On this Memorial Day it is altogether fitting and proper that we remember and honor the sacrifices of those service men and women who died in service to our country.  This is of course a doubly important day for Veterans like myself who “survived” when some of our fellows did not.  I lost three Marines in my Communications Platoon in 1969 and 13 of my fellow classmates at the USMC Basic School in Quantico lost their lives in Vietnam.


Plaque at the National Museum of the Marine Corps at Quantico, Virginia honoring classmates from my Basic School class who died in Vietnam.

Words to Ponder

Last week the President gave a speech in Hiroshima.  The news reports I saw only published snippets of what he said. I also saw various comments on the Internet both pro and con so I took the time to read the entire transcript to decide for myself.

I was impressed by the thoughtful approach the President took to the timely (a mad man in N. Korea has nukes) and extremely important (the end of civilization as we know it) issue of nuclear proliferation.  President Obama rightfully pointed out that Hiroshima was a warning that the course of warfare has changed forever and raised the stakes so dramatically that it is imperative that we work diligently to keep the peace to the extent it is humanly possible.

There was certainly no apology as some might have you believe, rather there was an acknowledgement of what every soldier already knows:  That war is hell and it impacts civilians as well as military.

President Truman made the difficult decision to drop the bomb knowing that in doing so innocent women, children and even some American POWs would die.  He made the difficult decision to end the war that had already cost at least 60 million lives worldwide and prevent even more deaths that would surely have resulted from a full-blown invasion of Japan.

President Obamas talk was not, however, about Hiroshima per se, but rather about the larger issue of the consequences war itself (Which in this case Japan initiated) and what we (People of the world) can do to prevent, or at least limit, it in the future.

On this Memorial Day we would do well to think deeply about why these men and women we honor today died.  We must think about war.

My War

I can neither adequately explain nor can I fully understand why we were in Vietnam.  At the time I enlisted I believed that we had some sort of obligation to defend this small country from invasion and subversion by communist backed forces supported by China and Russia.

The prevailing argument for US involvement was to prevent the communists from taking over southeast Asia one small country at a time – the domino theory.  I remember counter arguments saying basically that we had no real interest in Vietnam and nothing to gain by fighting for the South Vietnamese regime.

I thought at the time (1967) that “helping the little guy”was actually was a more honorable reason to get involved than fighting a war for our own gain.

More important to me personally than the political arguments for fighting was the sense of obligation.  My great-great grandfather had fought with the 54th Ohio Regiment in the Civil War and was captured in the Battle of Chicamauga and spent some time at the dreaded Andersonville Prison in South Georgia as a POW.  My grandfather was a dough boy and fought in Europe in WW1.  Dad served in the Army Air Corps in WW2 and I had two uncles who served in Korea.  I had two cousin who had served in Vietnam  already.

It was my turn.  I left college and my girlfriend (Marianne), and enlisted in the Marines.

I won’t go into a long drawn out war story about boot camp, OCS,

and what it was like in Vietnam  – maybe in another post.

My purpose today is not to talk about me, but rather to the larger issue of War and why we should think about it today on Memorial Day.

My reasons for joining the Marines are relevant to this larger issue in that, like all soldiers in all countries and in all wars, I faced complex and vary confusing questions about “why” we were fighting and risking our lives.

Who Will Stand up to Bullies?

A friend of mine recently took his college age son to the American Cemetery at Normandy.  He reported that it was an extremely emotional visit.  His son also shared with him that many of his contemporaries in college express very strong and clear opinions that war is always wrong and that the United States is primarily an aggressor and the cause of the problem.

I too have heard these arguments and find them overly simplistic.  It does not help that they are often delivered with a heavy dose self-righteous indignation.

As the President also pointed out in Hiroshima, there are important reasons why we must be prepared to respond militarily.  He reminds us quite eloquently that throughout history there are those who have used military force against innocent people stating,

“On every continent, the history of civilization is filled with war, whether driven by scarcity of grain or hunger for gold, compelled by nationalist fervor or religious zeal. Empires have risen and fallen. Peoples have been subjugated and liberated. And at each juncture, innocents have suffered, a countless toll, their names forgotten by time.”

I am proud to have served in the military and believe that, although we have at times made serious, sometimes horrific mistakes, “Most of the time”, the United States has used it’s military power appropriately. The vast majority of men and women that I came in contact with over 29 years of military service are thoughtful people who try to do the right thing.

I believe even more strongly that it is folly to pretend that there are not evil forces in the world that must be stopped and stood up to.  Military action by it’s very nature guarantees death for some.  Some would say “the lessor of two evils is still evil”, to which I would respond, “Yes, but less evil is still better than more evil.”

As individuals and as a nation we don’t always get good choices and sometimes military action and the military service and loss of life that goes with it is necessary.

The answer to the “why” question related to war is not simple.

False Bravado

On the other end of the spectrum from those who believe that the US is always wrong going to war are people who talk about going to war like they were going to a sporting event.

Macho trash talk about “carpet bombing”, “kicking ISIS’s ass”, and loose talk about the use of nuclear weapons sickens me.  Teddy Roosevelt’s advice to “speak softly but carry a big stick” has always resonated with me.

When a Veteran who has been in combat speaks about “kicking someone’s ass”  I figure he/she has earned the right to do so.  However, when a politician spouts out bellicose chest-beating bullshit about war or military tactics they know nothing about, I cringe.  Unless they or their own sons and daughters have served, they best speak reverently and very cautiously about war and the death that will accompany it.

Worst of all is the draft-dodging Donald Trump who “loves our veterans” but mocked and belittled John McCain and, by extension, all POWs to include my great-great grandfather by saying “I don’t like people who get captured, OK”.  POW’s may have survived their war without dying, but they also have experienced a type of hell that none of us can imagine.  To Donald I can only say, “Shut the fuck up asshole!”

Guess I got that off my chest.  Pardon my language, but the old Marine in me comes out when I get riled up about people disrespecting the sacrifice of others.

President and General of the Army Dwight David Eisenhower had good advice for us when talking about war,

“Humility must always be the portion of any man who receives acclaim earned in blood of his followers and sacrifices of his friends.”

Words Matter

The fact is that words about war do matter and need to be considered very carefully and thoughtfully.  In World War 2 one of the slogans was “Loose Lips Sink Ships”, meaning that talking about anything related to the war effort could be important intelligence that could give our enemies an advantage that would ultimately cost the lives of our soldiers, sailors, or Marines.

Today a similar situation exists in today’s war against terrorists when Americans with access to the world media inflame the situation by purposely aligning all Muslims with the fanatical terrorists who have killed ruthlessly across much of the world.  ISIS has killed way more of their fellow Muslims than they have Christians or Americans. Driving a wedge between peace loving Muslims and the US by equating “Islam” with “terrorists” feeds right into the hands of the these mad men who would love nothing more than to position their ruthless power grab as a religious war.  The Muslim world must ultimately play the dominant role in solving the problem of extremists, and we need their support.   “Political correctness” in the use of words about war makes perfect sense to me – it saves American lives.

The Dead

So where do the people we honor and remember today come in?

I think we do them the highest honor by recognizing not only their bravery and sacrifice, but also that we as citizens of this great nation must be engaged in the discussion of when and how we use military power.

When considering war we need to ask ourselves “why”.  This discussion should be conducted with the upmost clarity and seriousness.

Talk softly and think deeply when you visit their graves today.

One thought on “War”

  1. Jim, first thank you for offering your thoughts and insights based on the kind of personal, first hand awareness that many of us do not share. You have drawn us back to a foundational conversation about the nature of war and the acceptability of loss of life in efforts to ultimately make the world more safe, and in response to the damage that some would inflict in their aspirations to obtain greater and greater power.
    Complexity abounds. But the truth is that none of us, whatever our education, training, experience, will ever have all the answers and uncertainty will remain. What we heard you say, though, is that as we stand at the graves of those who have died we must at the very least keep silence and recognize the sacrifice that person made.
    Thank you for your reflections, Jim. Thank you for your military service, and all that you continue to do to pursue the common good.
    Peace with Justice

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