On April 8th, 1968, I flew into the Tucson, Arizona airport returning from my thirteen-month tour of duty in Vietnam. When I got off the Boeing 707, two of my best friends, who lived in Tucson, and my parents, who lived seventy miles to the northwest, were waiting for me as I debarked. The shock on their faces at my appearance gave me a clue to the gulf of experience between us and what was soon to become apparent.
After picking up my seabag, we went to a Mexican food restaurant and ordered some comida. I was anxious to start telling them about incoming eight-inch artillery shells, sniper fire, leeches, cobras, bayonet fights. It was crammed down inside of me as if someone had stuffed me like the seabag out in the trunk of my parents’ blue, 1967 Buick. As I talked to them, they wouldn’t look me in the eye and by the time I figured out they didn’t want to talk about my experience at Khe Sanh, my beef tacos had arrived and I was looking at the light from the ceiling bounce off my father’s balding head. Right then I told myself, they don’t care. And if they didn’t care, then nobody cared.
It took me longer than forty years before I got it in my head that it wasn’t because they didn’t care what happened to me…about the siege, the death, the maiming…it was because they were not able to understand. They wanted to care, but didn’t know how. Lack of experience created lack of empathy. So, I think they were embarrassed that I had undergone that experience and they were unable to fathom it on any level that would allow them to talk to me about it. They were embarrassed, so they didn’t want to talk.
Move forward in time to today, tomorrow, yesterday and think about the men and women who are going off to fight in Iraq and Afghanistan, again and again. Think about the gulf between their experiences and the experiences of those who have not fought.
In his book, Making the Corps (Simon & Schuster, 1995), Thomas Ricks talks about this gulf in terms that are, to be frank, somewhat frightening to me in that the Marine Corps feels that the public they protect does not live up to, nor appreciate, the values that the Marines are fighting and dying for. And I would add, given that most of our military is now very professional, this gulf probably exists between the American public and all of the military services.
And I believe this is a precarious thing. The ninety-five percent of us who let the other five percent carry the fight forward have no idea what combat is like. We say, “Thank you for your service.” But do we really care? Given what we don’t know about war, can we understand what service really means? (For forty years almost no one ever said, “Thank you for your service” to me, and now I hear it all the time and frankly I am tired of hearing it from anyone who has not had the pleasure of putting their butts on the line or serving their country in some way. Not to say there aren’t folks who are grateful. But I think I know the difference between those who say “Thank you” because it’s now socially requisite and those who really care what I did.) While we sit on our decks and drink sauvignon blanc and eat grilled prawns, men and women have answered the call and are dying or are losing limbs or are living with fear so powerful, every moment, that we don’t have the slightest idea what that is like, what the cost is.
Not that there aren’t citizens out there generally opposed to war on a philosophical basis. There are, and though I may agree that in a perfect world we would have no war, we don’t exist in a perfect world. If they have a philosophical abhorrence of war, I respect that. The people I am talking about this morning are those who accept war as a legitimate means of advancing our country’s foreign policy, but are very happy to let someone else do the fighting.
In her recently published book of linked short stories titled You Know When the Men Are Gone (Amy Einhorn Books, G. P. Putnam’s Sons, Penguin Group, USA, NT, NY, 2011) author Siobhan Fallon shows the reader the multifarious, insidious and heinous ways the veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan and their wives and children are haunted by the wounds, both apparent and hidden, received in combat. As a combat veteran of another nasty war, I can attest that Fallon knows of what she speaks. The wife of an officer in the United States Army who has served several tours in the Middle East, she knows firsthand the damage done and not just short term damage, but long term damage, often the kind not readily seen.
In her short stories, Fallon shows us with imagery, action and dialogue; PTSD, missing limbs, wrecked marriages, “Dear John” moments, agony, betrayal, redemption and love. All centered on the alienation the modern day warrior feels when he comes home to a society that pays what I believe is often lip service to his sacrifices, but then who, right after saying, “Thank you for your service,” needs to go sell something or attend a cocktail party or go on holiday.
But that may not be much different than any war, although in earlier wars, the participants were drawn from a broader and more representative group of U S citizens. I look at some of my liberal friends and remember back to all the draft resistors and Vietnam War protesters when I came back from Vietnam. Now some of them are flag waving patriots who want to go out and destroy all of Islam. I may be cynical but I always wonder why, when they were eligible to fight in Vietnam, they managed to stay in college, or join the National Guard to avoid putting their lives on the line. And not just my liberal friends, but some of my more conservative friends, too. I’ll never forget watching a news show a few years back where a group of young college Republicans were being interviewed. When asked their opinions about our involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan, they all voiced their ardent support of our efforts over there, and yet when asked if they had gone and served, none of them had and what was more interesting was the backtracking and excuse making that spewed from their mouths indicating they had no intention of serving in the future.
No wonder those who fight our battles look at the general population they defend with a jaundiced eye. Warriors go off and lose legs, innocence, job opportunities, spouses, and come back with PTSD to a society that they could view, if they were as cynical as I am, as being hypocritical.
I think it is dodgy that while we are out on the putting green drinking cold bottles of Hefeweizen, we have absolutely no clue as to what simmers in the souls of these men and women we have asked to do our killing for us.
Forty years ago, I , for one, was an ardent opponent of the military draft, but today, I believe everybody who lives in this country should have to serve in either the military or some other regard if they cannot serve in combat. No excuses, no deferments, nothing. Of course some politicians are not going to like that idea because they will have to justify to the moms and pops of our young why we need to go to war in the first place, and the professional military people will not like it because the draftee may not be as willing a soldier, sailor, Marine or airman.
I think everybody in this country should carry his or her share of the load when the bullets start flying. If moms and pops think their sons and daughters are going to be dying, then they will first want to know beyond a doubt that the war is a damned urgent affair and if it is not, they will make sure everybody knows about it.
Besides, the draft-era military was one of the great democratizing experiences in the history of the United States of America, and if we had that experience back again, we all might try to understand and better appreciate those neighbors of ours with whom we don’t normally interact. And, it might give us a better understanding of the costs, the true and brutal costs the men and women who fight our wars pay. And the costs their families pay, too.