If you are my age, in baby boomer territory, Memorial Day means not only the immediacy of Iraq but, far back in shadowed memory, Vietnam. Hard to believe now that the arguments and debates about Vietnam and whether or not we should have gone and whether or not we should stay swirled around decades ago as passionately as they do today about Iraq.
"We HAD to go - we HAVE to stay!" our leaders told us then, just as they are telling us now. They said that the fate of the free world hung in the balance and only the endless deaths of American soldiers could stop the catastrophe that would befall us if Vietnam fell to the Communists in what they called the Domino Theory, that Vietnam would be followed by another, then another. Communism then was the bogeyman that American leaders held over the heads of ordinary Americans to get us to buy into their war with our children as collateral, just as terrorism is today. The sacrifice was worth it, they said then as they say now. But then, as now, it was mostly our sacrifice. The sacrifice of young men whose patriotic fathers belonged to American Legion posts across the country - boys who were destined to work in the mines and on the farms and in the factories of America.
Back then, we had a draft and so presumably, everyone was at the same risk of being sent to Vietnam. Your number gets drawn, you go put your life on the line. But in reality, it didn't work that way. Does it ever? In reality, the George Bushes and Dan Quayles of the world, the sons of wealthy, prominent families, were able to wangle coveted spots in the National Guard. The Bill Clintons were saved by their intelligence. Intelligent enough to receive college deferments, intelligent enough to game the system later, intelligent enough not to want to take a chance on jeopardizing careers planned early on by getting killed or mutilated in Vietnam. The Dick Cheneys got deferment after deferment and by the time the deferments ran out, they'd made babies that saved them from being shipped to southeast Asia. If you had some kind of edge, you could generally find a way to dodge the draft.
But the edgeless boys went and tens of thousands of them died, and hundreds of thousands of them were wounded while the war dragged on and our leaders exhorted us to hang in there because we could not set a time table for withdrawal as that would only encourage the insurgents. Neither a Democratic president nor a Republican one could manage to find an exit strategy. We couldn't cut and run because that would make America look weak. Do any of those phrases sound familiar to you in 2006?
Eventually, America turned on the Vietnam War. There was a limit to how long we would would tolerate our young men being placed on the endless conveyor belt of war. The anti-war movement got most of the publicity with its parades and protests but it was really when the collective consciousness of mothers and fathers and girlfriends and brothers and sisters and aunts and uncles reached critical mass that we forced our leaders to end it.
And the world went on. Communism fell of its own weight. We have trade relations with Vietnam. Do you now think that losing there had any real impact on your life today? Did the cataclysm our leaders told us to expect to happen if we left come about? Meanwhile, the heroes who died there are now simply names on a black wall in Washington and memories in the hearts of those who loved them.
And now we are in Iraq and it is deja vu. I watch the names of the dead scroll by on the bottom of my t.v. screen, so common now, they barely rate anything more than a generic, "three soldiers killed by an explosive device". I read stories of Marines, some of them in Iraq for their third tour, pushed to the edge of their endurance, going on a rampage and murdering Iraqi civilians including women and children in retaliation for the death of one of their own. I read "Haditha" but I hear "My Lai". I am told that the only reason that the ratio of those killed was higher in Vietnam is because of the enormous progress that has been made in trauma medicine and the speed with which we can now transport combat victims to modern medical facilities. It gives me only a little comfort that instead of coming back in body bags, now our soldiers return "only" grievously wounded.
And still, the men who started it, the powerful men who fancy themselves geopolitical chess players, cannot bring themselves to admit they were wrong. For the sake of the egos of the old, we give over the futures of the young. If I could wish for one thing for Memorial Day, it would be that in the future Americans would be more skeptical and less trusting about wars of "choice", as Vietnam was and as Iraq is. We should demand more than a few stirring speeches before we go running off to buy magnetic bumper stickers for our cars.
The Republicans have been in power in the White House and both houses of Congress since this war began. In case you're curious, here is the list of Republican leaders, promoters of the Iraq war, who found an "edge" when it came to military service for themselves -
Vice President Dick Cheney - did not serve
Karl Rove - did not serve
Scooter Libby - did not serve
Condaleeza Rice - did not serve
Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist - did not serve
House Majority Leader Dennis Hastert - did not serve
Tom DeLay - did not serve
House Majority Whip Roy Blunt - did not serve
Majority Whip Mitch McConnell - did not serve
Third ranking Republican in the House Rick Santorum - did not serve
Former Majority Leader Trent Lott - did not serve
And what about the cheerleaders for the war?
Rush Limbaugh - did not serve
Ann Coulter - did not serve
Sean Hannity - did not serve
Bill O'Reilly - did not serve
Bill Kristol - did not serve
Michael Savage - did not serve
Ralph Reed - did not serve
(Hat tip to Daily Kos for this list)