Memorial Day honors those who have died in combat. In years gone by I’ve reflected on the life of Harlan Miller, a WWII veteran who was blown up in North Africa, survived, and lived out his life as an impoverished, lonely man unable to find a comfortable place in the world he helped save. It was, I said, a form of death in combat that took many decades to achieve its end. War always kills body and soul by degrees, and modern warfare does it more surely. Perhaps that’s due to the brutality of the killing machinery modern warfare brings to the field. Perhaps in older times death by poverty and disease was so common that death in battle was easier to accept. It might even come with a touch of glory crowning an otherwise inglorious life.
This Memorial Day weekend, I want to turn to wars in our own time. On this, the year of the 75th anniversary of D Day, I’ve been thinking of the nearly 3,000 young men who died on Omaha Beach. Others died on other beaches, but these stand out because it was known they would become the fodder of war, the collateral damage that could not be avoided if the invasion was to succeed. Did they die in vain? History says no. It was a war of moral purpose with an end in sight, a clear understanding of who the enemy was, and public awareness about where the front lines were. When victory came, it was a great victory. Those who served and survived have become our Greatest Generation. The GI Bill and various housing programs continued the nation’s support for them in the decade that followed. Not all benefitted, some were discriminated against, but for most, resources were available to help make opportunities in civilian life available to them. Death, when it came, came with dignified thanksgiving for their service, regardless of how they’d lived their civilian lives.
Korea was different. Residual public support for the troops remained. Although the nation was tired of war, it wasn’t hard to convince the public that stopping a communist takeover in Korea would help to stop it everywhere. There was a front and a clearly defined enemy, but victory, whatever that might have been, was elusive. In the end, all we could get was a truce. South Korea was saved, but nothing else changed. Returning troops continued to have access to WWII resources, but what they experienced made less sense to them; the public was less appreciative; they were expected to get on with civilian life as if nothing much had happened. Emotional recovery from what makes less sense, in an environment of less appreciation, is hard to do, but Korean vets emulated their elders and made do. Death, when it came, came in the normal way. What parts of them that had died in combat were ignored.
Vietnam had a flimsy moral purpose constructed on a foundation of propaganda. There was no front. The enemy was ill defined, almost undifferentiated from the civilian population. Though battles were won at great cost, no victory was at hand. Indeed, no one knew what victory might look like. In the end, we just left. The South fell. Vietnam became communist. Not much else happened because of it. No dominoes went down. In time Vietnam became a relatively prosperous American trading partner and popular tourist site. Troops drafted to serve were not honored by a nation that abhorred the war. Veterans needed to sneak back into civilian life if they hoped to succeed at it. The emotional scars inflicted by combat ran deep, and were left to fester. Wounds that didn’t heal on their own brought death by degree, year after year. We who did not serve in Vietnam are not guiltless because we did nothing to help. Like the Levite and the priest on the road between Jerusalem and Jericho, we passed by on the other side. Unlike the parable, no good Samaritan came along.
War related moral degradation, once it sets in, is hard to stop. What seemed righteous in 1991 when American forces liberated Kuwait from Iraq, became, in 2003, a new war with Iraq whose justification was constructed on deliberate falsehoods. Its government was defeated, but not its people, and we have ever since been fighting competing insurgencies, which, if we ever quit, will likely leave a land engaged in permanent civil war with itself. Call it the Libyan solution. In like manner, the 2001 American invasion of Afghanistan, in retaliation for 9/11 (of which no Afghan was a part – most were Saudis), brought us into armed conflict to this day. We’re at war in Afghanistan not to achieve a purpose, moral or otherwise, but because we don’t know how to get out. Those who are sent to fight, are sent because fighting is what we do. Apparently we’re willing, as a nation, to endure the emotional killing fields of war without purpose because it’s become our way of life. Besides, it’s a very profitable undertaking for the arms industry. With at“` least some degree of guilt, the nation now openly talks about PTSD, veteran suicides, and what needs to be done about it. Doing it is another matter, although there seems to be some sputtering progress.
On this Memorial Day, between the beers and brats, let us honor those who have died in battle for great moral causes, and those who have died piece by piece from the scars of battle. Let us humbly confess and repent of the brutality we’ve inflicted on those we’ve sent into armed conflict for no good purpose. We cannot ask their forgiveness, but we can elect leaders who will stop this nonsense, and we can demand public policies and resources needed to do everything possible for today’s veterans to live healthy and well as civilians.