I spent my early years assuming I would join the military, but it didn’t happen, and I often felt a void where that expectation had been – partly relief, but partly a sense that I had lost something important, having been exposed for years to stories of World War II and my father’s memories and memorabilia. (He was on his way to war when World War II ended, and was in the Army of Occupation in Japan.) We played war all the time and saw military service as an inherent part of life. We were raised to be patriots, and were disillusioned at our perception of the politics of the Vietnam war. I think we were the first generation to have enough information, through emerging mass media, to question whether the military was being misused and whether we should serve. I was in college and had a way to opt out, and later there was the draft lottery and I had a high number. I never enlisted so I never went there.
Our sense that the Vietnam war was wrong complicated our thinking and created an internal conflict between our postwar patriotic conditioning and our sense that, in perpetuation the war in Vietnam, our leaders were wrong and the tragic human costs were wasted. One terrible cost of this cultural shift: soldiers who fought in Vietnam returned to a cultural malaise and confusion, no parades, no sense of victory, no sense of moral validation. I had a roommate who had been caught in a Vietnamese booby-trap, and while he survived, he returned with profound disillusionment.
We now know that wars and global politics are complex. Should we be in Iraq? What is the nature of a “war on terror,” who are we really fighting? What is the nature of patriotism in a 21st century era of globalism? Much to think about.
But on Memorial Day, we honor those who served and who died as real patriots. This makes me think of Audie Murphy. I first saw Murphy as an actor in Western films; only later did I learn that he was one of the most decorated war heroes in U.S. history. Audie Murphy represents a whole spectrum of thinking about military service. He was a great patriot who fought hard and received 33 medials, and he was also a victim of post-traumatic stress disorder who was very frank about his own problems and pushed the government to acknowledge the condition and extend health care benefits to cover it. I’m thinking about Audie Murphy today, and I’m thinking about my Dad’s years in occupied Japan, and my brother’s years flying transports into Vietnam. I’m thinking especially about my older cousin Charles, who was at Pearl Harbor when it was attacked and told us rousing stories of that chaotic day. They were all among the fortunate who survived.
I realize that I’m fortunate, in that no one close to me died at war. Thinking on Memorial Day about all those who died, and all those who lost someone, in wars of the past and present. Every death is a cascading tragedy. I’m ready for world peace.