Personal Essay: To A Soldier


I saw you in the airport, in desert pattern combat fatigues, a duffle bag over your shoulder. Briefly, I saw myself in 1968, in this same airport, my head nearly shaved, my uniform looking like a clown suit on my skinny frame, on my way to Viet Nam.

You were surrounded by people, either not noticing you, not wanting to disturb you, or, in this all too Washington, DC way, not wanting to appear uncool by speaking to a stranger. No one ever spoke to me, either. I have spoken to others of you, to tell you to take care of yourselves and each other over there, or, if your boots were dusty and you looked tired, a “Welcome Home”.

I am touched and humbled by your willingness to serve, as our protectors, and as our ready armed forces. Many of you flocked to enlist when our country was attacked, because you believed that you would be going after the very people who attacked us. Perhaps yours was a purer motive than mine. I enlisted because I had dropped out of college and was faced with the draft. My chosen path was, in those days, one of least resistance.

We both grew up believing that it is the duty of Americans, particularly men, to serve our country in the military. There is an underlying message that we are to define ourselves as men in this light. My great-great and great-grandfathers were Confederates, both grandfathers were in WWI, my father was in WWII. My son served seven years in the army, and was medically retired with a disability.

Perhaps, like me and my peers in Viet Nam, you have found it a matter of practicality to accept the ethos of the warrior, because it is necessary for your survival in a hostile environment. You are justifiably proud of your competence and skills. The professionals who trained you in the arts of war, for their years and experience, are even more skilled than you, so you follow and respect them. Perhaps you are a professional soldier and choose to remain so.

For the soldier, it is your war, justified because you are in it. It is not your job to make foreign policy; it is your job to carry it out. If you relay radio messages, prepare meals for hundreds, or walk combat patrol, you do your job so that your buddy can do his. Your buddy is the most important person in your life; you do what you can for him, and you depend on him for your very life. When you cannot keep him from harm, you grieve.

Ours is the brotherhood of the soldier, a part of the universal human experience. The American soldier is still only a soldier, serving under arms to further what others have judged to be in the best interests of his country. If we read history, we should know that we share this experience with Israelites and Philistines, Roman legions, Moors, Napoleon’s divisions, and the men of every European and Asian nation having armies. No leaders have ever lacked men willing to fight, suffer and die for them, not Ghengis Khan, George Washington, Lincoln, Hitler, or Binh Laden. They all manage to convince us that we are meant to be part of a grand effort, of something far larger than ourselves, our families, and our village. They may appeal to fear, revenge for some wrong committed against you, or these motives may give way to hate, pure and simple.

Every soldier thinks that his cause is unique in human history, his devotion to that cause most justified, most righteous, most pure. Your enemy is the one trying to conquer the world, to anhihilate your people, to destroy your way of life, to enslave others. Our own cause seems without fault, built on unassailable logic and truth. I found a Nazi belt buckle among my father’s things. It had, above the Nazi eagle and swastika, the words, “Gott Mit Uns”. Soldiers have been all equally devoted, equally ferocious in battle, equally believing in a righteous God at their side, Crusaders and Arabs alike.

As terribly costly as WWII was, almost no one questioned the righteousness of the war, or its cost. The enemy was clearly attempting mass conquest, genocide, and unspeakable brutality. There was no disagreement on the necessity for bringing their depredations to an end.

When our country was attacked, we all agreed that it made good sense to go after the very people who attacked us, if for no other reason but so they would not do it again. We cheered you on, and we sent the best trained of you, special operations, to hunt them down.

Like my war, however, this expanded war, this invasion and occupation of Iraq, has become a war many good people question. As many of half of us in this country favor bringing it to a quick end. It is clear to the American people that those who wanted this war with Iraq have, for the most part, never worn the uniform you wear. We are not surprised when their children and other young people who claim to support this war would rather see you serve two and three combat tours than to serve themselves. In spite of rhetoric comparing the urgency and gravity of Iraq to WWII, the draft has not been instituted. The administration knows that this war does not have the support of the American people.

Why can I not accept the fact that war is an inevitable consequence of the human condition? Since our society, like every other one in history, is able to convince some of its members to fight and die while the rest of us go on about our business, why not let soldiers do what soldiers do, and assume victory or some vague semblance of it?

We sowed the seeds of this reluctance to go to war ourselves. We have created weapons so terrible, so unthinkably devastating, that we assume no one would dare to use them. We forgot an inevitable consequence of military technology, that whatever we have, someone else will copy, steal, buy or figure it out for himself. We could not prevent the old Soviet Union, Israel, India, Pakistan or North Korea from obtaining nuclear weapons. We ignored the warnings of the wise old general, Dwight Eisenhower, when he told us that the cooperation of industry, finance and the military, for profit would be a greater threat to our safety, way of life and our Constitution than would any other foreign power. We have not been successful even in preventing the proliferation of rapid-fire, high volume fire weapons among children in our own country. Weapons proliferation does not lower the stakes of our insatiable appetite for weapons, it raises the possibility of devastation beyond anything we can imagine. Diplomacy, intelligence-gathering, international cooperation have become more essential, not less. We simply have to learn to get along with the rest of the world, accept less than we’d like, give more than expected, and act as a more mature, more intelligent, more compassionate and wiser nation.

It is increasingly clear that the reasons for this war, like the reasons for my war, are fraudulent. Intelligence, military and diplomatic professionals have made this clear. Military adventurism is not “defending America” any more than I was defending my country in Viet Nam. “Weapons of mass destruction”, the links between Iraq and Al Qaeda, and the attempts to secure uranium have been found and proven to be untrue. No one can define to our satisfaction what “victory” is, and how we would know when we have achieved it. Like Vietnam, a victory of sorts might be possible by using the weaponry available to lay waste to an entire country. Both then and now, we stop short of doing the unthinkable. History is strewn with the shame of the Japanese in Nanking, the Russians in Berlin, the Holocaust, and My Lai. We know better, we claim to stop short of inflicting intentional suffering and death on citizens not involved in combat.

We share the experience of being under arms in a country where we are not welcome. The most cursory reading of military history makes clear the tremendous risk of forcing an opponent to defend his own home territory. If another power were to attempt to occupy the continental United States, your father and I would be hanging their blackened bodies from the nearest bridge. I suppose they would term us something like “insurgents”.

You know right from wrong. The military has its standards of decent treatment of prisoners of war and non-combatants. You had the classes I had on the Geneva Convention and rules of engagement. No one has voted to repeal these minimal standards of human decency. Most of the US Senate has, in fact, voted to uphold them. People who have never worn the uniform insist that torture and detention without charges are lawful, and do not consider that such treatment might also be inflicted on our own young men and women.

For Warrant Officer Hugh Thompson in 1968, decency was more important than looking good for his superiors. He reported the My Lai massacre and would not be dismissed by the brass. Sp4 Joe Darby blew the lid off the abuse of prisoners, many of them innocent, at Abu Ghraib. He acted on what he knew to be right, as did the CID soldiers to whom he reported it. Military JAG officers, as attorneys, know that holding people without representation at Guantanamo is wrong; they are right to question it. Temporary soldiers have been known to act with more professionalism than professionals.

The yellow ribbon you see on the backs of cars says “Support the Troops”. The word “troops” has no legitimate singular form. Political leaders and generals like to think in terms of troops. They cannot dwell on the individual suffering and death war entails. “Troops” implies a faceless, nameless mass, to be moved like chess pieces, instead of individuals, each life precious. I see implicit in the word a wish for the horrors of war to be left to military professionals and the willing, like us, so that the accountants, firefighters, teachers and brickmasons among us don’t have to deal with it. We don’t like to be reminded of the heat, danger and horrors you face every day. Like me in Viet Nam, you are “other people’s kids”, “troops”, kept at a distance, in the airport, when you come home wounded, and when you come home looking for a job.

For Viet Nam veterans, the yellow ribbon is a declaration that, regardless of how we feel about the justification for the war, that we will not allow you to be denigrated, ignored, and abused, as we were during and after Viet Nam. When that war became unpopular, we became unpopular. We veterans know that the war is not the fault of the warrior at whose feet we lay it.

This administration has responded to the welfare of soldiers only grudgingly, sometimes having to be shamed into recognizing your sacrifice. As soon as they committed our young people to war in Iraq and Afghanistan, they sought to reduce the budget of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), the very government agency with the resources and experience to deal with the inevitable results of sending soldiers into combat. Some are looking forward to the dismantling of the VA, sneering at those good folks and the services they provide for veterans as an “entitlement program”. Recently, our government has engaged in a hand-wringing exercise over compensation and treatment for those suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. They seek to curtail the compensation paid to some who have been receiving this benefit from Viet Nam. PTSD is real, its effects are real, and recognized by mental health professionals. Treatment for so many will be expensive and, in some cases, lengthy. It is time to pay the piper. When we create veterans, we are obligated to your care. The yellow ribbons, when not accompanied by a firm commitment to deal with the consequences of sending you into harm’s way, are a pathetically hollow gesture.

Do not be pressured into denying PTSD, if you think you may be suffering from it. Keep a copy of your medical and mental health treatment records. If you are already separated from the military, seek out a Vet Center, a group of people like yourself who meet regularly with a mental health professional for support. PTSD is treatable. To the extent that it may interfere with getting and holding a job, you may be entitled to compensation for PTSD as a service-connected condition. See a veterans organization such as Disabled American Veterans to file and pursue your claim. The VA claims processing offices are understaffed; your compensation will not come quickly.

While you are in Afghanistan or Iraq, take care of each other, look out for each other and do your best to keep safe. We freely chose to be soldiers. We make the best of our situation, try to survive it, try to get others though it unharmed. Your mind is your own. Read and stay informed. Stay in touch with friends and family. If the military shuts down your blogs, then write letters. There are fine writers, poets, photographers, and artists among you. You must survive to tell your stories when you are back with us. The military experience will always be a part of you, even if you don’t choose to define yourself in terms of it. When we are no longer soldiers, the experience of war never leaves our dreams. We see our comrades, and hear their voices, sometimes even of our enemies.

My friends and I have sent letters and care items to those of you in the Middle East. We would deny you nothing that would make your life over there a little easier, a little more comfortable. What I cannot do for you is to accept the reasons for and the circumstances under which you were sent to Iraq. My gift to you today is to let you know that good people are working to bring you home.

Go back to school, using the education benefits you have earned. Choose your course of study and your life’s work carefully. Work for justice; work for peace. And, finally, be involved enough in your country’s government to be very, very sure before you commit soldiers to combat, before you allow people the age of your children to endure what you have endured, to suffer what you have suffered.

Welcome home.

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