Over the years, a number of famous anti-war protesters have risen from the ranks of the military and joined the throngs in Washington, tossing their medals onto the White House lawn and marching for a quick end to their particular war. I hold no opinion on their actions or convictions. Those are decisions reserved for the individual. These veterans, more than most actually, are entitled to their own opinions. They personally fought for the rights we all enjoy. I am also pleased that their objections were clearly directed upon those who propelled the nation to war, NOT the men and women who fought in it.
As I pumped gas at a station some time ago, a man I knew pulled up and strolled over cheerfully.
“I just talked to another jarhead from another generation,” he blurted immediately. “He said this is the stupidest war we’ve been in yet.”
I was speechless. What do I say? Agree with him? Disagree? Tell him, “my good man, please find me a war that isn’t at its core, caused by somebody’s stupidity?” In this case, I remained silent. It is not battle I was trained to fight. But this situation illustrates a good point – and an issue on which I feel quite strongly: I firmly object to those who berate the men and women of the armed services who, given orders they may or may not have felt to be the most prudent, made the best of their circumstances and served with honor and integrity regardless. They took an oath to this nation; they did NOT demonstrate their unwavering support for the conflicts into which this nation may propel them. The oath was to trust the judgment of their leaders who, ultimately, are duly elected civilians.
In Bob Greene’s book, “Homecoming,” he recounts an experience from James Wagenbach, a Vietnam veteran:
On returning from Vietnam minus my right arm, I was accosted twice…by individuals who inquired, “Where did you lose your arm? Vietnam?” I replied, “Yes.” The response was, “Good. Serves you right.”
While much of what is now uttered is (thankfully) less odious and wretchedly inappropriate as this, it still serves the same purpose: telling the veteran that his or her service is not uniformly recognized as noble and selfless, and that the decisions of the highest echelons of civilian leadership are somehow the responsibility of those men and women who are tasked with their execution. The anger and opposition are misplaced.
World War II saw perhaps the most universal support for the war effort, and troops, as a whole, were greeted with great fanfare and treated as heroes. Yet the public response to Vietnam was virtually the antithesis. Many were spit upon, ridiculed, and even attacked. Curiously, however, high frequencies of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) did not arise until there was an astoundingly negative reception to war veterans. But it is veterans who, more than most, hate war. They lived with it, and IN it, and endured its hell. The death, carnage, and loss in today’s wars is little different from that of World War II, yet the millions of the Great War suffered remarkably low incidence of PTSD. Why? In large part because the country received her sons home with open arms. Now, however, there is a burning anger, and veterans bear the brunt of it. In many ways it is PUBLIC ABSOLUTION of veterans that most helps them with their reintegration into society and their ability to live with what has happened.
If one were to approach the adult child of a now-incarcerated bank robber and say, “your father is an absolute idiot and horrible person. He screwed up your entire family and left you, your siblings and your mother to fend for yourselves,” his statement however accurate, would be needless, and actually destructive. Foremost, this man is probably keenly aware of his father’s mistake. He, more than most any other, lived with the consequences of that mistake. Second, the deed is done, and dwelling on it does absolutely nothing to make it go away. Third, shouldn’t these statements, though definitely factual, be reserved for the father himself? Why attack his child? Such is the case for veterans; they don’t make the decision where they are sent. That choice rests firmly in the hands of the democratically-elected government. The troops simply go where they are sent. They have chosen service and personal and collective honor over their own pursuits.
The public as a whole is infatuated with being unquestionably RIGHT, even at the total sacrifice of their own dignity and courtesy towards their fellow man. Yet veterans, and above all else, would simply like some assurance that what they did and how they served was good, appreciated, and remembered. But they are often robbed of this much-deserved peace. Attacking the veteran does nothing more than sow seeds of doubt, forbids the interment of an awful and tragic time in his or her life, and continually rips open wounds that are increasingly unlikely to heal with time.
We are not the war; we are the warriors, and there is a clear and essential distinction between the two.
A good cause receives commendation, and a futile one great condemnation. But why? An exercise in futility is by no means a descent into barbarity. A futile cause can still be a good one. Yet the rewards are lower, popularity virtually nil, and a lifetime of poorly-seated memories and tragedies for the participant. War, we have all agreed, is hell. Just ask a veteran, those who survived his or her own hell… Yet again, the veteran made no choice as to the location and his or her mission. They simply answered the call of their country, which is deserving of respect.
I don’t imagine there will be any victory parades when our current wars end, regardless of their overwhelming success or futility. Nor will there be defeat parades (I presume). Instead, there will simply be a quiet belief that the matter is now sufficiently settled that the gadflies on both sides will finally lower their megaphones and find something else about which to vehemently complain. Maybe they will no longer attack the men and women who served their country. More likely, however, veterans will still be the recipients of undue hostility, misplaced aggression, and forever left to question if their actions were right or wrong. Absolution is difficult under the best of circumstances for them, yet nearly impossible without confident affirmation from their countrymen. Yet in reality, it is questionable if the country ever stood behind them in the first place. Why are there so many incidents of PTSD in this current conflict? Let us pose a better question: why is this nation so quick to condemn the men and women who have sworn to personally and collectively defend them?
I STILL don’t care what you think of my war, but I do care if you’re a patriot. Patriots don’t abandon their countrymen.
Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw
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