Soldiers coming back from war these days are greeted warmly at airports and on college campuses. It wasn't always like this. During the Vietnam era we faced the vitriol of public sentiment against the war. Angry protesters crowded airports, shouted obscenities, and spat on us as we passed through the terminals. We ditched our uniforms in airport restrooms to avoid being chastised.
Dressed in army-issue pajamas and secured to a litter, I arrived in a cargo jet full of wounded soldiers. Protesters said we were complicit in an unjust war, guilty of atrocities against old men, women, and children. World War II vets blamed us for losing the war. Technically, Congress never declared war on Vietnam, but that's beside the point. Our fathers and uncles scorned us. We couldn't buy a beer at the VFW.
Transitioning to civilian life is anything but smooth for soldiers. What we've seen and done in a warzone can't be left behind. Military training is irreversible and taking another person's life requires a particular state of mind. I'd do it to protect my buddy--I've got his back, and he'd kill for me too. But the military doesn't teach us how to deal with the aftermath of war, nor do they tell us that our moral compass has a memory.
Civilians have no concept of what war is like. It was the most exciting time of my life and the worst time of my life. Back on the block, I missed the adrenaline rush of a firefight, the camaraderie, the sense of purpose. As a Green Beret medic, I had more responsibility in Vietnam than any 23 year old should ever have: the well-being of 24 American teammates, 1,500 indigenous soldiers and their families, then, back in the states, all I had to do was go to college.
The spring of 1970 was a time of widespread campus protests, anger no doubt fuelled by the disgrace of the My Lai massacre and the Kent State killings. The news media kept the spectacle of an unpopular war alive with graphic reports from the warzone. Students at Syracuse University protested, desecrated the flag, and carried effigies of soldiers, vilifying us as baby killers and war mongers. I wasn't spat upon or dissed, because I looked and dressed like a student. I grew my hair long and moved around campus incognito. But I felt like an amputee, cut adrift from the student body. No one knew I had been a soldier. As if I had a choice--run to Canada or get drafted. Thinking about it now, it would have taken more courage to run than to serve.
I'm sure there were other vets on campus but they were probably hiding too. The protesters' arguments were logical, made me question our mission in Vietnam. Our government propped up a corrupt regime in South Vietnam under the guise of preventing the spread of communism from North Vietnam. We violated the Geneva Accords of 1954 which called for the unification of North and South, but elections never took place. I took a bullet for that. Confused and shaken, I wanted desperately to believe that my presence in Vietnam helped people, that I did some good. But embracing the protesters would have rendered my sacrifice, and those of my brothers who died, meaningless.
I wanted them to know that I risked my life to rescue a child in a minefield, that I had doctored hundreds of local villagers who had never in their lives had professional medical care, that I never knowingly took another person's life in a firefight.
Protesters weren't in a conciliatory mood and didn't want to hear my stories. We were both angry: they needed someone to blame for the collateral damage, the senseless, wanton slaying of innocent people in two countries that wanted to unite, and I hated them for blaming me.
There was no transitional support for Veterans when I got out of the service, no help reacclimating to civilian life. One day I was in the Army, the next day I was a civilian. When my buddies went to the VA Hospital and complained of anger, depression, or suicidal ideation, they were given antidepressants, tranquilizers and sleep meds, and told to get some rest. Post-traumatic Stress Disorder wasn't recognized by the psychiatric community as a formal mental disorder until 1980. I ignored the symptoms and ran from my memories. I neglected my family and aborted my career. I was bankrupt, divorced and demoralized. Even though I've been in treatment for post-traumatic stress since 2005, it's still sometimes easier to run than to face the pain.
Serving in the military wasn't something I acknowledged publicly until after 9/11 when being a veteran became acceptable, even fashionable. Ribbon-shaped magnets on cars shouted "Support Our Troops." Families tied yellow ribbons around trees while their loved ones served in the warzone. Bumper stickers and decals said "Army Mom," "Semper Fi," and "Kill Osama bin Laden."
The media still floods our TVs, tablets, and smartphones with reports of the carnage from the global war on terror. They show us the faces of soldiers who've lost their lives. Survivors come home with horrific physical, psychological, and moral injuries. They're unemployable, their families are disintegrating, and they're committing suicide in record numbers. It's the same trauma that Vietnam vets have been suffering all these years, the same trauma veterans of all wars suffer.
Civilians thank us for our service in ubiquitous sound bites and trite phrases people use when they don't know what else to say, like: "I'm sorry for your loss;" "Is there anything I can do;" "Call me if you need anything." When someone acknowledges my Purple Heart license plates and thanks me for my service, I bite my lip. I wonder what they think about preemptive strikes against countries that pose no legitimate threat to our homeland, about conducting war in the name of democracy in countries where we are not welcome, about maiming and killing innocent people and the destruction of property. But we don't have that conversation. Veterans feel guilt, remorse, and anger over what we've done in the name of freedom. Thanking us for our service doesn't make us feel any better, or make the pain go away, and attempting to salve the national conscience only trivializes our sacrifice. Indeed civilians are fortunate that they don't have to put their lives at risk serving their country.
We've had some kind of war going on since the fall of Saigon in 1975.The American public initially supported our incursion into Vietnam, but with casualties mounting and the end not in sight, support plummeted. The same thing happened in Iraq and Afghanistan. Americans quickly lose interest when the true cost of war becomes obvious: a burgeoning national debt and a continuous parade of wounded and dead soldiers.
How did we get into these wars? Our political leaders market their wars with facile arguments: it's the war against communism or the war against terror, weapons of mass destruction, the boogeyman, anything to convince us that enemies threaten our way of life. The bands play patriotic melodies, and the polls trumpet our legacy as the greatest democracy on earth, the leader of the free world, and Americans acquiesce and rally around the flag. They've got their jobs and their personal problems and don't have time to pay attention to the war de jour. That's the soldiers' job. Soldiers fight to protect America's way of life, but we're the tools of the political establishment, powerful men who have no personal concept of war, and whose campaigns are funded by wealthy interests. War is profitable. It's good for the economy, but not for soldiers.
Why would anyone want a job where you must follow orders irrespective of your personal beliefs, serve in inhospitable places away from home and family, where someone's shooting at you and hoping you'll drive over their homemade bomb? What motivates someone to join the military--patriotism, disenfranchisement, desire to prove one's self-esteem? Some think that recruiters target the poor and the unemployed. Since the global recession of 2009, the motivation for many to enlist may be economic: people need jobs. The poor state of the economy and lack of alternative employment opportunities force people to overlook the risk and choose military service.
Some would argue that veterans have nothing to complain about--we signed up for it, but that's a copout. Our wars belong to all Americans. This is what our founding fathers had in mind when they talked about the "citizen-soldier." They feared a professional standing army could lead to international oppression or adventurism by those in power, not to mention cause a drain on the Treasury. I for one support the return of the draft. American's might be more willing to challenge politicians' intent on declaring war if their children might have to fight.
Congress never declared war on Vietnam. They never declared war on Iraq, nor did they declare war on Afghanistan. Our Constitution gives war-making powers to Congress, but since WWII, that's not how it works. Congress now has an ex post facto role in war-making. The War Powers Resolution of 1973 gives the president the power to send troops into harm's way, as long as he obtains from Congress a declaration of war or a resolution authorizing the use of force within 60 days of the commencement of hostilities. This has allowed our president and political leaders' tremendous flexibility to engage in war before vetting it with Congress, and by proxy, the American people.
Budgeting for the wars now is less than transparent. The use of defense contractors makes it appear that the scope of the military action is smaller than it really is. The financial costs are contained in special appropriations that make it almost impossible to determine the true cost of conflicts. Rather than treating these costs as yearly budget line items paid for in real time with a tax levy, which would certainly get the attention of the American public, the money is simply borrowed from the Treasury, and payment pushed off into the future. If Congress was involved in declaring war from the start, the true personal and financial costs might become the focus of dialog with the American public in the political decision to go to war.
Today, Americans show little interest in the political process that leads to war. With less than one percent of us who bear the personal burden of fighting, why should they care? This is why conscription is necessary. Thomas Jefferson said: "Every citizen should be a soldier. This was the case with the Greeks and Romans, and must be that of every free state." "When we assumed the Soldier," said George Washington, "we did not lay aside the Citizen." Unless all Americans feel the pain, there's no incentive to pull back on the reigns of political leaders intent on policing the globe.
After a career as a consultant saving small businesses from their creditors and themselves, Pete K. McShane wanted to learn how to tell their stores, and his own. He’s a graduate of certificate courses in fiction and creative nonfiction, and has completed a collection of short stories, a novella, and a number of personal essays. A memoir about his life as a Green Beret medic in Vietnam and the aftermath is forthcoming. Pete’s work has been published in Ginger Piglet, Syracuse University's Intertext Magazine, New York Times Warrior Voices, Syracuse Peace Council Newsletter, and is on the Syracuse Veterans' Writing Group website.