Those Who Fought
a sermon preached by Rev. Khleber M. Van Zandt V at First Unitarian Church of Alton,
November 11, 2007
It is now fifty years since those who fought in World War II (and lived to tell about it) came home to a hero’s welcome and a short-lived period of peace and prosperity. Those men and women have been celebrated by books and movies and television shows, by public monuments and private memorials. The bands of brothers, the Citizen Soldiers of the Greatest Generation, didn’t, as a rule, talk much about their experiences of war; they just got on with their lives, built communities, and acknowledged that the best thing they ever did in their lives was to fight for their country.
The Korean conflict - also a bloody, nasty war but called a ‘police action’ - seemed a little more problematic. A piece of the larger Crusade against Communism, the American military encountered more difficulty than they apparently expected. The war’s conclusion, if you could call it that, was somewhat less than satisfactory; the returning veterans were heroes, of course, but somehow too much had gone wrong and we still had work to do to vanquish the forces of evil lurking in the world.
When the U.S. government began to send ‘military advisors’ to a tiny area of Southeast Asia called Vietnam, it seemed the natural next step in the global battle between ‘us’ and ‘them’ -- it was the Domino Theory we had to stop. Or as we hear it said now: “If we don’t want to fight ‘em over here, we have to go fight ‘em over there.”
After almost twenty years of attempting to support an anti-Communist government in South Vietnam, the Americans pulled out and the South Vietnamese surrendered to the Communist North. By then, two million Vietnamese and 58,000 Americans were dead, and 350,000 Americans had been wounded, many horribly so. Veterans returning from Vietnam, whether draftees or lifers, were not generally treated to parades and celebrations; the veterans of America’s longest war were shuttled aside as if they were a cause of defeat. Many were treated as pariahs, spat on, called murderers, and worse.
There were other conflicts, of course - the Bay of Pigs, Central America, Grenada, Panama, in Haiti, and in the Middle East, among others - the job of global policeman is never-ending.
Then Saddam Hussein, previously an ally - as have been many of the people we’ve gone after over the years - Saddam invaded the oil-rich kingdom of Kuwait, and thereby (some would say) forced us into the first Persian Gulf War. The country seemed gung-ho enough for that one, especially since the flow of oil seemed to actually be in jeopardy; besides which, the odds were overwhelmingly in our favor. That first one was over in a few news cycles so was easy for the international community to celebrate as a great victory over tyranny.
Somalia, Yugoslavia, Yemen and the Middle East again. Then came 9-11 and all bets were off. The War on Terror. The War in Afghanistan. And now the War in Iraq. It is never ending, or sure seems to be.
If this is an overview of the history of recent American wars from a sort of national or nationalistic perspective, it might be more interesting to get a view from closer to the ground, from individual points of view. Since I know more about my own family and friends than about anyone else, I’ll stick to family, friends, and self for a bit.
Previous to the Second World War, my grandfather went to France in 1917 with the doughboys of World War I. I am told he was a cook, and I have seen photographs of him with his mates standing in front of Dutch windmills and at carnival-looking events after the fighting was over. I never talked to him about the war; I was interested in him for other reasons, like the way he mixed peanut butter and honey on a plate and ate it with a knife. He was always frugal, always a staunch Republican - a strange thing in the South of his day. He died in the early 1960’s, and never said a word to me about war. I was too young to expect him to confide anything about his experiences; I wouldn’t have understood or cared, probably - I was more interested in the Mickey Mouse Club and Davy Crockett than in old WWI stories.
I had more of an adult relationship with my step-uncle, a veteran of WWII. We learned early on not to awaken him lest he leap from a sleeping position to kill us quickly with bare-handed moves he’d learned in the jungles of the South Pacific. The Army had taught him a trade, he said, and we didn’t want to be on the receiving end of the things he knew how to do instinctually and without thinking.
My own father always seemed like the older generation to me and always seemed healthy enough to have enlisted on his own, so I couldn’t figure out why he hadn’t been to the Army like other dads. As I got older, though, I realized that, born in 1930, he was too young for World War II and then had too many kids to go to Korea. I don’t recall any anti-military propaganda lying around my house so I was shocked a few years ago when my dad expressed to me a sentiment he had carried around with him most of his life: he said he was angry - angry at the flood of returning WWII veterans because as he was turning sixteen and needing a job, along came all those lousy ex-GIs, he said, to scoop up every job in sight. And then two years later when he was eighteen and going off to college, there were all these guys on the GI bill filling up classes and (worse) making better grades than a younger man could muster.
He didn’t seem to be aware that the sacrifices those people had made allowed him the freedom to be mad at them. He’s also never shown any awareness that those two years of his life - the year of his first job and the year of his first college class - book-ended the year of his own dad’s death. He couldn’t find a job, his dad died, and he went to college - that’s a lot to happen in three short years. Some people put grief so far aside that they can’t recognize even the most obvious signs.)
As for me, I have a complicated past and a complicated way of looking at military service, and it has caused me some grief as I’ve grown older. Maybe you can relate.
As I entered my teen years, the War in Vietnam was heating up and it was hard to miss the nightly film footage on the evening news. We all thought about the war: I thought it was something we had to do as a nation, but I couldn’t picture myself being over there. Then I became a father at sixteen and eighteen and twenty, was out of reach of the draft, and so didn’t have to think about it (for myself) anymore. My brother, two years my junior, would have his birthday selected number one the year of his eligibility. He sold his car, gave away all his stuff, and got ready to go before the draft ended in July of 1973.
But I did think about it, a lot - it was hard not to. Perhaps it’s no surprise that in the tumult of the sixties and Civil Rights and the War in Southeast Asia, I would end up carrying signs rather than a gun, wearing a torn surplus pea coat rather than dress blues, eschewing all things military rather than falling in and marching in formation.
It was a difficult time for everyone, as I said, and the whole issue so divisive that it separated families and friends all over. It was especially hard for me and others in that political climate to wave an American flag and I’m a little embarrassed to admit that I did sew several onto various articles of clothing. (Aside about last night seeing the guy wiping down the car with a flag-colored towel … Confusing…)
I’m also more than a little embarrassed to remember what I thought during that time of the men and women in uniform. No, I never spit on anyone or spoke unkindly to faces. But I know I had not in my heart the proper respect and admiration and empathy for the sacrifices both large and small that enlisted people make. I might be excused because I was very young, but already I knew of several kids from my community that went to war and never came back: a friend of mine was the youngest of four boys in his family; all three of his brothers killed in action, the house draped in black, the parents recluses within. Why couldn’t I feel the least bit of empathy for such a sacrifice as that?
The war in Vietnam is still a blight on the American consciousness. Even today, many still wonder what to say about it; was it a noble attempt to stop the spread of world Communism? Was it necessary? Or was it a mortal sin, a grave mistake, an expensive exercise in alpha-male chest-thumping by a few overzealous and vainglorious leaders?
Maybe some wars are ‘better’ than others. But war is awful. Even the ‘clean, easy’ ones are a travesty. A friend of mine who went to the first Persian Gulf War said he had gone up the road to Baghdad just behind the first wave of our guys. When asked what it was like, he would only say he still had nightmares about the things he saw and heard and smelled.
Casting about for unintended, possibly positive consequences of war, one might gingerly offer that recent wars have brought about innovations in medical care. We have had so many military actions that our medical facilities just keep getting better and better. Procedures learned on the battlefield and in field hospitals greatly increase the likelihood of our living through traumatic and violent events.
One of the unforeseen consequences of this is the way emergency rooms respond to injuries in civilian life - stateside auto accident and gunshot victims have gained immeasurably from what’s been learned by doctors and nurses in wartime. Another unforeseen consequence of these medical innovations is the number of people who live through catastrophic, previously fatal battlefield injuries. These folks have the blessing and the curse of coming home to try to resume civilian life with disabilities and scars of all sorts - physical, mental, emotional. Many of our veterans suffer as much at home as they did while at war. When the war is over for the rest of us, many veterans and their families fight on and on and on. Witness the little girl in the reading this morning.
As if that weren’t enough, the military seems now engaged in a program of moving injured military personnel off the roles of people cared for at public expense. Many a soldier who came home with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) - a diagnosis in which the government remains responsible for the care of the sufferer - many have now been re-diagnosed with something the government can claim was a pre-existing condition - say, a mental illness of any kind - and therefore, the government is no longer responsible for providing care. Yes, it’s expensive for people with disabilities to be cared for by the government. But when people are injured while in service to their country, our government ought to pay for their care, in perpetuity if necessary.
The leaders who decide to take us to war seem often to worry more about what voters will think about casualties than about the casualties themselves; they think more about the political cost to themselves of a vote for the war than about the physical and emotional cost of combat to individual veterans.
There are heroes that come out of conflict, but they are rarely the people at the top. They are much more likely the women and men who bear the brunt of the battle and the burden, the ones who give their lives and the ones who have to live everyday thereafter with the battle scars and with the memory of the things they’ve done and the things they’ve seen in the service of their country. There are heroes on the home front as well, the ones who learn to live with the damage inflicted on family and friends and community, the ones who realize the injustice of war and work to make it less likely.
I hope on this Veterans Day that we can hold in our hearts the proper respect and admiration and empathy for the sacrifices both large and small that enlisted people have made and continue to make. We should not seek excuses for not doing so; the list continues to grow of people who went to war and never came back; the military itself says 2007 is the bloodiest year yet of the Iraq War. Contrary to what some commentators say, we can be anti-war and pro-soldier; in fact, the most humane way to be pro-soldier is to be anti-war. The best way to support our soldiers and keep them safe is to keep them well-trained and to keep them well-supplied and to keep using all the intelligent diplomacy we can muster to keep armed conflict to a minimum.
Some wars may be ‘better’ than others, but all war is awful.
May we show our appreciation to our veterans,
may we respect those who’ve put themselves on the line,
may we honor the sacrifices they’ve made in our names.
And may we work to make conflict less likely
so that our children and theirs will not suffer,
like our veterans have,
the pain and devastation of war.
So may it be.
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