vietnam wall

We remember the fallen
We think of the wounded, the scarred, the crippled
We call it a sacrifice
We visit the graves
We call them “fallen heroes”

We play Taps, say some words of honor and remembrance, and fire rifle salutes. In 1971 and 1972, I played Taps for Marines and sailors who were buried in the cemetery in Norfolk during the Vietnam War. I played Taps for my grandfather, who was gassed in France and lived through it; and for my dad, who was a veteran and proud of his service.

But what IS a hero?
Are you a hero solely because you served?

No. I was a navy musician. Not precisely a combat hero.

Ninety percent of those who went to Vietnam never saw combat.
Some who were NOT combatants were, nonetheless, killed in various miserable ways, wounded mentally and/or physically.

The injuries today, besides the deaths and physical wounds, are so intensely psychological.

People come back from deployments and are honored: “Thank you for your service”, which is a WHOLE lot better than coming back from Vietnam and being called a “baby killer”.

But combat veterans live in a state of hyper-alertness long after the deployment is over and perhaps up until the next deployment, when it starts all over again. If they have PTSD, they get triggered and are suddenly re-living the experience. The mother of a Vietnam Marine vet told me she heard a noise in her kitchen, came downstairs, and there was Eddie, in the dark, crouched and silent, stalking the Viet Cong and whispering to his buddies. Another friend, a Vietnam Seal, was in a bar and got triggered. When he came back to the present he was beating a guy on the floor into a bloody pulp, having been, in his mind, in a hand-to-hand death struggle in the Big Green.

I have seen them cry. I have listened and heard their stories. I have read about war and tried to understand what people go through and how they cope and adapt to it. But, it is incomprehensible perhaps even to those who fight and live through it.

We call them all fallen heroes, and we should honor their loss and sacrifice, and think of their families.

The risk is, that by tying their service and sacrifice to the flag, “My country right or wrong”, we glorify war.

There are no “winners” in war. Most often, when people start a war, they think they know what the outcome will be – and almost always, it’s different than what they thought.

In World War I Britain, France, Germany, Austria, and Russia all thought there would be a quick, short, sharp, glorious war in which each of them thought God was on their side and they would soon be victorious.

And then, trench warfare, four years of a world conflagration with combat in Europe, the Middle East, and Africa … millions dead .. Russia in revolution and soon to be Communist.

Or, take our wars in Vietnam and Iraq. When Johnson faked up the Tonkin Gulf and sent over the Marines, Navy, Air Force, and Army to “fight Communism”, could anyone foresee the massive destruction, death, social upheaval, violence here at home, and ultimate defeat of the world’s greatest superpower at the hands of the tiny nation called North Vietnam? Or, could anybody foresee that Vietnam today would be a prosperous and peaceful participant in the Asian Rim, trading with the United States and a valued member of our international relationships?

Before Vietnam, our history books all said “America has never lost a war”. I don’t think we can say that now.

If you think of the glories of war, or that World War II was our last “good war”, read “With the Old Breed”, by E.B. Sledge, the “Sledgehammer” of the miniseries “The Pacific”, and read and see through his eyes what the Marines endured and lived through in Peleliu and Okinawa. Or, study the firebombing of Tokyo, one night in 1945, when our B29s with bomblets of jellied gas (napalm) set the middle of Tokyo on a raging firestorm and 300,000 people died, burned, boiled, and asphyxiated to death … more than 3 times the number killed in either Hiroshima or Nagasaki.

Or, go to Washington DC, and visit the Vietnam War Memorial wall, and see just how many lives are imprinted as 57,939 names — or go over to the Korean War memorial, and see the incredible statues of a platoon on the trail, every face young, every face old and with those faraway eyes that young men develop in war.

When we went to war in Iraq, did we foresee that it would turn into a bloody explosive miserable “insurgency” that would ultimately leave Iraq divided, ungoverned, allied with Iran, and divided into sectarian sections many of which only have electricity a few hours a day?

Who knew, right?

I sat with my son-in-law in his shop one Memorial Day … 25th Light Infantry, Iraq … We listened to music and talked, and drank beer … and I think he cried just about all day long … I remember particularly Radney Foster’s “Angel Flight” … in a way, another casualty of war.

So yes, we should honor on Memorial Day those who passed, and served, and were injured in our defense and in our wars. It’s usually not the fault of the soldiers to get dragged into conflicts started by others. Most often wars get started by politicians, and most often, unfortunately, the arms manufacturers and arms dealers have the ear of the politicians.

But do not confuse the flag, which represents our nation, with all right, all honor, and all glory. The flag is a symbol, but it is not the nation. We are the nation. How we show the flag, where we place it, and what we do in the name of the nation, must always respect that every time we send our troops somewhere it is their lives, their families, their self-respect, their professionalism, and their personal honor we put on the line.

We are so blessed in this nation not to have experienced war on our soil since the Civil War and then the virtual extermination of Native America. We don’t experience the destruction and death of Syria’s civil war, or Yemen’s agony. We have not had bombs and explosions, fighter jets and helicopters overhead, schools destroyed suddenly from the sky, hospitals and Red Cross relief columns intentionally targeted in order to starve and kill civilian populations. Those are the realities of war which we in our generations have, thankfully, been spared.

But, having not lived through it, I think we might not understand how horrifying war is.

The idea of Memorial Day is to honor those who died in America’s wars. In other words, in order to be honored, you have to die. Think of this each time you see a sign that says James Smith, SSGt, Memorial Highway. It means that James Smith, Staff Sergeant, died in one of our wars.

So honor them, but also remember that war itself is inherently evil and destructive; that death in combat comes in many forms without mercy; and that soldiers in combat fight for each other and their brothers and sisters, not so much for honor, country, and flag.

On Memorial Day, remember that they died, so we can remember not to fight and kill unless it is absolutely necessary and there is no other way to accomplish what must be done … so that we will have less fallen heroes, less grief, and less loss for the families who love them.