Wednesday, June 15, 2005

Catharsis

Psalm 73:1-17 (New Living Translation)

Psalm 73

A psalm of Asaph

1 “Truly God is good to Israel, to those whose hearts are pure.
2 But as for me, I came so close to the edge of the cliff! My feet were slipping, and I was almost gone.
3 For I envied the proud when I saw them prosper despite their wickedness.
4 They seem to live such a painless life; their bodies are so healthy and strong.
5 They aren't troubled like other people or plagued with problems like everyone else.
6 They wear pride like a jeweled necklace, and their clothing is woven of cruelty.
7 These fat cats have everything their hearts could ever wish for!
8 They scoff and speak only evil; in their pride they seek to crush others.
9 They boast against the very heavens, and their words strut throughout the earth.
10 And so the people are dismayed and confused, drinking in all their words.
11 “Does God realize what is going on?” they ask. “Is the Most High even aware of what is happening?”
12 Look at these arrogant people-- enjoying a life of ease while their riches multiply.
13 Was it for nothing that I kept my heart pure and kept myself from doing wrong?
14 All I get is trouble all day long; every morning brings me pain.
15 If I had really spoken this way, I would have been a traitor to your people.
16 So I tried to understand why the wicked prosper. But what a difficult task it is!
17 Then one day I went into your sanctuary, O God, and I thought about the destiny of the wicked.

I read a short piece this morning from Real Clear Politics titled “The Homecoming They Never Received.” I found the introduction, which follows, quite moving:

“One of the greatest stains on our nation's history in the last half century is the disgraceful way in which America treated its veterans returning from Vietnam. As someone born in 1969, I've never been able to get my head sufficiently wrapped around the idea that even a portion of our country could have been so callous and disrespectful to the sacrifices made by our soldiers - regardless of what those people thought about U.S. policy at the time.”

“Treating today's soldiers and veterans the same way would be unthinkable. That's a welcome change, but it's also something that should serve to deepen our shame about the way we treated our men serving in Vietnam. Imagine what it must be like for them to watch the way our soldiers are rightfully lauded for their service and sacrifice today, and to contrast that with the memories of how they were treated upon returning home from duty. Our country owes these men an apology.”

The words were Tom Bevan's “amen” of sorts to a tribute for Vietnam veterans being held in Branson, Missouri.

As one of the thousands of veterans who serve in Southeast Asia I’m very grateful for what the organizers of the tribute have done, and I’m very grateful for Tom's kind words.

But what I find amazing is that the ones who should be thanking us never have, and probably never will. The people who don’t need to apologize to us are doing what those who should will never do. It’s been that way since we went as a nation to Vietnam and it hasn’t changed in over forty years.

I’m really grateful for those who are doing what others should have. I really am. In spite of that, however, there is still a gnawing inside many of us who served in Vietnam that will probably never go away. Oh, we’ve gotten on with our lives. But it still hurts today to see those who led us down the primrose path, those who so quickly forgot us, those who had nothing but contempt for us, succeed, to find priminent places, in the world after ‘Nam.

Now I’m sure I’m going to sound bitter in doing so, but I’ve decided to pay a little tribute to those who betrayed us during those years.

First and foremost on that list is Bobby McNamara and LBJ’s super team of advisors. For those of you too young to remember, Robert McNamara was the Secretary of Defense during the Kennedy and Johnson administrations. In that role he was one of the primary architects of our strategy in Vietnam. He’s also the guy who gave us Khe Sanh and Mutual Assured Destruction, a strategy that he often described in glowing terms:

“It's not mad! (laugh) Mutual Assured Destruction is the foundation of deterrence. Today it's a derogative term, but those that denigrate it don't understand deterrence. If you want a stable nuclear world -- if that isn't an oxymoron -- , to rephrase it, to the degree one can achieve a stable nuclear world, it requires that each side be confident that it can deter the other. And that requires that there be a balance and the balance is the understanding that if either side initiates the use of nuclear weapons, the other side will respond with sufficient power to inflict unacceptable damage. Mutual Assured Destruction. So Mutual Assured Destruction is the foundation of stable deterrence in a nuclear world. It's not mad, it's logical.”

How do those guys in the Guinness ads put it? “Brilliant.” Years after his tenure Bobby's successors scorned Ronald Reagan’s idea of “Star Wars” because it would “destabilize” the nuclear situation he and the party of my youth had gotten us into. It’s hard to imagine. It seems a bit like Newspeak. Mutual Assured Destruction was the best alternative Bobby Mac could come up with to stabilize a world on the brink of disaster. Brilliant!

You know, McNamara’s failed strategies wouldn’t bother me at all if it weren’t for the arrogant attitude he has taken since the 60’s. After thousands died in his wake, he found his way to the chairmanship of the World Bank. “Brilliant!” Then, later, in another absolute stroke of brilliance he wrote a “tell all book”, repenting for his strategic sins. He then went on the rubber chicken circuit making millions doing his grand “mea culpa.” How noble! How “brilliant!”

In the end it probably made him feel a whole better, and a whole lot richer as well. What’s really galling is that he couldn’t take full responsibility for what he’d done. He blamed the lion’s share of what happened on public opinion:

“A nation's deepest strength lies not in its military strength, military force. It lies in the unity of its people. We didn't have it. And I would suggest we probably didn't deserve it given the way we handled it.”

Can you believe those words? We lost because “we probably didn’t deserve it.” We didn’t lose because of his failed policies. We didn’t lose because of the failed strategy of stalemate he engineered. It was our fault. If that isn’t a slap in the face, I don’t know what is.

There are some who saw right through him. Even in praising his book, Ernest May had this to say about this quintessential American hero’s work:

“Land-locked country of three million hamlets, populated by people devoted primarily to singing songs, making love and raising opium. And there's a theology around it, a set of beliefs which are not recaptured in the book. And it's a little bit like--if you'll forgive my saying so--it's a little bit like a crusader's memoir written by someone who can't remember why he particularly cared about the fate of Jerusalem.”

Then, what would Oriental peasants mean to this brilliant geo-politician, the architect of the grand Vietnam strategy? Not much at all.

In the same panel discussion, Hue-Tam Ho Tai, while agreeing that McNamara had written a “valuable” book, also noted that, “As I said, the Vietnamese peasantry seems to have ranked very, very low in the decision making process. When pacification finally came in, the war to win the hearts and the minds of the people, it was fought half-heartedly.” In layman’s terms, Bobby forgot all about the people of Vietnam in his grand strategy sessions.

Well, thanks, Bobby Mac! What can we who served during your tenure at the Department of Defense say in response to your “noble” work? The only words that come to mind are something like the words of ancient gladiators. “We who served loyally, only to be betrayed by you, salute you.” “We who were denied victory salute you.” “We who died for nothing salute you!”

Next on the list is Jimmy Carter. While he never presided over Vietnam, he did find it in his heart to pardon all those who never registered for the draft or evaded it by going to Canada or move favorable “climes.” You know, those of us who served didn’t mind that act of forgiveness. But like those who led us into Vietnam, he never said a word of thanks to us. I suppose he might have if we had been willing to crawl across cut glass for him.

Another representative of the party of my youth and another slap in the face. And to think now that I actually voted for him twice. My loyalty, and the loyalty of thousands of others who served in Vietnam, was repaid by betraying us to the betrayers of our generation.

Thanks, Mr. President!

Finally, there are the policy makers to thank, the Congress and Senate of the United States. They helped get us there and then shot us right through the grease once we were there. When we needed support they delivered sanctimonious lectures. When funds were needed they made sure that the appropriations dried up. But then what did the lives of thousands of GI’s and over twenty million South Vietnamese mean when compared to the power of appropriating billions for more “worthwhile” projects elsewhere?

Of course, they could look at it all dispassionately. Few, if any of them, had sons or daughters in harm’s way. I can only speak for myself and I can say with absolute certainty that I never met the son or daughter of a congressman or senator during my year there. I guess decision making on a grand scale is a lot easier when there’s nothing personal at stake in the outcome.

Thanks, elected leaders!

So, in the final analysis, for me, I feel grateful that there are millions who appreciated the fact that we served loyally, and ably in Vietnam. Speaking for myself I can only say that I served. I didn’t do anything heroic. I just did my job to the best of my ability. I did nothing special, nothing that would merit a soap box But I have to say in all honesty that I have nothing but contempt for those who failed us when we needed them most.

Now, if I feel the way I do about those who betrayed us, I can only imagine how those who gave limbs and eyes to the cause must feel. And I can only imagine how those who came home with a free flag would have felt if they had lived through the experience. And how have they responded to us since those days? They’ve ignored us as if we didn’t really exist. And I’m sure they’ll continue to ignore us. What can I say? “Thanks!”

I guess I’ve done enough cathartic work for a day. I know that I can’t change the past, nor can I change the attitudes of the powerful. But at least I can express my outrage. I have and now I’m done.

2 comments:

Gone Away said...

A powerful essay. As a foreigner, it is probably not my place to say it, but you were part of a time in history that changed America forever. The fact that the U.S. must now think very carefully about how it uses its power and wealth is entirely due to the horror that was the Vietnam war. Never again will it be able to go to war without consideration for the feelings of its people. As a result, I can't think of any other nation that I would rather see as the only superpower left. In time the world will be grateful for the sacrifices made by you and your brothers in arms.

Jim Baxter said...

The faithful Americans of the Revolution, and World War I and World War II and Korea, recognize the continuing line of the faithful in standing for Freedom of their brothers and sisters defending Viet Namese fathers, mothers, and children.

Their service, wounds, and deaths need no defense. Their efforts were more than sufficient and speak volumes greater than mere words squeaked by arm-chair politicians appointed by lawn-chair politicians - issuing orders of ignorance to courageous field commanders and brave men of faith.

The small minority of Americans, who received all the back-home press attention, were the cowardly collectivists parroting the hate language of historic tyrannies and mythical educationists of Peace At Any Price. The warriors of America had all the right enemies.

They also have the right friends who are always thankful and still faithful: previous and future generations of real Americans.

selah