In August of 1945, Ralph Mariscal, Jr., a 23 year-old son of Mexican immigrants and a U.S. Marine, sat waiting off the coast of Japan with thousands of other troops. The invasion would be bloody, they had been told, but as it turned out history would take a different course. Rather than invading Japan, my father and U.S. forces landed at Sasebo among the first contingent of U.S. occupation forces. What he saw in nearby Nagasaki would stay with him forever.
Military veterans tend to view commonplace things through a different lens. Because they have seen the best and the worst of human behavior they have little patience for empty bravado and posturing. Today my father and his 80-something veteran pals refer to President Bush as “Little Napoleon.” The cowboy swagger with arms swinging wide at the hips signals “chicken hawk” to them. They always get a good laugh at the commander-in-chief’s expense.
When my colleague Gus Chavez, who taught for years at SDSU, is at the San Diego airport, he watches the young Marines just out of boot camp. Most of them will wind up in Iraq. What he really sees are the injured soldiers and Marines he treated as a Navy corpsman at the Balboa Hospital throughout the early years of the U.S. war in Southeast Asia.
When Vietnam vet Charley Trujillo listens to interviews with young GIs in Iraq, he hears the voices of his comrades in arms whose only objective was to get home alive. When he listened to former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld’s resignation speech in which he implied the war in Iraq was simply too complex for the American public to understand, he heard the arrogant assertions of Secretary of Defense Robert MacNamara, the architect of the U.S. adventure in Vietnam.
Most folks are amused when the Dodge Nitro commercial shows a car being blown a hundred feet into the air. But the veteran sees improvised explosive devices going off on Iraqi roads, their friends blown up before their eyes.
Most folks are shocked to hear a “special report” on CNN about how military recruiters distort the truth in order to meet their quotas. Veterans smile knowingly. They never met anyone in the service to whom a recruiter had not told a half-truth or an outright lie.
Most folks parrot the slogan “Support our troops.” They put yellow ribbon and American flag stickers on their cars. Veterans wonder how supporting our troops can mean sending them to fight in a war with no clearly defined mission and no clearly defined exit strategy in a country that never posed a threat to the United States.
What is most striking to all veterans when they return from the combat zone is the way in which daily life appears to go on as if nothing was different. Football, malls, movies-does anyone realize that young men and women in uniform are surrounded by death and dying in a killing field faraway? Civilians see the headlines about Britney Spears’ divorce, but veterans see a country living in a bubble.
JORGE MARISCAL is a Vietnam veteran and director of the Chicano-Latino Arts and Humanities Program at the University of California, San Diego. He is a member of Project YANO (San Diego). Visit his blog at: jorgemariscal.blogspot.com/ He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org