Friday, November 11, 2022

No Longer Angry at the Old Vets


Growing up in the 1950s veterans were part of my landscape. My father, four uncles and one aunt served during World War II. Almost everyone I knew had a father who served during that war or Korea. As a child, I was in awe of these veterans and often wondered how any of them survived what I imagined was a constant hail of bullets. Despite their ubiquity, the veterans themselves did not make a big deal of it. After all, just about everyone served so any one person’s service was nothing more than what everyone else did. Oh sure, a few heroes stood out but they usually dismissed their actions as something any other service member would have done had they been in the same situation. As a body the veterans of the 20th century wars represented a high standard of dedication and patriotism

That changed for me during the Vietnam war. By the late 60s patriotism seemed to demand that I fight in a war that looked increasingly dubious. There was no actual threat to the United States; the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese Army were not attacking my country but rather fighting in an obscure corner of Southeast Asia. As the war escalated, more questions arose about both the morality and practicality of the war. The politicians’ and generals’ assurances were often at odds with the facts on the ground and I, like many of my generation, called for an end to the war.

But the veterans I admired as a child and, particularly their veterans organizations, branded our objections as unpatriotic and cowardly. I came to resent them, old men demanding that we serve simply because they had done so. They saw Vietnam through their own lens which brooked no question to the government’s decision to fight a war. The old vets were still numerous and their their collective voice carried great weight. Even though I disagreed entirely with their view, my objection was insufficient to overcome the the sense of duty that I owed my country. When my student deferments ran out and war was still on, I went to Vietnam.

During my year in-country, the Pentagon Papers were published and documented the many misjudgments, lies, and obfuscations about America’s war in Vietnam. When I returned I was angry about the entire experience and the people who sent me there, among them the old veterans. I had no interest in joining any veterans organization. I couldn’t imagine that I would have anything in common with those guys.

My anger slowly dissipated over the next decade and allowed me to realize that I did in fact have something in common with the old veterans. The realization became particularly clear when I found a collection of Edward Steichen WW2 photographs. Steichen was an established fashion and fine art photographer in his 60s when the war broke out. He had served in the Army as a colonel during WW1 but was refused enlistment because of his age. The Navy invited him to serve as director of the Naval Aviation Photographic Unit and his work, along with a coterie of photographers he recruited, documented the carrier war in the Pacific. Those photographs showed a lot of very young men whose young faces looked a lot like us in Vietnam.

Those faces spoke to me in a very different way than my previous characterization of the old veterans. Whatever our differences about Vietnam, I recognized a common experience that overrides those differences. Instead of advocates for a dubious war, I saw men who were little different from me, just doing what the country asked of them. Seeing those faces reminded me that despite our different experiences we were very much the same.

That realization defused my anger toward the old veterans. We may still differ in our assessment of the American war in Vietnam but I believe that they came to their opinions honestly from their experiences in war. They were “fortunate” (if that word is ever appropriate to describe serving in war) enough to serve in a war that had genuine meaning whereas my generation faced a war that was conceived in ignorance and continued under lies. If you have any doubts about that difference, consider the consequences America suffered by its defeat in Vietnam (little to none except for the service members and their families) to the potential consequences of defeat by the Axis forces.

These days I know a great deal more about war and its consequences for those who serve than I knew in my youth. The veterans I first saw as childhood heroes and later as blind advocates for an unnecessary war are now simply comrades.



Blogger cile said...

Excellent essay, Mark. This is a great example of how to turn hate into love through greater understanding. I think your greatest gift to everyone was your witnessing what you did and being brave enough to speak out. Thank you.

9:39 AM  

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