Let’s be honest about America’s wars and the men (overwhelmingly) and women who have fought them.
Most of the wars that the US has launched or fought in, dating back to at least the War of 1812, were not just or necessary, could have been avoided, and wasted precious lives and national wealth, often while slaughtering the people of weaker nations.
In the latest scandal precipitated by Commander in Chief Donald Trump — a man who notoriously got a doctor to lie for him about his having debilitating “bone spurs” so he wouldn’t have to serve in the military during the Vietnam War — we have a president who is the leader of the military who, it is reliably confirmed, has disparaged the people who fought in those wars. He has called them “losers” for being killed or captured in battle. He has declined to memorialize them. He has had wounded veterans kept out of military parades because he felt vets in wheelchairs and on walkers or crutches or missing limbs “are not a good look.” He has called soldiers who served in Vietnam “losers and suckers” for going and fighting and dying there, since, as he knew from his own experience, the draft was “easy to get out of.” And he has declined to visit the graves in France of US dead from WWI, calling them “losers” for getting killed.
It’s all pretty outrageous, particularly for a man who as president of the US, has for four years been sending American military personnel into battle or keeping them in battle zones in Yemen, Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, and elsewhere around the globe, creating more dead “losers” in the process.
But let’s also at least acknowledge that, whether by accident or not, the president did say two correct things, for which he should not be criticized. One was that Vietnam was a “stupid” war. The other was that, in the case of World War I, it was hard to know “Who were the good guys in this war?” Braindead US pundits have attacked the president for saying these things about these two wars as though that is a sacrilege and somehow an insult to American veterans, but they’re wrong. Those wars were both stupid and unnecessary.
There are two issues to be raised here. One is the national policies and leadership that have historically sent Americans abroad into battle to kill, fight, be maimed for life and even to die. The other is the behavior in battle of those soldiers who have been dispatched to fight America’s wars.
And let me be clear: Trump’s dismissal of WWI and Vietnam as “stupid” wars is not indication that he is anti-war. His unilateral abrogation of the multi-national agreement with Iran on limiting its nuclear power program, his pull-out from the Reagan-Gorbachev Intermediate Nuclear Forces treaty, his continuation of President Obama’s trillion-dollar nuclear-weapons “modernization” and development program, his creation of a US Space Force, officially militarizing outer space, and his record expansion of the US military budget make it clear that he is as much a warmonger as most of his predecessors. That still doesn’t mean we should criticize the two valid criticism he has made about two of America’s major wars.
Trump’s problem, as a man of supreme self-importance with a complete lack of human empathy, is that he cannot see the difference between criticizing a war, and criticizing the soldiers who had to fight in it. To Trump, a man who casually used his father’s money and connections to escape a draft that less wealthy and powerful young men couldn’t avoid, those who ended up in the “stupid” Vietnam War probably deserved whatever happened to them. They were to Trump “losers and suckers” for ending up in Nam. The same for the soldiers and marines who ended up being chewed up on the front line trenches in France during World War I.
I happen to know a bit about World War I and the sacrifices US fighting men made. My maternal grandfather, a gifted athlete who had a potential Olympic opportunity as a sprinter that was forfeited because of the war, was hit with mustard gas on the front which left his lungs scarred for life, ending his athletic career. He wound up being a coach and head of the athletic program for the school system in Greensboro, NC. My other grandfather on my father’s side earned a silver star for heroically driving an ambulance on the front lines in France through that war, rescuing allied and German wounded. It was an experience so horrible that my father, a Marine in WWII, said his dad never once spoke of it to his children.
My silver-star grandfather, the son of two German immigrants to this country, who died in his 40s of colon cancer, probably had no idea why he was fighting soldiers from the nation of his parents origin. Trump is right that there was no real moral issue in that most bloody of wars. It was simply a war of competing empires — the old British and French and Italian ones, and the rising German and Austria-Hungarian one, aided by the declining Ottoman Empire. (It was complicated by the convergent timing of the Russian Revolution which ousted the Tsar and eventually led to the Communist government which sued for peace and left the field of battle, only to become the target of the WWI victors, including the US, after the so called Great War ended in 1918.)
I know a bit about the Vietnam War too, as a war resister who decided before my 18th birthday that the US invasion of Vietnam was a criminal enterprise against a nation simply seeking independence and that I would not allow myself to be drafted to fight in it.
Trump, certainly not for any intellectual or moral reason, is nonetheless correct that both wars were stupid and never should have been fought.
But that doesn’t make the men who fought those wars “stupid” or “losers.”
First of all, most of the people who fought for the United States in those wars were drafted into the military. They went because they had little alternative. Those who enlisted “voluntarily” were often driven to do so by the promise of a job or out of a sense of patriotism — itself the response to massive government and media propaganda. In the case of WWI, the target of that propaganda was the “evil Germans” while with Vietnam, it was about an imagined “Communist menace” that we were warned would sweep the globe if Vietnam, half a world away, were to “fall” under the sway of that alien ideology of worker revolution against the rich.
We can say that American military enlistees were brainwashed or deluded in volunteering to fight such wars, but that doesn’t make them “losers” or “suckers.” In fact many American soldiers, sailors and marines have shown themselves in battle to be courageous, selfless in defending their comrades in arms, often noble in extending compassion and generosity to those that they have captured or defeated, and heroism in risking or sacrificing their own lives in order to save others. (Of course there are plenty of examples of US soldiers, just as with soldiers of other countries, behaving criminally and brutally, but that too, is not a reflection on soldiers in general.)
The point is, as Commander in Chief, President Trump, himself a draft-dodging liar, has demeaned, as a class of people, American soldiers for whom he, as their commander and chief policy maker when it comes to sending them into battler or ending the battles they are engaged in, has exhibited a reprehensible disrespect for their service and their sacrifice.
But at the same time, let’s not condemn the president for the two truthful things he has said in this latest Trump scandal: that the Vietnam War and World War I should never have been fought.
It’s no dishonor to those who fought, died or were gravely injured in those wars that they fought in them. The decision by the US to fight both of those “stupid” wars was made by powerful people in government and industry for their own selfish economic and political purposes. The little people who actually had to do the fighting and dying had no say in the matter and either went because they had to, or volunteered because they had been lied to and convinced that it was the patriotic thing to do.
They deserve to be honored for doing their duty or for going beyond the call of duty for what they at least thought was right, and Trump should be tossed out of the White House and his role as Commander in Chief for mocking them and dishonoring them.
At the same time, let’s also acknowledge that this nation still has a great reckoning that is overdue. We all need to recognize to the honor, courage and heroism of those brave people who, when the war drums were beating in the early days of World War I, and during the late 1950s and early 1960s as US involvement in the Vietnam War grew and through the course of those two wars, struggled to oppose them, who refused to fight them, and who as a result lost jobs, went to jail, left the country, were deported, and were condemned by the more deluded of their fellow citizens. We especially need to honor those servicemen and women who, once in the military, realized the true nature of the wars they were being sent to fight, and who refused to continue, either deserting or simply refusing to fight, facing arrest and prison, a life of struggle with a dishonorable discharge, exile and public disrespect.