When I turned 17 years old there was a war going on. Like many young men of that era, I didn’t wait to be drafted, I volunteered.
The year was 1951 and the war was called a “Police Action,” but more than 40,000 Americans gave up their lives while serving as this country’s policemen in Korea.
I never really thought about the politics of the war. I was told that the communist North Korea had invaded the free country of South Korea and it was our duty to stop them and drive them back across the 38th Parallel. Not once did I doubt the integrity of our nation’s leaders or question their reasons for going to war. Was this a just war? When can a war be called just?
I suppose Korea could be called a just war. After all, we were fighting to keep an invading army from taking away the freedom of another nation. We were young, we were fearless, and above all, we were patriotic. Without a shred of a doubt we trusted and respected our government. Would President Harry Truman lie to us? Never!
And we walked away from Korea with our heads held high. Despite the intervention of communist China, we had driven the enemy back to the 38th Parallel. Perhaps the war was a stalemate, but a stalemate is better than a loss.
But everything seemed to go awry in Vietnam. When we returned from Korea there were no protesters calling us baby killers and worse. But during the Vietnam War it seemed that the entire nation was against the war and in their anger and hate for the war they turned on the troops fighting the war.
A war is personal when one is actively involved, but it is also personal when a close friend or relative loses his life. This week the war in Iraq took a personal turn for me and for many Lakota people.
Cpl. Brett Lee Lundstrum, USMC, was just 22 years old when he was killed by enemy fire at Fallujah, Iraq. He was an enrolled member of the Oglala Sioux Tribe. His mother, Doyla Carol (Underbaggage) Lundstrum was the adopted daughter of Lynn Rapp, my ex-wife. During the years we were together Doyla and her two sons, Brett and Eddy, spent many holidays and many happy hours at our house. They even attended the Christmas parties we held for the staff of my newspaper.
At one Christmas party, my stepdaughter Susie, a very blond young lady, looked around the room at the mixture of children attending the party and asked the band to play “The Brady Bunch” theme song. It was her tribute to her Lakota brothers and sisters in the room.
We watched this awkward teenager grow into a strapping young man. But all of a sudden, his life is over before it has even begun. In his obituary it reads, “Brett was charismatic with a kind and generous soul; always humorous, with a smile, he lit up any room or place he entered.” That’s Brett. His laugh and smile were contagious. He loved the Marines and he loved serving his country. And just as I when I was 17 years old, he never questioned the reasons he was sent to Iraq. He considered it his duty as a United States Marine to follow the orders of his commanding officer.
When one serves in the military it seems we do not question the reasons we are at war. We only do our duty and try to serve as best we can. It is only when we are older and have witnessed the devastation of war and have seen firsthand the political implications, then war takes on a different light.
Far be it for me to ever question the integrity and courage of those men and women serving today in Iraq and Afghanistan. They are in the military and they obey orders. They also take great pride in the job they are doing. But it seems that President Bush has intertwined honest criticism of the war with disrespect for those serving in combat. From my heart I can tell you that they are not the same.
We are in a war that began with a dark lie that has taken on different hues of dishonesty as the war has dragged on. We are in a war that can end in only one of two ways: either the new Iraqi government will stabilize as a theocracy or the nation of Iraq will dissolve into a civil war that will pit the Shiite and Kurds against the once-controlling Sunni forces.
In either case the end product will not be what the chicken hawks that led us into this war intended. If Iraq becomes another Iran with mullahs as leaders or deteriorates into a civil war costing thousands of lives, who is the winner? It will not be the people of Iraq and certainly not the brave, young men and women that are dying every day in pursuit of a victorious ending. And it will not be the politicians responsible for the war.
I feel the loss of Brett as do all of the people of the Oglala Sioux Tribe. He was one of us and he gave his life for a cause in which he truly believed. I honor and respect his courage, but that does not preclude me from questioning the wisdom of those elected leaders who sent him into this unjust war.
May Brett rest in peace and may his Journey to the Spirit World be filled with wonder.
Tim Giago is president of the Native American Journalists Foundation. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.