I recently wrote an essay Counterpunch published. Judging from the amount of emails I received, a lot of people took the time to read it. This surprised me, both because I have never written anything of consequence before, and because the essay articulated the deceitful policy of our government in both Vietnam and Iraq. Despair, not disloyalty, drove me to write and point out parallels between the two worst foreign policy mistakes of my lifetime. Particularly rewarding was the number of responses I received from vets of every rank and every branch of the service, some active and some disabled, applauding the essay. Some offered encouragement in moving prose. When I wrote the piece, I had no idea how emotionally tied I was to it; yet, my voice cracked and my hands trembled more than once while reading the heartrending responses of this unique fraternity, this special band of brothers: veterans.
An issue this sensitive, however, insures dissent and when a veteran assumes an antiwar stance the criticism is fairly predictable: socialist, communist, faggot, and traitor are all epithets that found their way to my computer screen. The vitriol was expected and if the emails were peculiar it was only in the similarity of their endings; all of them were signed “Thanks for serving.” The veterans agreed with my position, yet all the dissenters curiously chose the exact same phrase to end their emails. Then it dawned on me. Writing “thanks for serving” implies the writer hadn’t served.
Veterans have no monopoly on sensitivity, but having been in uniform they are painfully aware that every casualty has a face, a life, a story. People, unlike numbers, can’t be adjusted, erased, or corrected; they are bones and blood, organs and limbs. Bones shatter, blood spills, organs are exposed and limbs come off. It is easy for a television commentator to say a car bomb exploded and a soldier was lost — the words roll effortlessly from his well paid lips, but a 19 year old boy compressing a head to prevent a brain from sliding into the sandy street might not describe a soldier’s death so casually. The uninitiated have no conception what explosives do to the human body, or the toll such horrific sights take on the human psyche. Corporations control the media and are not moved by unknown names tagging faceless victims, but other soldiers who survived combat see victims not as strangers, but as unlucky reflections of themselves. By vicariously reliving their own nightmares they share in the agony of the fallen: “There but for the grace of God.”
Anyone exposed to the sickening stink of roasted flesh never forgets it. The stink affects all your senses simultaneously: it makes your eyes water, it seeps under your nostrils, it permeates your nasal cavity and it overwhelms your brain. It joins with the nausea from your stomach and then the conjunction lodges like a rotten oyster in your throat. Whiskey won’t chase it. Mouthwash can’t evict it. For this is not a just a smell that lingers; this stench comes with its belongings and takes up residence. Only time can eradicate it. Of course, by then it is too late; by then, this abomination has attached itself to the subconscious and is forever sealed in your memory.
A number of “experts” in the corporate media who remind the public of our responsibility to Iraq and the consequences of a premature withdrawal make valid points; however, the more strident advocates prefix their remarks of support for the troops by berating critics of the war as soft on terror, liberals or pacifists. It is both disingenuous and fatuous to believe every soldier in Iraq is a right wing Republican or that every voice of dissent belongs to a pacifist or defeatist. Are civilians aware of why these men are dying? They are not dying to liberate Iraq, nor are they dying for love of country. They are not even dying for the uniform our government will bury them in. A man doesn’t throw himself upon a live grenade because he wants Iraq free of Saddam Hussein, or for a red, white and blue flag, or love for Exxon Mobil; he does it to shield the men fighting next to him, to protect his brothers.
Most voices insisting our forces continue in this wasteful enterprise unsurprisingly belong to men who decided not to play on the field with the team they champion. No, many of the voices belong to men all too content watching others sacrifice for the jingoism they rally around. They support the war through heavy lenses. They seem to prefer the safety of more profitable “no spin zones” to combat zones. My opinion is neither solicited nor appreciated like the “experts” who didn’t serve, but it seems as usual the poor and the middle class will supply the corpses and the taxes while the spectators (speculators?) continue to stand on the sidelines and profit from the sacrifices of the combatants.
Webster defines an expert as a person with special knowledge or one who performs skillfully. Logic would dictate that to be an expert about war one should have been in combat or at the very least been in the armed forces; yet, the veterans, the men who did serve, are urged to ignore their experiences by the people who have none. The following armchair gladiators, none of whom ever burdened the defense budget with requests for dog tags, were all vociferous advocates for the decision to invade sovereign Iraq: Dick Cheney, Richard Perle, Paul Wolfowitz, Karl Rove, Dennis Hastert, Tom DeLay, John Ashcroft, Joe Lieberman, and Newt Gingrich. This decision was applauded by a host of corporate shills that impersonate representatives of the common man for a living, including: Rush Limbaugh, Tucker Carlson, Joe Scarborough, Roger Ailes and the laughably self-anointed “warrior” Bill O’ Reilly. None are veterans.
Six years now in Iraq, long past the six weeks or six months the experts said it would take. Still there are no links to Al Qaeda, no links to 9/11, no weapons of mass destruction. There are over 4,000 Americans dead, over 30,000 Americans maimed, over 2 million Iraqi refugees, and unknown numbers of civilian casualties, all the results of a mission disgracefully labeled “shock and awe.” Now the administration tells us it’s about democracy. Jefferson, who knew a bit about democracy, tells us the three major enemies of democracy are: “political instability, violence and intolerance.” Insiders like Bush’s first Secretary of the Treasury Paul O’Neill said in his book, “The Price of Loyalty,” that sitting in a cabinet meeting of this administration was similar to sitting with “a blind man in a room full of deaf people.” O’Neill tells us days into his presidency, well before 9/11, Bush was searching for a reason to invade Iraq, “It was all about finding a way to do it” (Suskind, 86). Other insiders Richard Clark, George Tenet, and Scott McClellan have written books emphasizing the indifference, insincerity, and incompetence of these men we allow to continue masquerading as leaders; yet a gutless congress paid for by big business refuses to even consider impeachment.
With me is the indelible memory of a 19 year old boy staring vacuously at a procession of coffins being unloaded from an endless line of C-130 cargo planes at Charleston AFB, coffins containing thousands of boys slaughtered in Southeast Asia. This unemotional young soldier was me. Thirty years later, recalling my indifference, I cried. The following was written by the man the public held largely responsible for that parade of wasted promise, a man many would consider an authority on war, an expert. He was haunted by the profound consequences of his decisions and in retrospect gave the Vietnam War solemn, somber, and regrettable thought. He was neither liberal, nor pacifistic, and was never accused of being soft on anything. If you have read the memoir of Robert McNamara already, his main points are worth your reconsideration. If you haven’t, his self assessment of his administration’s mistakes is summarized below. You decide if they are applicable to Iraq. The tragedy of Vietnam is once again repeated in the desert of the Middle East; let us pray our country — unlike me — doesn’t take 30 years to realize it and cry.
Lessons Learned from Vietnam. (McNamara, 321-23)
1. We exaggerated the dangers to the U.S. of . . . [our adversaries’] . . . actions.
2. We totally misjudged the political forces within the country by seeing in them a thirst for and a determination to fight for freedom and democracy.
3. We underestimated the power of nationalism to motivate a people to fight and die for their own beliefs and values.
4. Our misjudgments . . . reflected our profound ignorance of the history, culture and politics of the people in the area.
5. We failed to recognize the limitations of modern, high technology military equipment, forces and doctrine in confronting unconventional, highly motivated people’s movements.
6. We failed to draw Congress and the American people into a full and frank debate and discussion of the pros and cons of a large scale U. S. military involvement . . . before we initiated the action.
7. A nation’s deepest strength lies not in its military prowess but rather in the unity of its people. We failed to maintain that.
8. We do not have the God given right to shape every nation in our own image or as we choose.
9. We did not hold to the principle that U.S. military action other than threats to our own security should be carried out only in conjunction with multinational forces supported fully (and not merely cosmetically) by the international community.
10. We failed to recognize that in international affairs, as in other aspects of life, there may be problems for which there are no immediate solutions…at times we may have to live with an imperfect, and untidy world.
11. The executive branch…failed to analyze and debate our actions, . . . our objectives, and the risks and costs of alternative ways of dealing with them.
This written by the youngest Secretary of Defense in our nation’s history; his prophetic warnings go unheeded while we sheepishly allow the less informed to lead our children to slaughter. There are as of this day 4,082 American dead, and 30,329 wounded that our government “officially” acknowledges (according to the website antiwar.com, this figure is much higher — between 23,000 and 100,000 wounded). Perhaps the list of “expert” policy makers and broadcasters mentioned above whom never felt the need to wear a uniform can answer a question for a dilettante like me: how many more of my brothers will be washed down the sewers of Iraq before this atrocity is permitted to end?
Footnote: Appallingly, the death count is never accurate because lives are affected that will not show up in the statistics. Case in point: while visiting a Veterans Hospital this Memorial Day, I was admitted to the room of a young man who has been back from the desert of Iraq for three years. He tried unsuccessfully to blow his brains out, and is now a virtual vegetable. His 86 year old mother takes a three hour bus ride every other day to his bedside in the hope her boy might recognize her. As of yet, her prayers have not been answered, but she has never missed a visit.
Author’s Note: I was reluctant to relegate this tragic story to a footnote, but then realized of course that all of the dead will end up here — in footnotes. It is fitting that this boy’s story should be buried among his brothers’.
William P. O’Connor enlisted in the Air Force on August 1, 1966. He served in the Vietnam War from August 1969 to August 1970 in Nakhon Phanom in Northern Thailand. William was born in County Cork, Ireland in 1948. He is a former pub owner and retired NYC fire fighter. He may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
McNamara, Robert S. In Retrospect. New York: Random House, 1995.
Suskind, Ron. The Price of Loyalty. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2004.