On the occasion of the Memorial Day holiday, Susan and I watched the large outdoor concert that was held in Washington, DC, on the mall which stretches between the Capitol building and the Lincoln Memorial. There were great singers singing patriotic songs accompanied by the National Symphony Orchestra. In between songs, actors told the poignant stories of various war veterans, some of whom sat in the front row, many of them missing limbs or full mental functions. Veterans from each war, starting from World War II, were recognized, which included showing original film footage from the D-Day Invasion (the subject of the movie Saving Private Ryan), as well as the wars of Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Iraq.
The stories of the tragedy and hardships endured by those veterans lucky enough to have survived were heart-rending. “Survivors’ guilt” was a common theme. Many survivors live with feelings of shame and sorrow for their having lived, while their buddies died. Many veterans retreated into alcohol and drugs. Marriages dissolved. We were moved to tears by several of the stories. I wondered why I didn’t remember crying so much at a concert, at which point we realized that we had never watched any Memorial Day concert before.
One reason, apart from the concert and its war stories that brought us to tears, were the reminders of our fathers. Both Susan’s and my father fought in the Pacific war theater against the Japanese, my father as a troop-carrier pilot, and Susan’s father as a Navy Seabee. My father had the better time during the war. Susan’s dad did not have the privileged officer status that my dad had. My father said he chose to join the Army-Air-Corp (renamed the Air Force after the war) so that he could sleep in clean sheets every night. He spoke of witnessing brutalities, dead Japanese soldiers, fear of snipers, and the memory of one soldier who collected certain body parts from dead enemy soldiers. The US lost half a million soldiers; Russia lost over 20 million, i.e. forty times as many dead compared with the US.
I doubt that my father ever told me the worst of his experiences. Many soldiers tell about how they carried the painful memories of the tragedies and atrocities with them for the rest of their lives. Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) was not even recognized during World War II and the Korean War. Suffering soldiers were called “shell-shocked” and looked upon with pity, because the field of psychotherapy had not developed the diagnostic and treatment processes needed to help war veterans suffering from the trauma of war.
When I reached age eighteen in 1966, the year I graduated from high school, it was legally required that I register for the military draft. Many guys my age who didn’t go to college simply enlisted right out of high school. They were all sent to fight in Vietnam, from which over fifty thousand of them never returned. I received the standard college deferment from immediate military service. The nature of the draft, as opposed to today’s volunteer army, resulted in the army ranks being filled with the poor, including a large proportion of black soldiers.
My university studies in history, anthropology, and political science led me to the conclusion that I did not want to go to Vietnam under any condition. Education leads to original thoughts (or at least they seemed original to me at the time). I did not buy into the commonly held belief in “my country, right or wrong” as a justification of fighting in Vietnam. I felt about Vietnam more along the lines of the sarcastic spoof of recruitment slogans: Join the Army, travel to exotic places, meet unusual people, kill them.
Though Florida State University was years behind the University of California at Berkeley, there was a small but visible anti-war movement. It was comprised mostly of “hippies,” characterized as long-haired promiscuous drug-users. Since this time coincided with my first use of marijuana, I definitely identified more with the anti-war crowd than the pro-war “patriots.” I escaped the military draft by traveling to Kiel, Germany, for my “junior year abroad.” I ended up staying out of the country for over three years. By the time I returned in December of 1972, the Vietnam War was over and the draft had been abolished. So though I was a draft-evader, since I had never been “served” with an army induction notice, I was not guilty of any “crime.” My success in escaping having to fight (and perhaps be killed) in Vietnam was much easier for me than for those guys who stayed at home. I have no regrets about having avoided military service.
That doesn’t mean that I don’t respect those who volunteer to serve. I do respect them for their service and sacrifices. But World War II was the last “good” war. That was the last war that had the total support of the American people. The Korean War was technically a “police action” for which no formal treaty was ever negotiated, which is why we still have the divided Korean peninsula. The Vietnam War was a consequence of the unsuccessful colonial aspirations of France, which fought the Vietnamese independence fighters. When the US entered the war under the guise of responding to the fabricated “Gulf of Tonkin” incident, it became a proxy war against “communism”. The “domino theory” said that the US had to fight in Vietnam, or else the whole of Southeast Asia area would fall to communism. The US lost that war, yet today all the countries in the area (except North Korea) fear Chinese communist domination.
General Colin Powell was one of the speakers at tonight’s concert. As Secretary of State under President George W. Bush, I was reminded of how Powell was misled by Bush and Cheney’s “rush to war” in Iraq. Powell gave a lengthy speech to the United Nations General Assembly outlining “evidence” of “weapons of mass destruction” that were never found. It’s clear that Saddam Husain was a bullying braggart who wanted the world to believe that he had those weapons. He lost, but so did we.
And finally, America’s longest war in its whole history—Afghanistan. I lived in Afghanistan for several months in the early seventies. It’s certainly a relatively poor and backward country, compared with the rest of the world. Afghanistan and Pakistan were the perfect refuges for Osama Bin Laden and Al Qaeda. But the US military occupation was like trying to kill a wasp with a hammer. We killed the main wasp, Bin Laden. But the rest of the Al Qaeda hive is still buzzing, spreading its wings to Yemen, Syria, Iraq, and other Middle Eastern countries. Thanks to Obama, we’re disengaging from Afghanistan by the end of this year. While some politicians may want to declare victory as we withdraw our soldiers, the continued existence of Al Qaeda proves that we didn’t “win” that war either.
I am not a pacifist. If somebody looks like they intend to kill me, I’m very clear that my innate impulse would be to kill him before he could kill me. Perhaps this is key: fighting (on the individual level) and war (on the national/societal level) seems to be an innate part of the human condition. Most of history can be told as a succession of wars. If there is an escape from mankind’s innate tendency to self-destruct via wars (and most recently, the war on the natural environment), it must come from visionary leaders, philosophers, scientists, and other enlightened individuals who can lead us to our “better natures.”
I don’t see many encouraging signs of peaceful transformation on the national/international level. So perhaps the best we can hope for is individual transformation, leading to the “hundredth monkey,” the gradual improvement based on increasing individual transformations that results in the critical mass that hopefully will lead to peace. The Dalai Lama of Tibet, currently living in Darmsala, India, is a recognized leader in the movement for world peace. I strive to live by words of the traditional song: “Let there be peace on earth, and let it begin with me.” Until this dream is realized, no matter how large or small, whenever and wherever it occurs, war is hell.