Wednesday, September 18, 2019

"Thank you for your service" - revisited

After some discussions with two of my close friends, I feel the need to expound a bit more on the touchy topic of people thanking me for my service.  As I have said elsewhere, I have very mixed feelings about my service.  I wasn't ever involved in combat in Vietnam, but my service was in a logistical supply unit that kept our troops supplied in I Corps (the northernmost region of South Vietnam).  We didn't shoot people - we provided the means by which combat troops could shoot people.  Our "service" was a critical component of sustaining that war.

As most Vietnam veterans know, we were victorious in most of the battles in that war, including the Tet Offensive in 1968.  That victory, in particular, was the root cause of my tour in Vietnam being so free of combat.  The Viet Cong were crushed in that offensive and the NVA was seriously set back.  The combat troops who fought in that battle made my "easy" tour possible.

Some veterans feel that if you didn't serve in combat, you weren't really in the war.  And there are those who say if you weren't actually on the ground in Vietnam, you shouldn't be allowed to call yourself a "Vietnam Era Veteran".  I call bullshit on both these notions. 

Our combat troops served our nation's military objectives - in a war we should never have begun and had no clear path to some sort of conclusion.  That war ended, not with a massive strategic victory comparable to Dien Bien Phu, but with us essentially abandoning South Vietnam to its fate.  The ability of our troops to fight those battles required massive logistical support and my outfit was neck deep in that support.

The web of support for those combat troops spread much wider than the nation of South Vietnam.  Those who served during that time, but who never made it to South Vietnam, were embedded in a complex system that indirectly enabled that war to go on.  The USA has a military presence in many places around the world.  We can argue about the need for all those expensive installations, but by serving in the military without ever setting foot in Vietnam, our military had to draw from existing units, including the National Guard and the Reserves.  The draft was the only way the military could have enough warm bodies to support our Vietnam campaign.  I was swept up by the draft, of course.  In today's world, it is political suicide to even think about re-instituting a draft, and so our military has been stretched thin, and multiple deployments by infantry divisions are the rule, not an exception.

TV documentaries often refer to the comradeship within military units being the primary motivating factor for troops fighting in actual battles.  I can say nothing about that since I wasn't ever in combat, but what I can say is this:  for us REMFs in Vietnam, we lived in a world many of us deemed to be infected with a form of insanity.  Even non-combat troops clung to each other for support, for fear of becoming as insane as Vietnam seemed to us.  The movie "Apocalypse Now" is not a very realistic depiction of the Vietnam war, but it does capture a semblance of the feeling that I had landed in a place where many people were simply crazy.**

What this all means (to me) is that my service made possible some awful things in a war that I didn't believe was one in which we as a nation should have been involved.  After we bailed out, Vietnam fell to Communism, but it didn't become the start of a massive shift to communism around the world, as the "Domino Theory" held.  What it left our nation with was a smoldering cultural division that has lingered to this very day, long after the end of the Vietnam War.  Hence, I'm not very proud of having made my contributions in support of that war.

Nevertheless, with the passage of time since I was in the military, I'm increasingly proud of having answered my country's call.  Now, when people thank me for my service, I've been holding back my negative reactions for the simple reason that such wishes are made with the best of intentions:  to honor soldiers who were not honored after their return in any way, myself included.  What I really want to say is: "I appreciate the spirit of your gratitude for my service, but that was an evil war that left many veterans of that war with lasting pain and even death.  In addition to thanking me - a person who escaped the worst that Vietnam War offered - the best way to honor my service is to support in a concrete way those veterans who suffer from PTSD, cancer likely induced by Agent Orange, and homelessness.  Thousands of our veterans were killed in Vietnam, but have died here in the USA from disease, drug addiction, alcoholism, and suicide.  Help them in some material way - skip the "thoughts and prayers" garbage - that helps precisely no one.  Do that and your thanks will be truly honoring my service."

And we as a nation should not send our youth to foreign lands to fight in seemingly endless wars that, like Vietnam, offer no plausible end game, short of killing everyone who serves to oppose our incursions.  We do ourselves a great disservice by such wars, consuming our resources with no meaningful return on such investments for anyone other than the military-industrial complex President Eisenhower warned about.  I especially despise "chicken hawk" politicians who lead us into war with no intention of serving in combat - either for them or anyone they choose to shelter from the obligation to fight in our nation's wars.
[** Footnote - no movie can ever depict any war with absolute accuracy, but some get it more right than others.  I favor "Full Metal Jacket" and "Platoon", to name a couple that include some realism in depicting situations that I witnessed or knew about during in my service.]