I begin this piece by asking what you plan to do at the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month. Will you stop to pause and remember the significance of that time some ninety years ago? Will you stop to pause and perhaps hear the bells of the church tolling in remembrance of those who have fallen in wars long ago and perhaps even recently? Or perhaps you will stop to pause and wonder why the bells are not ringing or why the people are more interested in the sales taking place and what they can get at low prices for Christmas this year.
How many people will recognize that the reason for this day has nothing do to with the economy but with a promise that we, as a nation, would remember those whose service insured our freedom today? Some will say that is what Memorial Day is about but when Memorial Day comes about, all we will probably hear about is the start of summer sales that come with Memorial Day. How is it that we have become so cavalier in our attitudes about military service and war?
I am the grandson of an Army officer who served in World War I and up until 1944. Had medical reasons not forced his retirement, my grandfather was scheduled to command a regiment that landed on Omaha Beach in Normandy on 6 June 1944.
I do not know what my grandfather thought about war, even as I read and reread the diary he kept from his embarkation to France and his service in France and Belgium and during the period between the two World Wars.
There was a somewhat casual comment made in one entry that his outfit had been attacked with poison gas – “We’ve been gassed. “ And while he had pictures that showed the horrors of war, he very seldom mentioned such horrors in what he wrote in this diary.
In part I know that his diary served more as a draft of the reports that he would file as the company adjutant for I see essentially the same phrases in his diary that appear in the official history of the regiment. So, I don’t know how he really felt. Even his entry for this day some ninety years ago doesn’t speak of peace, joy, or relief (see My Grandfather’s Diary Entry for this day, 11 November 1918) but the comment that if the armistice had not been signed, they would have completed the planned attack for that day.
And while I cannot speak to his thoughts on the nature of war and what he saw and what he experienced, I do know that we don’t want to be exposed to the horrors of war today. We have sanitized war so much that civilians killed are listed as nothing more than collateral damage. We have no idea, only estimates, of how many civilians have been killed in Iraq and Afghanistan these past eight years. We want our wars to be like a video game, where points are scored for the damage done and the number of people killed; where there is no blood and no pain. We do not want to know that war is, in essence, a real-life horror film with real blood and real deaths, with pain that is real and which is inflicted on many, not just one.
I am also the son of an Air Force officer who served in the Pacific theater during World War II and throughout the 50s and 60s. I do not know what he thought about the things he saw in the Pacific in the 40s or his thoughts on the wars fought in Korea or Viet Nam. The only time he spoke of the deaths in World War II was a passing comment about the number of casualties that we would have incurred had we invaded the Japanese home islands instead of dropping the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. What I remember about that singular comment was the relief in his voice that we did not invade the islands.
I grew up on many Air Force Bases where B-52 bombers and Titan II missiles were based. Their presence was an almost constant reminder that our country lived under a blanket of fear from nuclear attack and that vigilance was necessary for peace. The one thing that we did not perhaps know or perhaps did not care to know was that any nuclear attack and the almost certain retaliatory attack would leave not only this country but this globe totally ruined and uninhabitable for thousands of years to come. Perhaps it was fortunate that the only thing that kept this country and the former Soviet Union from attacking each directly during those contentious days was the knowledge that an attack by one country on the other would lead to mutually assured destruction of both countries and the world. This constraint against nuclear war in the 1950s and 1960s was known as MAD and there never has been a more aptly coined acronym.
Those who have read this blog know that I am opposed to war and that I cannot see the problems of the world being solved through war or violence. (And, for those who offer bumper-sticker responses please use something other than “War hasn’t solved anything except …”)
The problem is that we have become comfortable using war as a tool to solve problems and we think that we can live in a world where war is a dominant part of the culture. We just make sure that we are not reminded of its financial costs or its costs in human terms, the dead and wounded, those with broken minds and spirits.
And too often, those who speak out against war, who call for non-violent solutions to the problems that we face, who call for responses other than to send our youth off to foreign lands and perhaps die for a cause that they do not understand are apt to be called unpatriotic and opposed to this country.
I would have continued the tradition of my father and my grandfather and joined the Air Force when I graduated from college in 1971. I understood what a life in the military was and what you were called to do first. But I also saw a military constrained by political forces far more than any other time in this country’s history.
Let’s face it – there has never been a war that wasn’t driven by political forces. Mao Zedong is quoted as saying “Politics is war without bloodshed while war is politics with bloodshed.”
From the days of the Korean War, it has been politics that has controlled this country’s thoughts about war. It has transformed military service from an honorable expression of service for one’s country into simply being a mercenary force designed to serve the purposes for short-sighted and self-serving politicians. Our military is sent to fight without a clear-cut mission or an understanding of the people with whom they will interact. Our lack of knowledge about the lands and people where we send our troops makes the “The Ugly American” more and more a truth than fiction.
When the time came, I chose not to go, not to follow in the footsteps of my father and grandfather. My argument wasn’t against the Air Force, the Army, the Navy, or the Marines; my argument was against the draft and a political policy that clearly limited what our service personnel could and could not do. But, as far as the draft was concerned, I was lucky. I had medical problems that precluded my being drafted into the Army and I was able to avoid service in Viet Nam. One of the great unanswered questions in my life is what I would have done if I had received an induction notice. Would I have gone to Canada; would I have enlisted in the Air Force and tried for OCS? What would my parents have said and done? Those are questions that I did not have to answer.
I was lucky; I had options available to me. Others were not so lucky and we now know that the draft policies of this country during the Viet Nam war were designed to supply the large number of bodies that the generals said were needed to win the war. They are the same words we hear today from our generals with respect to Afghanistan.
Our youth do not have to worry about the draft today. Personally, I think that is a good thing. If the military is to be what it is supposed to be, it must be a volunteer army; that is the heritage of this country and, if you will, an embodiment of what this country stands for.
There was a period of time when I counseled students to seek a life in the military. I recognized that, for some, it would provide the discipline they needed for life. For some, it would provide opportunities that they may not see otherwise. And for many, it would provide the funding for college that would enable them to get a college degree. And for some who were interested in becoming a physician, such options were important because it cut the cost that they, the student, would have to pay.
But I was counseling for service in peace time, not war, and in retrospect, that was probably a mistake. The military has and should always be focused on war and the prevention of war. The military has never done well in peace time. I saw such comments in my grandfather’s diary when he was serving during the period between the two World Wars.
Following the two World Wars, we down-sized our military and told our veterans that they were on their own. We promised the veterans of World War I bonuses but when the time came to pay them, we reneged on the deal. Fortunately for the veterans of World War II, we gave them the G. I. Bill and enabled them to get the skills necessary to resume a civilian life. But since then, we have cast aside our veterans, shunting them to side and into the darkness where no one can see them.
Yet, we continue to tell our youth that military life will give them what they need, the training and the funding for life after they have given their country the early part of their youth. For the lucky ones, this may be true. But for too many, it is only a hoped for reality and not what they find when they come home.
The issue, the problem is that we expect our soldiers, sailors, and marines to prepare for two mutually exclusive situations, a peace-time situation and a war-time situation. We do not prepare those who serve for this dichotomy nor do we help with the transition afterwards. The violence that destroyed Fort Hood last week will erupt on another post or another base or on a ship somewhere in the middle of the ocean because of this conflict.
There will always be a conflict between the duties of a soldier and the desires of someone who enlists for the future because those two futures are many, many times exclusive. The exclusiveness of this is even more today because it is complicated by an age-old axiom and the by-product of societal thought.
Even with the lessons handed down from generation to generation, we still fight our current wars using the previous wars’ tactics. Our casualty rates in the Civil War were high because both armies used tactics that assumed that rifles being used were as inaccurate as the ones used in the Revolutionary War and the War of 1812. But the technology of 1860 was far ahead of the technology of 1810 and it showed in the increased number of casualties. There were those who saw the carnage and wondered if there was some sort of manageable peace solution possible. But, by then, it was too late for any sort of negotiated settlement and Grant recognized that the only way to win was to eliminate the Confederate armies.
Ironically, it was after one of the bloodier battles that Robert E. Lee offered his quote that it was fortunate that war was so terrible or we would grow very fond of it. But it seems that in today’s world we have grown very fond of it, as we have sanitized and hidden the blood of war.
But now we are faced with an entirely different type of war, no matter what it is called. And, even with the lessons of Viet Nam, we still haven’t learned that you cannot defeat a population with huge armies, especially when those huge armies are viewed as conquerors and not liberators. You would have thought that that we would have finally understood another quote from Chairman Mao, “the guerilla must move amongst the people as a fish swims in the sea.” But we haven’t and we are now paying the price for our ignorance.
If our military is to succeed, it must understand its mission and its goals. The military can not be an instrument for the implementation of an unclear vision or poorly stated mission statement. And it must have the resources to fulfill the vision as well. But such a statement, such a vision, and those resources must come from the politicians and the people.
This is unfortunately something this country has not done or is doing now. This country, which so willingly cheers its military personnel as they go off to war, quite easily ignores those soldiers, sailors, and marines while they serve and when they come home. Many of our enlisted personnel have families, yet because of the current pay structure are eligible for food stamps and similar benefits. (It is interesting to note that those who argue for a strong military also call for a reduction of these same benefits. Perhaps if their efforts were directed towards the men and women of the Armed Services and the people of this country instead of the contractors back home, we could have strong military, one in which people would be glad to join.) We ask our military to serve without question but then to disappear quietly into the background so that they can be forgotten when they come home.
On this day, we must first resolve that we will not see war as the first but only the last option in resolving problems. On this day, we must resolve that we will understand who our enemy is and what they fight for. Let us also resolve to remove the causes of war — poverty, hunger, homelessness, lack of medical care – before fighting other people. And let us resolve that when the fighting is done and our military come home, they truly can come home, that this country will honor our commitment to their service and not cast them aside to be quickly forgotten.
George Clemenceau once said, in effect, that war was too important to leave to soldiers. (There are many who say he meant generals but there are several variants.) But if we forget the soldiers, then we make it easy to not think about the cost of war.
War is perhaps at times unavoidable. I cannot help but think of Patrick Henry’s comment during his “give me liberty” speech that war was already on the doorsteps of our fledging nation and that it was inevitable that we would fight. If we must fight, so be it. But let us fight for reasons that are clear and just, not ideological and self-centered. And if we must fight, let it because there were no other options available; war should never be the first option in any conflict.
We should be doing two things today. We should not be spending time and money on ourselves. Rather, we should be spending time remembering those who served. And then, we should be spending time and effort to work inside and outside the military to develop answers that do not require violence to solve problems; we should be spending time and effort finding ways to build up people and nations, not destroying them.
So I ask, “What will you be doing today?”