Over the past decade or so, it’s become quite the fashion, when people learn that I once served in the Marines, to say to me, “Thank you for your service.” I’m sure they mean well, but I wish they would take just a moment to reflect on what they are saying.
I went halfway around the world to a place called Vietnam, where I killed, maimed, brutalized and made miserable a people who had never done me or my country any harm, nor ever would or could.
I served proud, arrogant and ultimately ignorant politicians and statesmen who thought they could mold the world into whatever shape they believed it should have. But it was hardly service in the interest of my country or the majority of Americans, let alone in the interest of the majority of the Vietnamese, who wanted little else than for me to stop killing them and go back where I came from.
Do those well-meaning folks who thank me for my service really want to thank me for that? I surely hope not. It is not service I am proud of.
Back in the 1980s and 1990s, the stock genuflection to Vietnam War veterans was “Welcome Home.” But what makes anyone think I’ve ever come home? Because I got out of Vietnam with all ten fingers and all ten toes? Because I vote and pay my taxes? Because I keep my shoe laces tied and don’t drool? It’s hard to feel at home in a country that learned so little from such a destructive and ruinous debacle.
And now I see that the Pentagon has launched a decade-long Vietnam War Commemoration Project to “thank and honor veterans of the Vietnam War.” There’s even a website that says, “A Grateful Nation Thanks and Honors You.”
Hey, I could use some decent affordable healthcare, or even just a free tank of gas for my car. But what am I supposed to do with that website? Eat it? Take it to the bank? Meanwhile, consider the “service” I performed while in uniform. My nation is grateful for that?
And now “the other one percent” who fill the ranks of our so-called “volunteer” military today is carrying the entire blood burden of our latest wars, getting sent to Iraq and Afghanistan over and over again, while the rest of us go about our lives as if nothing at all out of the ordinary is going on.
What the military seems to have learned from the Vietnam War is: Get rid of the draft and you get rid of domestic opposition to foreign interventions. So far, it’s working.
But the cost is steadily mounting. Suicides among active duty military and recent veterans have reached epidemic proportions. The Veterans Administration has a backlog of over 800,000 claims for medical disability. And substantial allegations have been made that the VA and the Department of Defense are falsely diagnosing veterans and soldiers with pre-existing “personality disorders” prior to their military service so that these veterans can be denied benefits for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, though the military was happy enough to sign them up when they first enlisted. Thank you for your service, indeed.
Frankly, I suspect that this whole Vietnam War Commemoration is less about a grateful nation thanking and honoring us Vietnam War veterans than it is about a frightened and nervous government trying to gloss over the follies and consequences of military adventurism so that the next generation of young Americans remains willing to place their trust in the hands of people who clearly believe that those they send to fight our wars are expendable (rhetoric not withstanding; actions speak louder than words).
Instead of thanking our servicemen and women for their service, perhaps we ought to be asking less service from them and more service from ourselves.
Bill Ehrhart was a Marine sergeant in Vietnam and has a Purple Heart, a Navy Combat Action Ribbon and two Presidential Unit Citations. He is a nationally recognized poet and writer and teaches at the Haverford School outside Philadelphia.