I will guess the year was 1967 or it could have been 1966 but one day in high school gym class we were given a presentation by a couple of Green Beret Army soldiers, fresh from a tour in Vietnam, one of whom at least was a local boy. In fact, his mother was on the local draft board.
Outfitted in their army dress uniforms with those distinctive green berets, which marked them as elite troops, and their pant legs tucked into shiny black combat boots, airborne style, they were impressive to us teenaged boys.
In a fairly casual and sometimes it seemed almost gleeful manner they talked of how they set up claymore mines around the perimeter of their camps. If tripped, presumably by enemy soldiers, most of which at the time were the black pajama-wearing Viet Cong guerilla fighters, they would send out a deadly spray of nails.
I don’t know what the other young men thought really, I don’t even know precisely what I thought, maybe most of us thought something like, cool, as long as it is the enemy.
I just looked it up to remind myself, several young men from the small town which I went through high school in died in Vietnam. Two of them I knew. One only casually. He was in Future Farmers of America as was I. He was a likable sort, who many automatically would want to be a friend with and who teachers appreciated. The other as far as I was concerned was a pint-sized bully. But that was childhood. I respect them both equally as fallen veterans. And what a terrible loss for their families. And both I am sure felt they were fulfilling a sacred obligation to their country. And maybe too they were adventurous.
Memorial Day of course is officially about honoring all of those military members who have died in combat in our many wars.
I served in the army but was safely out of the line of fire in Germany in the late 1960s and early 70s.
And fortunately one of my two older brothers served in the army in Vietnam but came back home safe and sound. And just as fortunately, my oldest brother served 20 years in the U.S. Navy and is still around to talk about it.
But like all men of my age, it was Vietnam which turned the romantic notion of playing army into the reality that war is hell and for real and when you are hit you don’t just get up to play another day. And you not only can die, but leave loved ones behind – maybe a young wife, children, and devastated parents. And just as bad you have to question the notion – and this will seem unpatriotic to some – that if you die in combat you die so other citizens can be free. That’s a comfort to those left behind and perhaps the soldier in the field in imminent danger, but I am not sure that it is always necessarily so.
No, since World War II, which was the free world against the forces of tyranny, represented by Nazism, Fascism, and militarism, most of our wars since have been ones of geopolitical strategy, mapped out by politicians and others who know they will not have to face the bullets and bombs themselves, and today many of them never had to or never did serve in the military.
But still I have to, and I truly do, respect all veterans who gave the ultimate sacrifice, but especially the ones of my age, some of whom were still under the compulsory military draft. They were doing their duty for their country.
And what if we had a country in which no one wanted to do their duty? It’s a mean world, the terrorists prove that every day. We no longer have the draft, which died with our loss in Vietnam and a public who could no longer stomach the fact that young men could be scooped up into the military to face death for questionable purposes.
We lost the Vietnam War, maybe because it was simply unwinnable, and maybe because the politicians got in the way, and maybe out of exhaustion. Communist North Vietnam absorbed South Vietnam and the world kept on turning and today you can go to Vietnam as a tourist and the nation is a trading partner with us. Oh, and we are still free.
Young men are still required by law to register with the Selective Service but there is no mandatory draft at this time.
But our all-volunteer forces (which now include men and women in combat roles) still get gravely wounded and killed.
We should always gratefully recognize their sacrifice in the name of their country, our country.
But from time to time we have a right, and I would say a duty, to ask:
Why the sacrifice?