Veterans’ Day is one of those holidays that always makes me sad, not simply because of the reason for the day, but because of the significance that some people never dwell on. In an age where a large portion of society wants to complain that any war, not just the ones we are currently involved in are manifestly unjust, it is easy to lose sight of two inevitable truths:
1. No matter how much you may believe war is unjust, and that violence is never an answer, the fact is that sometimes, wars come to you, no matter how you conduct yourself; and
2. Whether we are discussing a war of aggression or of self-defense, the men and women who answer the call do so with the full knowledge that they may be expected to give everything, including their lives.
It is for the people who answer that call, and not the cause for which they sacrifice, that we honor on this day.
Every conflict in which our nation has fought in the last century or so has had its own flavor, and as a friend recently reminded me, this is captured in the memorials which commemorate them. On this day, I refuse to pass judgment determining whether a particular conflict is good or bad. Good or bad, Americans fought, and Americans died. Some never came home, some came home in boxes, and some came home with their innocence forever surrendered to places with unpronounceable names, or generic designations. Some came home haunted by the things they have seen, and some came home able to reconcile horrors that they witnessed with a life filled with the mundane and the ordinary. And good or bad, some conflicts just touch us, even if we didn’t fight in them.
For me, that conflict would be Vietnam, probably because so many of my friends’ fathers served there. Some of you in the same age group as me know what I am talking about. Those moments where someone’s Dad would lapse into a story about something they saw there…something that changed them. And to a man, every one of them I knew growing up had an undeserved shame. For some it was the shame of coming back to being spit on and called “Baby Killers” by people who had never been there, and never did what they had to do. For some, it was guilt over being alive when people they had known, had lived with, and had trusted with their lives, fell long ago in steamy jungles on the far side of the world. And for some, it was shame over betrayal. The betrayal of their sacrifices, and the lives of friends and colleagues by a government that micro managed the war, and eventually did what was politically expedient rather than what was right. The shame that only a betrayer can feel in leaving so many to the certain death at the hands of an evil and destructive political philosophy that treats men as interchangeable parts and not the unique individuals they are. A political philosophy that we promised to save them from.
That is a heavy weight for anyone to bear, and it is bitter compensation for those who gave up their childhood and innocence for the service to their country. It can be easy to forget that this conflict, like all conflicts, was ultimately dependent on the soldier. I took some time reading some letters home from one of these soldiers to remind myself of that. I think this one helps to bring this idea home. I don’t know if Mike made it home. I hope that he did.
Jan 12, 1969
I got the package yesterday, and I was real grateful. We are low on C-rations, and there is hardly any water.
We are supposed to be out in the bush for 4 days, but it ended up we’re still out here. It’s been about 2 weeks now. We are guarding this road. Making sure no VC get anywhere near the 1st Battalion, 1st Marines area, (1/1). Every afternon I’ve got gate watch. We all take turns from dawn to dusk. We just have to check out the ID’s of the civilians going up and down the road. If they don’t have an ID they are suspected of being a VC. The gate is a big cement grave. Our whole perimeter is set up in a big graveyard. In fact, our bunker is on top of a cement grave with sandbags on all sides. On one end we built a little hootch, and our machine gun is set right on top where the body was laid. I think that’s pretty cool. Inside the hootch there is the tombstone with all kinds of Chinese writing on it. At night we have a candle burning inside to see by.
Last night I went on a fire team-sized patrol, a fire team consists of 4 people. The leader was some corporal who I don’t feel safe with at all. He got here in Vietnam the same time I did, but he was put in charge right away because he’s a corporal. He goes by the book on everything. If we get hit we aren’t supposed to fire back, only on his command. I’d rather be with somebody that has a little more time in country, and knows what to do.
In about 5 months I will be the machine gunner for this squad, and in about 7 months I will be team leader. All the other guys in this gun team will be going home around the same time. Now I’m just the last ammo humper, but I don’t mind just as long as I gradually learn my job.
Soon I will have T-I-C, (time in country), and the experience. That’s what counts here.
I’m learning this language ok now, but the Marines only know a few phrases like “come here,” “go away,” “let me see your ID,” etc; but I want to learn more than this.
Mom, you were wondering what kinds of birds they have here. They are beautiful, nothing like in the USA. There’s swans, and big white birds with long necks, and ordinary birds with crowns on their heads, and then other birds that look like sparrows, only half their size.
I’m glad to hear you had snow. I kind of wish it would snow here once in awhile.
Enclosed are some pictures. Could you save them for me? They’ll get ruined over here. You can have the ones of me if you want. Also enclosed is part of a diary I started when I first got here. I’d better go now.
I can’t make you ponder the meaning of this day, and I can’t make you thank a veteran for doing what they did, but I will suggest that the kind of humility that comes from doing so can enrich your understanding of the day.
Thank you to Jim’s Dad, Troy’s Dad, Dan’s Dad, MCPO Airdale, BrewFan, Dick, and all the other veterans I know. Thank you.