We should always honor our war dead, but we also have a right and duty to ask: why the sacrifice?

May 28, 2017

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?




On this Memorial Day I honor those who died no matter whether I think it was worth it…

May 26, 2014

I get Memorial Day and Veterans Day mixed up but I know this is Memorial Day, the third and final day of the long Memorial Day weekend when there are parades, and there are ceremonies, often at cemeteries, with men wearing those military-style overseas caps, American Legion and such, and flags flying and so on. In its present form, Memorial Day is to honor all of our war dead (men and women) in all of our wars — and of course it is also a time off for workers and a great sales opportunity for stores, and a recreational opportunity at lakes and camp and picnic grounds and other such places.

There are some who see all the flag flying as so much jingoism. Certainly our penchant for having America first has gotten us into all kinds of troubles overseas through the years. And sometimes it seems one might be forced to ask whether it was worth it. I mean, as an example, why did we have to join the fray in Europe’s war in World War I? We were in no imminent danger. And, as a matter of fact, I have always wondered why Abraham Lincoln was lauded for standing up to the southern rebellion, otherwise known as the American Civil War or the War Between the States (for those in the South). I mean all that death and destruction might have been avoided had he simply let the South go its way — it might have well decided for practical reasons to come back into the fold decades later.

But one can try to rewrite or re-do history in his or her mind and it is useless.

The fact is that on this planet there is a constant struggle among humans for land and resources which are finite and throughout our history it has led to war. And some are called to fight them and some go on their own accord and some do not. Often those who do not are the ones who order those who do to go in the first place. And the non-fighters are often the biggest fans of the fight.

But regardless of the politics of it all, I join in honoring all those who gave the ultimate sacrifice, no matter whether I think in hindsight that it was all worth it.Image

Honor the troops, not necessarily the war policy, and maybe we need to have compulsory service and expand the military troop numbers

May 28, 2012

As we observe this Memorial Day 2012 in honor of those who have given the ultimate sacrifice to their country, even though I have mixed emotions on the subject, I am wondering if we should not have compulsory military service, say once people graduate from high school — and in this modern society this could include, perhaps, young women, as well as young men (or maybe not compulsory for women).

And for those qualifying as conscientious objectors, compulsory national service of some kind.

I just read an opinion piece the other day by a retired military man who noted that never before have we had such a gulf in society as we have with the all-volunteer military and the rest who are not required to serve, although he indicated that the all-professional military was the best way to go.

Certainly there has to be a cadre to maintain professionalism in the services, but maybe there ought to be near universal participation in the effort to protect our nation so we are all on the same page.

In other nations and in times past, the military was a completely different world of its own and it was in its interests to fight wars, because that’s what militaries do and that is the only way they could justify their existence and their ability to get what they wanted.

In other countries, militaries have their own interests separate from that of the people and sometimes intervene in governments by way of coups.

Under the U.S. Constitution, the military is supposed to be subservient to civilian authority, but with the military now separated from the common citizen, one wonders if it might not become a force of its own.

The main reason, though, I see for having conscription, a return to the draft, is that it is a check against unnecessary or unwise military actions or wars. If nearly everyone was subject to military conscription, the same risk of loss of life and limb, more prudent decisions might be made. Public will would dictate.

I also read that there seems to be a renewed respect for the military now that it is the all-volunteer and professional corps, even if not universal support of our war policy. If true, that is at least refreshing.

Even though I was an enlistee, I was not all that enthusiastic of a soldier, to say the least, but I am proud that I served — if nothing else, it gives me, I feel, the right, to object to our military policy. I served in the Army in the NATO effort in Germany during the Cold War and while the Vietnam War raged. I have a brother who served in Vietnam, and another who served 20 years in the U.S. Navy.

May dad and his brother were cadets in high school, wearing those World War I campaign hats and those funny balloon trousers.

And from my observation, it seems we may well have a much better military now with the all-volunteer force.

But I am wondering if we still could not have compulsory service, say for one year or two and then some reserve time — a kind of ready standby.

I also wonder if we might want to have an even larger volunteer force than we have now. It would create more jobs and potentially provide useful service to the country. Military members don’t always have to be fighting wars or even always training for wars. They could provide community services too, such as conservation work and wild land fire fighting and emergency rescue efforts in hurricanes and other natural disasters.

Meantime, I guess if we have a chance we might attend one of the many local memorial services in support of the troops — not necessarily the war policies misguided politicians sometimes enact.

Thanks to those who sacrificed regardless of the merits of the effort itself…

May 30, 2011

It’s still Sunday where I am as I write this, and I did not attend any Memorial Day (weekend) ceremonies and will not tomorrow, the actual day designated as Memorial Day — not because I have no respect for those who have died in the service of my country — quite the contrary — I have the utmost respect for them. In fact, I have a lot more respect for them than I do the politicians and policy makers that sent them into harm’s way (these days especially, it seems, none of them have or will ever have to face such a prospect personally).

To be sure, throughout our history many young men (and women) have gone quite willingly into battle, sometimes for the pure adventure of it all. Others have felt it their duty. Still others just went because they felt they had no choice, but many of them tried to make the best of it.

While I am not the military type, I am proud that I and my brothers served. I’m sure they did a better job. My next oldest brother served in Vietnam during the war there and my oldest brother was a career Navy man, working his way up from boot seaman well into the officer ranks. I did the NATO thing in Germany during the worst of the Vietnam War, Oh, well, I filled a slot. Someone had to do KP and walk guard duty and help man the tanks in case the commies were to come over the border.

Many years ago when I was a newspaper photographer/reporter I used to do the requisite coverage on Memorial Day — parade photos and coverage of ceremonies at the cemetery. In more recent years my now late wife and I attended local ceremonies at the cemetery and felt some pride in our nation, even if we did not always agree with the current or even past foreign policy that made all these sacrifices necessary.

We honor the sacrifice, if not always the policy.

Now I have seldom ever heard of anyone seriously criticizing our (the U.S.) involvement in World War II.

But I have often heard that going “over there” for World War I was a dubious proposition that solved nothing and put to waste so many lives in dreadful trench warfare in which men were forced to run head-on into machine gun and artillery fire. And to add insult to injury (and death), the European powers went to war with each other all over again within a couple of decades and the U.S. found itself fighting over there again, but with more concrete results.

If you read enough history you will even find criticism of our Revolutionary War, with some revisionists claiming that some of the colonists did not appreciate the fact the mother country was supporting its colonies, to include protection on the high seas for international trade, but that they did not want to pay the taxes — kind of sounds like today when many people expect a lot of things from government but don’t see the connection with taxes. But of course without the Revolutionary War there would be no United States of America, and we have developed our own unique form for democracy and so many people want to come here. We must be doing something right.

The Civil War (or War Between the States if you live in the South) seems to me to have been a terrible and possibly unnecessary tragedy. One of the major issues or in fact maybe the major issue, from which the others derived, was slavery. It seems maybe with the benefit of hindsight that slavery would have eventually died out from its eventual overall impracticality. But maybe again the Civil War was inevitable, with the clash of two economic cultures and social systems, one in which human beings were treated as work animals to be bought and sold and mistreated (there really never was a defense of that).

Okay, I won’t analyze each and every conflict. I mean there is plenty of controversy about Korea and Vietnam and Iraq and Afghanistan and now Libya, as well as many other military endeavors.

The point is something I have said many times before, we are honoring the sacrifices people made in the name of our country, right or wrong, without the benefit of 20/20 hindsight.

I have to work tomorrow. But if you get a chance and there is still a ceremony to attend, maybe do so. Or some people still put decorations on graves in honor of the day’s old title, Decoration Day (sometimes even on the graves of those who did not serve, I am told).

As small a gesture as it is, I think as soon as I post this I am going to go out on my apartment balcony and look over the beautiful country where I live and take a moment to be thankful for those who cared enough to sacrifice their lives and even for those who did so more under compulsion. The result is the same. We remain as the leader in democracy and free of foreign domination.

Thank you!

As we remember the fallen, think about those who may…

May 31, 2010

As we observe Memorial Day, the old Decoration Day, we are supposed to be honoring all the military service people (well maybe even civilians) who died in our many wars.

And I think that is a good thing — as far as it goes.

I’m not the first one to come up with this (I think Andy Rooney mentioned this Sunday evening), but the best way we could honor them is to figure out a way around war so others would not have to die in the future.

War as an instrument of government policy should be outdated by now, except for those instances in which a nation is faced with no other choice because it is directly attacked.  And then only to fend off the attackers or keep them from further attack, but not to remake the world or recreate whole societies.

It seems that in recent times a large number of those who set policy and who seem to support war have never served in the military or fought war (I didn’t say all).

And I’ve touched on this issue before, but I firmly believe that if the military draft were in effect today, we likely would not be in armed conflict anywhere.

Currently there is the threat that the Korean War, which ended as a hot war in the early 50s, could flare up again with the latest provocations from North Korea. I read some articles, though, in the New York Times that indicated South Koreans have mixed emotions on how to respond. There seems to be some reluctance to go to war, although some are starting to feel the dictatorship in the North is pushing too hard.

But the sentence that jumped out at me was this one:

“And in country where all fit young men must spend two years in the military, ‘chicken hawks’ are much harder to come by than in America.”

Noting the ambivalence of many South Koreans on the prospect of going to war, an author of an opinion piece concluded by writing:

“It would be counter productive if Washington were to look more interested in punishing North Korea than the injured party.” (B.R. Myers, director of international studies, Dongseo University, Busan, Korea)

And that’s kind of the way I feel.

But I appreciate the sacrifice of those who did their duty. They did not make the policy that put them in the position of having to do that duty.

We should not only remember those who died in the past, or those who have died recently, but those who face that prospect by the minute as they serve in the Middle East today.

I don’t have much good to say about our modern wars in which there seems to be no clear purpose or strategy to win. But I respect the effort being made by those doing their duty nonetheless.

If it were up to me (and it is not) we would use all force possible and get it done.

The decision to go to war should be one made only after no other course seems possible. Once made there should be no holding back, and the whole nation should sacrifice.

But let’s do take some time to honor those who gave the ultimate sacrifice. And then let’s take even more time to figure out a way of preventing future generations (our children, our grandchildren) from going down the same path.