Yesterday (Nov. 10) was the federal holiday for Veteran’s Day. All our holidays must fall on a weekday now, so that we might have a patriotic excuse for a day off from work.
Yesterday was also the birthday of the United States Marine Corps, born Nov. 10, 1775 at Tunn’s Tavern (You might have known it would be a tavern, right?) in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
The newspaper in my hometown featured on its front-page a story about a 106-year-old World War I veteran. Veteran’s Day is a sobering event and not only because the liquor stores in my state are all closed that day. It is especially sobering to reflect on how much American militarism has changed the world and how war has changed America since the days when our doughboys went "Over There!"
Five decades and two wars later, many of us served in the great "World War ‘Nam." We did not go over there singing, "We won’t come back ’til it’s over over there!" Most of us did our time, came home and went on to other things, like college or careers, with the war still in progress. As the Beatles had sung, "Ooblahdee oohbladah, life goes on."
Promises came and went like the brutal summer heat and the relentless monsoon rains. Lyndon Johnson promised to "nail the coonskin to the wall." There was a general who came to our base in Da Nang and told us, "We’ve got the key in the lock and we’re about to open the door" to victory. It was an unfortunate metaphor for me. I had recently lost the key to the shed containing mess hall supplies. After the general spoke, one of my comrades quipped that "Someone must o’ given that key (to victory) to Kenny."
I was pleased to go to Vietnam and pleased to come back and enjoy my liberty as a civilian. Naturally, I continued to follow the events in Vietnam and the protests and counter-protests here at home. There was the moratorium against the war in ’69, the march on the Pentagon, Richard Nixon’s calling on the "Silent Majority" and, of course, Vice President Spiro Agnew’s spirited defense of "our troops" versus the deserters and draft dodgers, rioters, insurrectionists and other trouble makers in the streets and on the campuses of America.
"SDS, Weathermen, Black Panthers — I’d trade the whole damn zoo for a single platoon of the kind of Americans I saw in Vietnam," Agnew said after a visit to the war in Southeast Asia. He had a swift and cutting response to Arkansas Sen. J. William Fulbright’s claim that the ongoing war was costing the nation some of its brightest and most promising young people, many of whom were leaving the country to avoid the draft.
"Let the Democrats, if they so choose, search for their future leaders in the deserters’ dens of Sweden and Canada," Agnew scoffed. "We Republicans will look elsewhere." Remarks like that seldom failed to elicit thunderous ovations. ("Say it again, Spiro!")
We definitely took sides on the home front and I was solidly with the hawks. I don’t remember if "Stay the course" was in vogue, but I suspect it was. Certainly, "Peace with honor" was what we were fighting for — and a return of all our prisoners of war. We couldn’t back out, we were in too deep. The simple plan offered by Sen. George Aiken of Vermont ("Declare victory and come home!") was too easy. Come home? Hell, we hadn’t even made it to "Mission Accomplished."
It did not turn out as we had hoped. We were bogged down in a no-win war and were not really clear about what our goals were. (Sound familiar?) My own contribution to the war effort (I was there) was minimal and ten years to the day after I enlisted in the Marine Corps, I watched on TV as Saigon was evacuated and we left behind countless Vietnamese who were counting on us to defend them. I got to know some of the Vietnamese while I was over there and they seemed to me good, simple, humble people. It was all so sad.
We never did get a full accounting of all our Missing In Action, including some who were known to have been in enemy captivity. I have yet to visit the black wall in D.C. that has the names of all 57,000-plus of the U.S. servicemen killed in Vietnam. I remember how vicious and cruel the deadly tricks of the Viet Cong were — the booby traps along the trail and all of that. But we were the superpower with the bombs, the tanks, the planes, the artillery, the helicopters and, God forgive us, the napalm. That famous picture of the little girl, screaming in fear and agony as she ran naked through the streets of her village, her little body on fire, will remain an enduring image of America’s “defense of freedom” in South Vietnam.
I’m sure no one meant to set that little girl on fire. But war, even more than most human endeavors, is loaded with unintended consequences. Collateral damage, you know. Stuff happens. “War is hell.”
So why are we so often willing to go to hell? And to bring that hell to so many others in far-off lands? Shouldn’t the most powerful nation on earth be leading the people of this world in the other direction?
Heaven help us!
Manchester, NH, resident Jack Kenny [send him mail] is a freelance writer.