I've puzzled for many years over the fact that, with few exceptions, the combat veterans of the United States of America a group to which I belong seem to march lockstep with political hawks when it comes to the issue of going to war.
Of all people, it would seem that our collective experience on foreign battlefields would dictate that we hold these politicians to a particularly high standard when they define the necessity of sending new generations of men, and now women, into that life-altering reality that is war. This would seem especially true for the Vietnam veteran.
Today there are some 8 million Vietnam era veterans in the United States. It is the largest group of veterans by far. We, in particular, should remember how during that war Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara ridiculed any criticism of his policies as unpatriotic and maintained a steadfast support for his strategy and objectives. Two decades later he would publicly admit that the whole thing was a mistake. A mistake? The premature deaths of 58,000 Americans and the countless thousands of others who lives were damaged or destroyed in the years since both here and in Vietnam a mistake?
Most Vietnam veterans that I know returned home from the war like ghosts who had never gone at all. We slipped quickly and quietly back into the same clothes we'd left hanging in our closets when we'd enlisted or been drafted, and we tried to act like we'd never been gone.
Looking back on the Vietnam era, it is understandable that soldiers returning home to the social and political turmoil of the late 1960's and early 1970's would choose to cloak themselves in silence and anonymity. Vietnam veterans even now often greet one another with the words, "Welcome Home!" a grim reminder of the fact that there was no welcome home for us back then.
In a poignant story by author and Vietnam veteran Tim O'Brien called "On the Rainy River", from his largely autobiographical collection The Things They Carried, the main character who is adamantly opposed to the war in Vietnam recounts a fishing trip to the boundary waters near Canada. There he could have easily slipped across the river and avoid the war that he doesn't believe in. Instead, he goes back home and subsequently, to Vietnam. "In the end I could not bear the prospect of rejection," the author wrote in a 1994 essay for the New York Times Magazine, "by my family, my country, my friends, my hometown. I was a coward. I went to Vietnam."
Fear of rejection can be a powerfully, self-censoring psychological force. After a decade's long journey to respectability following the Vietnam War, who can blame Vietnam veteran's for not taking the risk of traversing that troubled water again.
But according to a recent ABC News/Washington Post poll, 59 percent of the respondents said that going to war with Iraq was "a mistake". With American casualties in Iraq exceeding 17,000 and conservative estimates of Iraqi civilian deaths placed between 38 and 42 thousand, perhaps it is time for this aging army some 8 million strong to find our voice.
Through our continued silence we give our implicit support to President Bush, Vice-President Cheney, and the other architects of this "mistake". We bestow our tacit approval upon them, none of whom ever served in the wars of their youth, and in their decision to rush our brothers and sisters onto a battlefield of choice, not necessity. We send our children and grandchildren to Iraq despite the many obvious parallels to our own war. We remain impassive while soldiers once again do their job in a war with no end in sight. We wait for the terrorists to surrender, for our government to figure out an exit strategy, for an honorable end, a palatable solution.
Supporting the troops does not mean enabling the "mistake". It means having the courage to call for an end to it despite the uncomfortable prospect of rejection. With the ill-conceived war in Iraq now lasting longer than U.S. involvement in World War II, now might be a good time to reflect on the cost of our silence.