News, notes, and observations from the James River Valley in northern South Dakota with special attention to reviewing the performance of the media--old and new. E-Mail to

Thursday, February 22, 2007

Patronizing and dishonoring the troops

It's a legacy from Vietnam and before that a beautiful monument in the nation's capitol has not fully rectified. It is the attitude that soldiers who loyally serve our country are disposable. During the Vietnam War, men and women identified as soldiers were vilified and reviled on the streets. Now a pat on the back and a yellow decal on the SUV satisfies any gratitude we think we owe them. Attitudes have not changed that much.

The Washinton Post revealed in stories over the weekend that the outpatient program at Walter Reed Army Medical Center is tacky. While the stories focused on mildew on the walls, water stains on the ceilings, and decrepit beds, outpatients point out that these factors are just surface symbols of a deeper attitude of dismissal and negligence.

What happened during the Vietnam War was years in the making. In the 1950s, after the Korean War, the draft became a designator of the privileged and the lightweights in our society. The privileged thought that anyone who was drafted did not have the status, the connections, or the wit to avoid military service. I remember being in a session of veterans while we recounted some overseas experiences when I asked a chap where he had served. He replied that he knew what he wanted to do and how to do it, and military service was not something he needed to do. His attitude was not uncommon.

During Vietnam, that attitude intensified. Men who were drafted were regarded as deficient and expendable. I recall on a below-zero day at the University of Iowa donning my old army overcoat to trek to campus. While waiting at a stop light, some coeds made deprecating remarks and even spit in my direction. I never wore that coat again or revealed to fellow students--except for a few--that I was attending graduate school on the G. I. Bill.

Like Barack Obama, I opposed the war on Iraq from the build-up to it. Even though many politicians protest that they authorized the war based on the intelligence presented to them at the time, the fact is that both intelligence and news accounts coming out of Iraq, accounts of administration obsessions with Iraq, and reports of weapons inspectors cast deep doubts on the Bush administration rationale.

But the worst aspect of it all is that no thought was given to supporting the troops in ways that really count. Even though many diplomatic and military strategists knew that Iraq was likely to end up as a guerilla war against U.S. troops, the leaders dismissed the notion even when the insurgents made clear that they were battling our troops. It was the Little Big Horn and the Valley of Death in Vietnam all over again. Leaders were sending loyal and proficient troops to their deaths as a matter of personal preference and contrived reasons. And a huge element of incompetence.

During those times when the public was reviling and dismissing our soldiers, it was not conscious of the attitudes building up in the soldiers concerning the people they were allegedly serving. I recall a man who went to Canada saying on television that if we were fighting in Vietnam for something worth saving in America for its women and children, then let the women and children go do the fighting.

The Vietnam War Memorial finally gave acknowledgment and some measure of respect for those who fought in what the majority came to think of as an ignoble war. It helped, but it did not erase the lingering memories of an attitude of dismissal and diminishment that characterized the time of the war.

Many political and military leaders are so intent on their venture into what Patton called life's greatest adventure that they have lost a grasp on the values that make America. The constant drumming that criticism of the war and debates in Congress "emboldens the enemy" and sends them messages of defeat is the biggest symptom of America's leaders having lost any notion of national purpose. Debate and criticizing government--especially in times of gross deception and incompetence--is a way of saving the country from military dictatorship. The other way is open insurrection--and we experienced a little of that during the Vietnam War with violent protests on the streets and fraggings in the services.

There are more than 20,000 young soldiers and veterans whose wounds, both physical and mental, need binding up and healing. In this current war, that is the only objective that can save this country from disgracing itself further.

There is terrorism to be fought. But what threatens us from the outside is not nearly as deadly as what is killing America from within.

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Aberdeen, South Dakota, United States