I wanted to write about the Fourth of July. The only thing I could come up with is something I had already started to write a couple of weeks ago but never got time to finish or post. But since Fourth of July celebrations often play up the military and war, I wanted to share this:
There was mention in the news recently about the fact we reached the 60th anniversary of the beginning of the Korean War.
It got me to thinking about being in the Baby Boomer generation and my or our attitude towards war.
My introduction to war began when I was maybe five years old. My middle brother and I used to watch Saturday morning TV, and there were several weekly documentary type shows on. I think the Korean War had just ended (or technically was halted with an armistice or cease fire or whatever it is called — it has never been officially ended, we have all been reminded, and there‘s even been some recent threats that it might resume, with the recent sinking of a South Korean ship by North Korea and the accompanying South Korean casualties).
One show began with a tag line that said something about the “Korean Conflict”. At first it had been dubbed a “police action”. Politicians who for some reason are wont to commit troops to war often create euphemisms, such as “police action” or they even talk of the fantasy of “limited war”.
(There of course can be limited and temporary or even intermittent military action that does not rise to the level of what most would call war, but I am not writing about that.)
But anyway, we watched newsreel footage on TV about the Korean War. We also saw a lot of footage about World War II. We also saw a lot of movies downtown while I was growing up that were about World War II. They were always mowing down all those “Japs”. They were also killing Germans by the score.
I was learning about world events and history and politics along the way — fortunately my folks were well informed and my father was a journalist.
But it was a little too early for me to completely understand the relations among nations. I was always bemused by the fact that so many of my toys were “made in Japan” (today that would be made in China).
It further puzzled me to some extent that my last name was German, in fact the famous name of some German handguns often carried by Nazi officers — Walther.
But I think what I really want to say here is that all the stuff we watched had the same theme. American soldiers always prevailed over the evil enemy. And we fought in the defense of liberty after being attacked without provocation and we were completely innocent.
My brother and I both told each other we wanted to be in the military when we grew up. We usually decided we wanted to be in the Navy, because our older brother was a career Navy man. But sometimes we wanted to be in the Coast Guard or the Marines or the Army — don’t recall wanting to be in the Air Force, but maybe.
We often played war or Army (or Navy).
We rooted for Navy in the Army-Navy football games.
As I went through school I learned more about our history of war — although I think I learned more from my parents or outside reading than from public school. In fact history at school seemed to stop sometime not long after the Civil War.
And I think I realized that any desire to be in the military was really a little boy thing. It did not stick with me, really.
When I was in high school what we now call the “Vietnam War” was beginning.
I have written much of our history there and will not go into all that now. But I know that although there was much debate in the government about whether we should go to war in Vietnam to prevent the communists from taking over our nominal ally, South Vietnam, the prevailing mood in the government and society at large was that surely if we did we would prevail — America always wins!
(Actually we have been reminded that we did not really “win” in Korea. It was more of a stalemate — but we did prevent the North Korean communists from latching on to South Korea, so that does seem somewhat of a victory to me, as opposed to Vietnam where we unquestionably lost or gave up before we could win.)
As a teenager, I was of mixed emotions myself. Possibly in the interest of my own self-preservation (but I am not sure about that), I tended to question whether we ought to go to war for something that did not seem to pose any direct threat to our nation (domino theory aside). On the other hand, I did not like to see the U.S. back down from a challenge.
At any rate, I too was sure the U.S. could prevail and it was not my decision to make. The voting age was still 21 at the time, so I couldn’t even express my opinion that way.
I also thought that surely that by the time I graduated from high school (I believe our direct involvement in the war began when I was a high school sophomore) it would all be over.
Lo and behold it was not. By the time I graduated from high school in 1967 we were nearly at our height of involvement in the war.
I recall going to register with the draft board, as required, and the lady telling me that if I volunteered for the draft, I could get it all out of the way, with two years’ required service.
And now I just recalled that her son was a Green Beret and with another soldier had come to my high school and talked to us in my gym class. They talked about setting up Claymore mines, a device that hurls hundreds of nails at its victims.
I think the general attitude among most of us was that was interesting or “awesome” as some kids might say today, but I don’t think most of us were focused on the reality of war; it was all like a movie or playing war as kids.
Also, I think by that time we had started realizing via the news that this Vietnam War was a different animal than our past wars. We were not always fighting a uniformed army face the face (although there were NVA uniformed soldiers in the fighting too), but more often black-pajamed guerillas hiding in the jungle who would ambush and then disappear.
Even though we had overwhelming superiority in armaments and complete control of the air, we were not prevailing over the jungle fighters (never mind that mindless claim that we won all our battles — if so, why did we lose?).
And I have been accused of having a good memory. This is something I can state for a fact and something that always frustrates me. Even though there became to be a deep divide in public opinion over the war as it continued, time and time again I heard people say that although they were not especially pro-war, they felt that if we must fight we must fight to win. But there was all this wrangling in the political and public policy establishment about whether we should fight harder. If we did, we would be guilty of “escalating” the war. Even then I saw that argument as nonsense (and I’m sure a lot of others did too). How do you escalate a war? How or why would you half fight if attacked? Apparently there was some fantasy that if you fought on a limited basis (pulled your punches), you could keep casualties to a minimum politically accepted level.
In the end in Vietnam, firepower lost to commitment on the part of the enemy who was in the thing for only one reason — to win. We also were hampered by a corrupt government in South Vietnam and a population who at the time did not share our dream of keeping them free.
Today. We face much the same situation in Afghanistan (and let’s don’t even talk of Iraq just now).
We lost nearly 60,000 and suffered thousands more of gravely wounded in Vietnam in a decade-long war. The casualties are not as high yet in Afghanistan, past 1,000 now — but give it time.
While I think the reality is that we cannot re-make Afghanistan in our own image and make everyone love us and not want to come over and blow us up (and it was Saudi-Arabians who tried that, really, but let’s don’t confuse ourselves with the facts), that is all beside the point.
At this juncture we really have no interest in Afghanistan.
The only reason the public puts up with us still being there is its inattention, complacency and distraction caused by the Great Recession (ironically fueled to some extent from the costly war),and most of all to the clever move by politicians and the mistake by peaceniks in creating an all-volunteer professional military and doing away with the military draft.
If all were subject to the draft, there would be no war.
I will stop here and note that if one wanted to argue the case, there is a slightly better rationale for being in Afghanistan than there was in Vietnam. We were attacked by forces that staged and were aided and abetted by some in Afghanistan. In Vietnam, we were not attacked on our homeland and we faced no such imminent threat of attack. But Osama Bin Laden, the master-mind of 9/11, has moved on, possibly to Pakistan (our nominal, but not real, ally) or possibly to the grave. Al Qaeda, the organization we are supposedly fighting, has essentially moved on to Pakistan as well. Of course it could set back up in Afghanistan or even Iraq, once we clear out of the area — but then again, with its decentralized and surreptitious nature it can set up in spots all over the globe.
But back to baby boom generation and the Vietnam War — is that what I was talking about more or less?
I first attempted to get into the Navy right out of high school, more for lack of anything else to do — I wasn’t ready for college — than anything else.
But I could not pass the test for the Navy (and there is a strange and silly story to that, which I may or may not have blogged about before — I once wrote a newspaper column about it, but I’ll skip it for now).
But several months later I decided to join the Army. And this at a time when the casualties in Vietnam were mounting. I was in this strange disconnect world where I did not really admit to myself that I was essentially volunteering to be possible cannon fodder (to borrow a term I think used a lot during World War I).
However, as it happened, I was sent to Germany, where the only thing I suffered was some near frostbite and dish pan hands from too much KP.
During my three-year enlistment I experienced the phenomenon of my middle brother being caught up in the draft between college and law school. He served his year in Vietnam, in the Army, and continued along his path to becoming a lawyer.
And now on this Fourth of July, I stop and think how much I love my country and feel proud that I did my service, such as it was.
Even though what I did was relatively inconsequential, at least I served in uniform — something a lot of the war mongers of today never did!
But let’s not be negative on this our nation’s birthday.
HAPPY FOURTH OF JULY!