Archive for the ‘war’ Category

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Number Seventy-two

November 11, 2017

As the Vietnam War documentary by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick played out on TV last month, I found myself glued to the screen. It exploded with images of fierce battles and the great social upheaval both in Vietnam and the United States. An amazing assemblage of reminiscences of soldiers and TV clips from the news gave such depth to this complex subject. There was much I didn’t know and much I couldn’t know not having been there myself. But there was also much I remembered of that time, and as I sat riveted, I couldn’t help but to think back.

During high school, only snippets of our growing involvement in Vietnam entered my consciousness, some from the news and some from a few teachers who spoke of it. It was a far-away occurrence, one of little importance to most  teens whose minds were on more immediate concerns. That all changed once I reached college.

My freshman year began in the fall of 1966 as the crescendo of protest was building on campuses throughout the country. I began to pay attention to the news stories which grew more and more prominent. I heard the protest songs that were the soundtrack of those times: Dylan’s “Masters of War,” Phil Ochs’ “I Ain’t Marchin’ Anymore,” Richie Haven’s “Handsome Johnny.” Back home the “silent majority” made their voices known too. It was a period of extreme social tension and moral reckoning for us all.

I had always believed in the Kennedy ideal manifest in his inauguration speech: “ask not what your country can do for you but rather what can you do for your country.” Ever since I became aware of the Peace Corps during high school, joining had been my goal. It would be my way of contributing to my country and a world that clearly had great need. That dream came into greater focus during college, especially when one of the upperclassmen I admired joined. My correspondence with him overseas only whetted my desire more. I gathered up all the brochures I could get my hands on and then finally in the beginning of my senior year sent in my application.

That year also brought about the first draft lottery, and I was part of the pool of 19 to 26 year olds involved. Numbers would be drawn based on one’s birthday. The draft order would be established from low number to high. The fate of each rode on the luck of the draw.

On December 1 of 1969, I can still remember the anxious souls milling about the hallways in the dorm awaiting the results of the lottery. Those who drew numbers above two hundred were considered to be safe. I got number seventy-two.

I proceeded with my plans to enter the Peace Corps undeterred. Although this would not excuse me from the draft, it was a commitment I had made to myself to honor the spirit of Kennedy’s service ideal. I knew I would be a better teacher than soldier, and to serve in the interests of peace took precedence in my mind over participating in what was widely considered to be an ill-advised and unjust war. My letter of acceptance into the Peace Corps arrived on April 13 just before my senior year drew to its tumultuous conclusion with the Kent State shooting and its aftermath of violence on my own campus.

I arrived in the Philippines in 1970. During my service there, I received my draft notification. The best the Peace Corps could do was to have my induction postponed until I finished my two-year tour.

When I arrived home in 1972, two significant events occurred. I discovered that my draft board had violated their own rules while drafting me when I had been overseas thus exempting me from being inducted. I then discovered through a routine medical test that I had been born with only one kidney which, had I not already been exempted, would have classified me 4F and unable to serve.

A few months later, in January of 1973, Nixon announced an accord had been reached which would end our involvement in the fighting in Vietnam. This closing chapter was painfully depicted in the documentary, those final weeks tainting what was to be “peace with honor.”

I think about those of my generation who ended up going to Vietnam, those who did so out of a sense of duty, and especially those who were drafted out of small town or inner city America. I met some of these while in the Philippines, mostly young guys who had never been out of their state no less half way around the world fighting a war they didn’t understand. I could hear in their conversations a sense of unreality of their situation. Most of them sought escape at the bottom of a bottle, some worse.

There is still much debate about the legacy left by this conflict. However, whatever conclusion each individual believes, there can be no doubt that this war left many scars, scars in those who fought, in the families of those who fought, and in a nation that was shaken to its core.

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Unpreventable?

December 7, 2016

attack on Pearl Harbor

The war that we have carefully for years provoked                                                                                         Catches us unprepared, amazed and indignant.
— Robinson Jeffers from the poem “Pearl Harbor”

Today marks the anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor, a date that President Franklin Roosevelt proclaimed “will live in infamy.” On this day in 1941, Pearl Harbor, the primary American base in the Pacific, suffered a devastating surprise strike by the Empire of Japan which resulted in the death of more than two thousand Americans and crippled the critically important Pacific Fleet, plunging us into World War II.

Never before had a foreign attack of this magnitude occurred on American soil causing such loss of life and property. This was the original 9/11, another day that caught us unprepared, amazed, and indignant. And much like 9/11, the way it happened would read like a novel had it not been true. There occurred a perfect storm of unusual circumstances and missed opportunities by the United States, and Japan’s shocking triumph resulted.

Months before, a meeting proposed by Japan’s Prime Minister Konoye to “solve the unsolvable” never happened. Despite the urging of Joseph Grew, the American Ambassador to Japan, the State Department did not share his optimism that such a meeting would prove fruitful and disregarded the viewpoint that Japan’s desperation over the U.S. embargo and sanctions would drive them to war. Prince Konoye subsequently resigned, General Hideki Tojo became both Prime Minister and War Minister, and seven weeks later Pearl Harbor felt the result.

The Japanese government had intended to convey a declaration of war thirty minutes before the attack was to have begun. However, officials at the Japanese embassy in Washington had taken too long to decode the document thus unintentionally delivering it two hours after the fact.

Normally, the entire fleet would not be present in the harbor at one time, a common safety measure taken by the Navy. On this day, though, the entire fleet was in, all concentrated in a small area, providing a perfect target.

Normally, in each of the warships enough compartments would be sealed off making them water-tight in case of attack to prevent the sinking of the giant vessels. That coming Monday an Admiral’s inspection had been expected, so the compartments were left open to facilitate his visit, a decision that had dire consequences.

At 6:40 on the morning of the assault, the crew of the destroyer U.S.S. Ward spotted the periscope of a submarine headed for the entrance to the harbor. It dropped depth charges in an attempt to sink the sub. This information was radioed to Headquarters. It should have been a red flag precipitating an immediate alert. No alert was issued.

At 7:02 the radar station, manned by young and inexperienced personnel, detected a massive flight of airplanes 132 miles from the island and approaching rapidly from the north. Lt. Kermit Taylor, a pilot only on his second day at the station, made the assumption that it was an expected flight of American B-17 bombers from California. In actuality it was the 183 Japanese aircraft bent on delivering a knock-out blow to the American military might in the Pacific. No action was taken.

At 7:55 the first wave of torpedo planes swept in, and the devastation began. During the next two hours, the lightning strike planned by the Japanese — one they thought would entail an intense battle from which most would not return — was successful beyond their expectations.

Could Pearl Harbor have been averted? After 9/11, the same haunting question was asked. More importantly, what about the next Pearl Harbor, the next 9/11? Is complete preparedness even possible?

As former CIA operative and writer Charles McCarry noted, “Richard M. Helms, the first director of Central Intelligence to rise from the ranks, was fond of saying that the CIA had been founded to make sure that there would never be another Pearl Harbor. Underlying this mission impossible was the wishful supposition that an America that knew everything could prevent anything.”

It is doubtful that there could be an America that knows everything. It seems unlikely both because of our free society and expectations of privacy as well as the logistical improbability of such a herculean task. And if that is the case, then the very idea that America can prevent anything is untenable.

So what are we to do? Yes, we must insist that our government, military, and police remain vigilant. The same should be expected of the citizenry. But beyond that, the need to be proactive in eliminating the root causes of the animosities that would rise to such a level of aggression is paramount, another seemingly impossible mission. However, it is one that must be attempted, for not to do so condemns us to a future of Pearl Harbors to come.

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A Question Of Peace

November 17, 2016

The world has been mired in a cycle of war repeated for as long as there has been history. Nations have suffered devastation at the hands of other nations because of greed, xenophobia, misunderstanding, and vengeance. Political, ethnic, and religious groups have been both victim and perpetrator, and vilification of targeted groups has been used to justify their oppression or destruction as the instigators of violence take advantage by exploiting the emotions of the populace. The only thing that changes is the time, the place, and the method.

The lessons that should have been learned from this shared human past are many. Humankind has not been a very good learner.

I understand the need to protect oneself, and knowing one’s perceived enemies and keeping vigilant seems prudent. But each act of aggression by either side of any discord only foments further acts in response. Hatred begets hatred, violence results in more violence, and neither has ever led to any true resolution. The seemingly interminable chain must somehow be broken.

The continuous conflict that has afflicted mankind is deeply ingrained. The question is this: do we as a species intend to live in a perpetual state of combat, or do we find a way to peacefully resolve our differences?

It boils down to a question of tolerance. The intense animosities that have arisen between races, religions, nations, and tribes foster the endless fighting and even the perverse desire to eradicate the opposing group. The focus is always on some disparate aspect of the other group that develops into a seemingly insurmountable barrier.

However, our commonalities as humans vastly outnumber our differences, and the perpetrators of aggression need to be convinced to abandon the old ideologies to which they cling that justify their desire for dominance. The huge task of eliminating the manufactured boundaries between the peoples of Earth is the critical need; how to accomplish it is the ultimate problem. It will take a concerted effort by all who believe a lasting peace is both necessary and possible in order to attain this.

And why now? A few moments spent reading a newspaper or watching the news should answer that. How many atrocities inflicted on the innocent can we bear? How many areas of the globe balanced on the precipice or already immersed in armed aggression need to exist? How many threats of potential escalation into the ultimate conflagration must weigh upon us?

There are those who say it is in our nature as humans to do this. Maybe they are right. Others hold onto hope that the inhabitants of this small blue planet will some day come to their senses. I pray they are right. But as science and technology have created more numerous and powerful weapons than have ever before existed and nationalistic or religious dogma have fanned the flames of hatred and increased the will to use them, it will take more than hope alone to counteract this madness. This hope must turn into commitment and then to positive action in order to halt our march toward the potential annihilation of humankind.

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Remember

May 21, 2015

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Memorial Day weekend is upon us once again. For most, it is a long-anticipated weekend to relax, have a backyard barbecue, or maybe even go to the beach for the first time of the summer. However, for many Americans this weekend can never simply be one of carefree pleasure, for they have lost someone to war.

Sometimes the casualty statistics appear in the news during this time as a reminder — 58,209 dead in Vietnam, 4,488 in Iraq, 2,229 in Afghanistan — and staggering as these figures should be, their impact is often lost, for they are only numbers. What we tend to forget is that each of those numbers represents a real person — someone’s parent, child, spouse, or friend — and in turn each of those had family and friends who were deeply affected by their loss. For these people Memorial Day became a time dedicated to reflection, sorrow, pride, and sometimes even anger.

I am not suggesting that we dispense with the pleasurable indulgences of this weekend. However, we do need to take the time to think about these Americans even if we are not one of them. We need to think about those who went to war and never returned. We need to think about those they left behind.

We need to do this because the reality is that there are always wars — as Americans, we have never known a generation without one — and there are always fathers, mothers, sons, daughters, husbands, wives, and friends who don’t come back. We owe them that much, to pause and think for a while about the sacrifices that were made in the past and unfortunately will continue to be made. It may not have affected you directly yet, but some day it very well may. It doesn’t matter where the war is or why it is being fought or whether you even agree with it. The results always bear a terrible human cost in lives lost and its outward ripple effect on families, communities, and our nation as a whole.

The letter below was written by a mother who lost her son in the Vietnam War. She left it under his name at the base of the shiny black wall that forms the Vietnam Memorial in Washington, D.C.

Please take the time to read it. Think about what she said, how she felt. Think about Memorial Day and what it really means, even if just for a few moments. And most importantly, remember.

 

Dear Bill,

Today is February 13, 1984. I came to this black wall again to see and touch your name, and as I do I wonder if anyone ever stops to realize that next to your name, on this black wall, is your mother’s heart. A heart broken 15 years ago today, when you lost your life in Vietnam.

And as I look at your name, William R. Stocks, I think of how many, many times I used to wonder how scared and homesick you must have been in that strange country called Vietnam. And if and how it might have changed you, for you were the most happy-go-lucky kid in the world, hardly ever sad or unhappy. And until the day I die, I will see you as you laughed at me, even when I was very mad at you, and the next thing I knew, we were laughing together.

But on this past New Year’s Day, I had my answer, I talked by phone to a friend of yours from Michigan, who spent your last Christmas and the last four months of your life with you. Jim told me how you died, for he was there and saw the helicopter crash. He told me how you had flown your quota and had not been scheduled to fly that day. How the regular pilot was unable to fly, and had been replaced by someone with less experience. How they did not know the exact cause of the crash. How it was either hit by enemy fire, or they hit a pole or something unknown. How the blades went through the chopper and hit you. How you lived about a half-hour, but were unconscious and therefore did not suffer.

He said how your jobs were like sitting ducks. They would send you men out to draw the enemy into the open and then they would send in the big guns and planes to take over. Meantime, death came to so may of you.

He told me how, after a while over there, instead of a yellow streak, the men got a mean streak down their backs. Each day the streak got bigger and the men became meaner. Everyone but you, Bill. He said how you stayed the same, happy-go-lucky guy that you were when you arrived in Vietnam. How your warmth and friendliness drew the guys to you. How your [lieutenant] gave you the nickname of “Spanky,” and soon your group, Jim included, were all know as “Spanky’s gang.” How when you died it made is so much harder on them for you were their moral support. And he said how you of all people should never have been the one to die.

Oh, God, how it hurts to write this. But I must face it and then put it to rest. I know that after Jim talked to me, he must have relived it all over again and suffered so. Before I hung up the phone I told Jim I loved him. Loved him for just being your close friend, and for sharing the last days of your life with you, and for being there with you when you died. How lucky you were to have him for a friend, and how lucky he was to have had you.

Later that same day I received a phone call from a mother in Billings, Montana. She had lost her daughter, her only child, a year ago. She needed someone to talk to for no one would let her talk about the tragedy. She said she had seen me on [television] on New Year’s Eve, after the Christmas letter I wrote to you and left at this memorial had drawn newspaper and television attention. She said she had been thinking about me all day, and just had to talk to me. She talked to me of her pain, and seemingly needed me to help her with it. I cried with this heartbroken mother, and after I hung up the phone, I laid my head down and cried as hard for her. Here was a mother calling me for help with her pain over the loss of her child, a grown daughter. And as I sobbed I thought, how can I help her with her pain when I have never completely been able to cope with my own?

They tell me the letters I write to you and leave here at this memorial are waking others up to the fact that there is still much pain left, after all these years, from the Vietnam War.

But this I know. I would rather to have had you for 21 years, and all the pain that goes with losing you, than never to have had you at all.

Mom

(from Dear America:
Letters Home from Vietnam, Bernard Edelman, ed.)

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To Honor Those Who Have Served

November 11, 2013

Remember

Today is Veterans’ Day. For many Americans, it is not such a notable holiday. There are parades here and there and a few stories on TV news magazine programs. The Post Office, government offices, and courts are closed as are some schools (their option). But I wonder about the emotional connection that seems to be missing. I fear that the impact of the significance of this day is minimal for far too many Americans .

However, for some Americans, this is a day that cannot be ignored. These Americans are the ones who have served in war. They are also the fathers and mothers, the sisters and brothers, the husbands and wives, and the sons and daughters of those vets.  This day is a time to acknowledge the sacrifices they have made, something in my opinion that should be done at every opportunity, not just on one day.

Since its institution as a holiday in 1919 to commemorate the November 11, 1918, cessation of fighting during World War I — supposedly the “war to end all wars” — there have been numerous occasions for American soldiers to be called to take up arms. World War II. The Korean War (or Korean Conflict for those who like to overlook reality). The Vietnam War. The Gulf War. The Iraq War. The War in Afghanistan. And if history is any indicator, there will be others yet to come.

We need to pay tribute to these Americans who have heeded that call even if we are not one of them. We need to think about those who went to war and returned forever affected by their experience. We owe them that much.

If you are not a veteran of war, if you have not been sent away from your home and friends and family to a strange and hostile far-off land, then you can’t know what it’s really like. You have not had to experience the often random and brutal death and destruction that is part of war. That is understandable. But you can do something to open your eyes to the realities that others have lived through on your behalf.

Read what those veterans who have served have written about these realities. They wrote what they did to try to get you to understand — at least a little bit — what it was like to be there, and what it is like to carry the scars, both physical and emotional, back home again. Read the poems of Yusef Komunyakaa about the soldiers’ perilous life in the jungles of Vietnam or those of Brian Turner who writes with such insight about the trials of serving in the Iraqi desert. The time and location may differ from war to war, but the essence of the experience remains the same. Whether you agree or not with these or any other wars, the people who are sent and who must make the sacrifices deserve your attention.

Visit the Vietnam Memorial in Washington, D.C. Touch the names on that shiny black wall and watch those who come to mourn or remember. Talk to a veteran, at the very least to thank him or her for their service. Talk to their family members to perhaps feel some of their emotion and reflect on the situation in which they have found themselves. Better yet, do something positive to aid a vet who is in need, or contribute in some way to those who are already doing so. The Wounded Warrior Project is one such organization which has been doing wonderful things. Check out their website. Help in whatever way you can, even if it’s making a small donation.

So today is Veterans Day. Do what you can to recognize them today. Pay attention to their stories in whatever form they present themselves. Remember their stories on normal days as well because their normal days in many cases have been forever changed. Though it is, I believe, our obligation to do so, start to look at it as a privilege to honor those who have served.

To paraphrase the words of my friend Sarah, the proud daughter of a Vietnam vet, Happy Veterans Day to all the people who left everything behind to fight for our country and who teach us about the true sacrifice of war.