Veterans Day: From Another Angle

So I  understand when veterans get together and give patriotic speeches at a thousand  Legion halls around the world. Yet, listening to the speeches, I wondered at  the near total disconnect from reality.

It always makes me uncomfortable when someone “thanks me for my service.”

It is discomfort because, on the one hand, I did nothing that anyone should be thankful for. I did a lot of things (murdered innocent people for stolen money) that we should all be ashamed of.

On the other hand, I feel uncomfortable about telling the “thankful” that. It just seems to be ungrateful which I am not. It is very confusing but Fred, as always, does an excellent job of explaining it in an un-offensive way. — jtl, 419

by Fred Reed via Fred on Everything

As I write, it is Veterans Day. Coincidentally last night, November tenth, the annual Marine Corps  birthday party took place  at the  Tratoria, a local Italian restaurant. I hadn´t gone before, not being much of a  joiner, but went this time with Vi and Natalia. The assembled were nice people,  well along in years, as am I. There were good food, patriotic speeches, and a  birthday cake. We sang the Marine Corps Hymn, though “from the halls of Montezuma”  was perhaps not a high point of diplomatic appropriateness in Mexico.

A  camaraderie exists among Marines, into which I fit oddly. It starts with boot  camp at Parris Island or, for the Hollywood Marines, at the recruit depot in  San Diego. Men remember it because it was hard, demanding, a rite of passage to  manhood. I understand that boot has been  watered down as the country moves toward the goal of a non-violent Marine  Corps, but in the Sixties it hadn´t been. If you got through it, you had done  something, and you knew it. Those who hadn´t were an inferior species. We  remember it with fondness, and a bond.

And then for  Marines there are the wars, which we always have. I don´t know why. For most at  the Tratoria, it was I suppose Southeast Asia. We had talk of sacrifice and  duty. There is a romance to war that has called to men since well before the  days of Marcus Aurelius wintering on the Rhine-Danube line, when Rome, not  America, was Rome. War is  another bond.

For me it was lying in the tropical night of Danang on top of a sand-bagged  amtrac, LVT P5, big engine growling  at  the idle, star shells flickering high and trailing white smoke that looked  almost solid, rifle in hand, occasional spent bullets from the valley below zzzzzzzzzzzzzz! overhead. It was a time  for men, of big events, away from the sorry life we would mostly retune to of  offices and soft pogues for bosses.

So I  understand when veterans get together and give patriotic speeches at a thousand  Legion halls around the world. Yet, listening to the speeches, I wondered at  the near total disconnect from reality. We Marines, I heard over and over, had  made sacrifices “to protect our freedom.”  Made sacrifices or been sacrificed? How  exactly, I wondered, had remote wars against primitive societies on the other  side of the world protected our freedom? As so often, I marveled at the automatic  assumption that America is somehow more free than other places. How more free  than Switzerland, Australia, Japan, Germany, or Holland? I feel freer in Mexico  than in the growing police state to the north.

Most  veterans in the Legion halls have had little contact with people in other  countries, especially with the people of the countries where they have fought.  I did. I covered the last year of the debacle in Vietnam, 1974-75, as a  stringer for Army Times. A very green reporter cutting my teeth on a big story,  I lived in $20-a-month rooms in back alleys, close to the bone.

There I  found the Viets, the Cambodians, the Chinese to be likable sorts, damned  interesting, caught up in a godawful tragedy not of their making and beyond  their understanding. They didn´t understand about our freedom. They didn´t  understand why half a million foreigners were in their country, bombing,  shelling, napalming, burning, killing. Which is exactly what we were doing.

A decade of  so back, I was visiting friends in Bangkok and decided to catch the train north  to Nong Khai on the Thai-Lao border and spend a week in Laos. I took a room in a hotel on the Mekong, not much more than a large creek at that point. At a local  pizzeria I met a young Lao woman who spoke English and, with her husband, ran a  jackleg tour service. He had a car.

Laos was then,  as it was during the war, a slow, hot, pleasant Asian backwater posing no threat to anyone at all. We drove  through endless quiet, quiet, quiet, hot, hot, hot countryside to see what was  there. At one point we stopped in Vientiane to talk to some of the young  woman´s friends (I forget her name). They spoke English. She mentioned  something about before her father died. What happened to him, I asked?

“He died  fighting the Americans.”

Wrong  question.

How many  Laos did we butcher for nothing, how many Vietnamese, how many Cambodians?  Millions, literally. For nothing. Nothing.  How many Iraqis? Afghans? Pakistanis? If any  of it preserved my freedom, I am unaware of it.

How many in  the Legion halls, the Marine Corps birthdays—they are friendly, decent, likeable  men—have any idea of this?

Cambodia:  Another sleepy land of jungle and silence and horrendous death, thanks to  protecting our freedom. During the siege, I lived on a rooftop apartment at 98  Jawaharlal Nehru Street, shared with Steve Hedder, a young stringer for Time or  Newsweek, I forget which. Half of it was patio, open to the sky.

Here was more  of the poisoned romance of war. Often we lay under the night, floating in a Nembutal  haze, the smell of flower trees thick in the air and charcoal smells and low murmer  of Khmer voices from neighboring roofs. There was the occasional whistling  twitter of Chicom 107s sailing in from the swamps, kerboom, but we knew we were  out of range. Oh yes.

There were  living with us two young Khmer girls, perhaps sixteen, sisters I think of Steve’s  Cambodian wife Devi. They were pretty, slender, sweet kids. I could talk to  them because they had learned French at the Alliance Francaise and mine, while  it would have caused the entire nation of France to retch in three-part harmony,  was adequate for communication.

The end  came. Steve got Devi out in the evacuation, but not the girls. Pol Pot and the  Khmer Rouge, a direct result of the destabilization of Southeast Asia by the  US, took Phnom Penh.  The KR proceeded to  kill, by torture, beating, starvation or overwork, anyone with soft hands—students,  intellectuals, the middle class. The girls didn´t have a chance. Rifle-butted  to death? Raped and bayoneted? Fell from exhaustion on the forced exodus from  the city? I don´t know.

But please  God, not Tuol Sleng, the torture operation set up by the KR in a former girls´  school. I went there many years later and wished I hadn´t. Far better to be  raped and bayoneted.

God knows how many of these poor innocents were tortured to death in Tuol Sleng, a place the CIA would love. After the war a friend found a picture of a former girlfriend in the death records. We are, however, still free.

The rest of  the planet pays a high price for our freedom. This is no doubt justified  because we are the city of the hill, a light to the nations, bringing democracy  and human rights to a globe thirsty for improvement by us. I have just never seen it. I like  the people at the Legion halls, at birthdays for the Marine Corps, but I may be  a little less proud of what we did.

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2 Responses to Veterans Day: From Another Angle

  1. Brian P. Corcoran says:

    It may be too late to round up and bring to justice the majority of the Viet Nam Era war criminals. They are doubtless shoveling coal as we speak. But it would seem each new generation breeds its own stock of war criminals and we still have plenty of them roaming in our midst. We know who they are. And they know that we know who they are.

    Like

  2. Gunny G says:

    Reblogged this on BLOGGING BAD ~ DICK.G: AMERICAN ! and commented:
    GUNNY G!
    *****

    Like

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