By David K. Shipler
At a rest stop in Vermont recently, I fell into conversation with two men staffing a table set up by a veterans’ organization. One, about my age, had been an officer on a destroyer off the coast of Vietnam during the war. So we compared notes. I’d been an officer on a destroyer at the same time, but in much safer places, half a world away in the Atlantic and Mediterranean.
“Thank you for your service,” he said. No need for thanks, I replied. I had cruised to exotic ports, loved being at sea, and benefitted from responsibility placed on me at a young age. “But you put yourself in harm’s way,” said the other guy, who’d been in the army. I shook my head. I was never in harm’s way, I told them. I was in more harm’s way as a journalist later, in a couple of war zones, Vietnam included. And I served my country much more significantly reporting important news than sailing on a ship through peaceful waters.
But American society has adopted a narrow view of service. At least superficially, in the pageantry that accompanies sporting events and various public expressions of patriotism, the men and women in uniform are celebrated. Rightly so, in many cases. But what about the civilians—providers of humanitarian aid, human rights observers, news correspondents who have also risked, and lost, their lives in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, and elsewhere in the mission of assisting victims and informing Americans?
During the recently broadcast series on the Vietnam War by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick, citizens who had sacrificed a good deal to oppose the war emailed among themselves, and sometimes spoke and wrote publicly, in wounded complaint that their contributions to the country had been virtually ignored or, worse, given a negative cast by the filmmakers.
“Their portrayal of the anti-war movement is pathetically weak, two-dimensional and, at some points, deliberately biased,” wrote Ron Young, a veteran himself—not of the military but of practically every major protest effort in modern American history, from the civil rights movement on. He resisted the draft and carried letters to American POWs in North Vietnam. But neither he nor others whose deep principles led them to confront imprisonment or seek exile in Canada are cited for the dangers they faced, much less for the heroism they often displayed. Hardly any of their stories are told in the Burns-Novick series, Young lamented.
At some level, America today seems bent on correcting its disparagement of the military during the war in Vietnam. While returning soldiers were not as widely vilified as popular legend would have it, some passed through pockets of resentment, even from fellow veterans of earlier wars. Interviewing Vietnam vets for his book Enduring Vietnam, James Wright heard of some American Legion posts, populated mostly by men who fought in World War II, that were less than welcoming to newcomers off the battlefields of Vietnam. One young man told Wright that he and two other Vietnam vets “went drinking almost every night, usually at the American Legion. The members never said hello to us or asked us to join the Legion, and this is a very small town, they knew who we were.”
The failure to win the war was a major factor. “I know these boys have done all they could and they’ve been brave,” said a veteran of World War II, “but still they broke that old winning mold.”
Indeed, to be ruthless about it, the vaunted US military has not won a significant war since 1945. (Grenada doesn’t count, Korea ended in stalemate.) Partly because we have not had to fight since World War II for our own survival, partly because the nature of most warfare has morphed into indigenous insurrection propelled by non-state actors, the high-tech, high-explosive American arsenal has missed its real targets. We can obliterate whole cities to conquer territory occupied by the Islamic State (killing lots of civilians in the process), and we can pulverize the regimes of Saddam Hussein and the Taliban in Baghdad and Kabul. We can deploy deadly drones in far-flung parts of Africa and Asia that most Americans don’t consider at war with the US.
But the grainy work of eliminating rebellious militias and constructing peaceful civil societies is beyond our military capabilities. So we stop short, and the chaos continues. Then, these days, we hail our returning and fallen troops for their heroism in defending American freedoms. I’m sure they would have liked nothing better than to be defending American freedoms, if that were really so.
The country now stands at a curious intersection of regard and indifference toward the military. On the one hand, the flags are carried by those in uniform before baseball and football games, the national anthem with its martial theme is sung (and used by some as an occasion for protest), and the president surrounds himself with generals who are seen as bulwarks of sense against the bellicose Trumpist impulses.
On the other hand, nearly half of American voters did not seem to care last fall that Trump had avoided military service, said he knew more than the generals about defeating the Islamic State, denounced Sen. John McCain for being taken prisoner in Vietnam, and insulted the parents of a Muslim-American soldier who had died in combat. Nor do Trump supporters appear bothered by his insensitive remarks to the widow of an African-American soldier, killed in an obscure mission in Niger, that “he knew what he was getting into when he signed up.”
If honoring the military is supposed to be so sacred to political conservatives, the duty seems about as sacred as the Christian creed is to evangelicals who adore Trump as he lies, corrupts, and brags about being a sexual predator.
Integrity would be refreshing. If we want to trumpet the idea that troops are sent to war to defend American freedom, then we should limit ourselves to wars that defend American freedom, and then win them. And if we want to count our heroes, we should include not only Americans who make war but also those who sacrifice to make peace.