March 4, 2013

Old Wars Never Die

I woke up this morning still thinking about last night's 60 Minutes piece, "The life and death of Clay Hunt," a haunting profile of a young ex-soldier's suicide, a tragedy that has become all-too familiar. Too many deployments, too many close friends lost, too many sleepless nights, too little understanding ... too much to bear.

My mood didn't improve after I stumbled upon Nick Turse's book, Kill Anything That Moves, a fierce indictment of the conduct of the Vietnam War. He purports to show that atrocities were "pervasive and persistent" and were a direct result of "a military machine that made crimes in almost every major American combat unit all but inevitable."

To be fair, I have not read the book, but I did read all 84 reviews of the book. I found myself nodding in agreement with those who conceded that there were a lot of bad things that happened in Vietnam but argued that Turse failed to factor in the idea that sometimes actions were a reaction to what the enemy did. Nor did he apparently make much of an effort to compare the scale of such incidents to other wars, most notably World War II.

Dresden. If that word doesn't send a chill up and down your spine, then it's time to hit the history books. Allied bombers, for reasons that still remain murky, fire-bombed the center of the city in February 1945, reducing it to rubble and leaving an estimated 20,000 civilians dead. You still want to tell me that Vietnam somehow represented the ultimate heart of darkness, that the intentional targeting of civilians was somehow invented after 1965?

Every war takes a fearsome toll on its warriors and on those caught up in its wake. For soldiers, the worst of it often comes after they return home and have time to replay the horrors over and over in their heads. Alone with his or her thoughts, a soldier's memories can become as fatal as any roadside bombing or bullet. As I have come to see it, the war never stops trying to kill you.

Getting back to the topic of military suicides, as a veteran of the Vietnam War,  I found myself listening to the 60 Minutes report and thinking there were a couple of huge differences that made it a little easier for us to transition back to the world.

First and foremost was the idea of a single one-year tour of duty. Going in, you knew you were one and done, so to speak. It was understood that the single most important day was your DEROS: Date Eligible for Return From Overseas. The idea that everyone else you knew would be left to continue on until their DEROS arrived ... well, that came with the territory. Nobody begrudged the guy going home. Hell, we were all anxiously awaiting our own date with DEROS, carefully counting down to that day on our short-timer calendar.

I think another big factor was the controversial nature of the war right from the get-go. Add to that the fact that many soldiers, like myself, were draftees. That gave you a whole different mindset going in. Many of us had few illusions about the war. We knew it was a losing proposition. Oh sure, there were some who believed in the greater cause, but most of the people I knew were under no such grand illusion.

So you add it up and you get soldiers -- combatants and non-combatants alike -- who were stuck in a war they didn't believe in, putting in their time until they went home. Unlike the veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan, who went in with a mindset of protecting the homeland, Vietnam vets, by and large, saw their year as one to survive; nothing more, certainly nothing less. One thing we all shared in common was a return home to a largely indifferent welcome, unlike the soldiers in World War II who came home to a true hero's welcome, with apologies to the Korean War veterans who remain the most forgotten of all.

All of which brings me back to a point I arrived at in an earlier post. Maybe it's time to rethink the draft. It's obvious from the multiple redeployments that an all-volunteer army was simply not up to maintaining a two-front war on terror over many years. Eliminating those multiple redeployments ought to be Job One for the Pentagon.

Second, I would argue that an all-volunteer army has made it too easy to get into these wars. The average America family is largely unaffected by the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. If there was a requirement that during any deployment of America forces overseas in a combat situation there would have to be an annual draft of say, 20,000 men and women, don't you think the American people might ask a few more questions before letting Congress write another blank check for a war?

We should have learned some hard lessons from Vietnam, and we did. But over time, we forgot the sting of war. Maddened by a direct attack on American soil, which I agree required a strong response, we began what has become a decade and more of constant warfare. Asked to do too much, soldiers and families have suffered enormously, some giving the ultimate sacrifice long after they had left the battle ground. Others bear wounds that will never heal. All have given more than can ever be repaid.

It may be too much to hope that we will never go to war again, but we don't have to make it so damned easy. A draft keeps everybody honest. I have yet to see a cause that is worth my grandchildren dying for. I doubt many of us have in our heart of hearts. If it was really possible for our children or grandchildren to be summoned to duty, I'm willing to bet there would be a whole lot more questions before rather than after.

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