men and women off to die. And if that can’t be done, then you go. See what it’s like.

...If in some smothering dreams, you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues, —
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori. (Wilfred Owen)

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