World War One was barbaric. The first war to use any type of ‘weapon of mass destruction,’ the genocidal release of noxious ‘mustard gas.’ This was a chemical so corrosive, that it would melt your eyes out of your head. You could breathe this in and have your throat and nasal cavity dissolve, then suffocate on the bloody pulp left behind. It is fair to call World War One the worst war in human history.
Wars are romanticized a generation or two after they have ended. (For a marvelous example of how wars change in our minds see The Great War and Modern Memory by Paul Fussell [https://www.abebooks.com/servlet/SearchResults?isbn=9780195021714&n=100121503&cm_sp=mbc-_-ISBN-_-used]) And a battle that was filled with rain and mud and absolute misery becomes a notable highlight in the heroic nature of bravery and self-sacrifice. These are valid views, certainly, but the farther away we get from their moment in time, the less horrible they seem. We tell ourselves that nothing has ever been as bad as it is today (or as good, if we are of a positive frame of mind).
I do not wish to cover the same ground as the aforementioned masterpiece by Paul Fussell, so I will focus on the modern evolution of war memories, and how they are exploited for political gain–how the soldiers are perversely utilized, even if the individual agrees with whatever political stance they are propped up for. This is one of the deepest and most everlasting disgraces we are all in one way or another guilty of. One example of this is the reaction the anti-war public had to the broken and angry soldiers returning from Vietnam in the early 1970s.
The Vietnam war was really the first television war. Oh, Korea had been vaguely covered, and World War Two was used very effectively as propaganda is rouse patriotic conviction, but that was a war with such a clear demarcation what evil that it was easy to choose sides. But Vietnam was a big question mark. It was the first war to show the actual horrors to the public, stunning them into silence or outrage. We saw fires and murder and crimes against humanity, surrounded by terrified soldiers filled consumed with self-loathing. We watched them interviewed and saw the whole world beginning to unravel.
One of the first things a man returning from Vietnam might expect, after long, arduous service, that may have led him to commit war crimes under the strict orders of his superiors, was to be spit upon and called a baby killer, regardless of what this person was responsible for. The Vietnam war was an unnecessary war, yet another small, cold battlefield that had far greater impact on the larger world than it ever should have.
The men that came home from the war, as with every other war to one degree or another, were seriously scarred. Sure, some of these people had been blown to bits or shot in the spine, or even blinded by a mortar explosion, but the psychological scars are what is particularly notable about this war, which was resented by the public and generally despised.
The Vietnam War was perhaps the first war in American history that did not see its soldiers as heroes. They were laughed at, hated. The war was considered a loss–America’s first loss ever! Of course some dire patriots tried to cover this reality up–calling it a tie, blaming the generals, blaming the overall management of the conflict. President Johnson was so overwhelmed by the realities of his pointless war that he did not bother to run for office again. His replacement, Richard Nixon, eventually left office in disgrace. And Gerald Ford? He is hardly remembered forty-two years later.
The soldiers, who had been exposed to many drugs, who had cowered in rice patties while guerrilla fighters shot blindly from the tops of trees, learned how to be terrified of everything, everywhere surrounding them. They were also trained to fear nothing–to be men among men–and were told sometimes that looting, rape and murder was okay. This is war, the Captains and Majors would say. Everything is acceptable.
The damaged goods that returned from the war often committed crimes, knowing no other way of life. They would drink and get high and rant and rave and try to blame everyone for how empty their lives had become while fully realizing that they too shared part of the blame.
But Vietnam has transformed today, scoured somewhat clean by a number of terrific movies–some of them outright horror stories–and this vision has chilled the public so greatly that it has allowed the next generation to feel pity for these poor, corrupted men. There are tear drops and head shakes and moans of ‘what is this world coming to?’
We should respect soldiers, almost no matter what. Of course there are unforgivable crimes they might sometimes commit. People in the military are not always the best of the best, as every single soldier will tell you. It is not just the weak and the unwilling who are mocked, but the number of psychopaths that enter into a war zone with a drooling desire to pile up bodies; to make necklaces of ears or a jar of stewed eyeballs. There are some sick people who try to pass themselves off as heroes.
But most of the men and women in the military today are genuinely heroic, even if they have never experienced combat. What they have done is sacrifice a large portion of their lives to denying their own individuality, in the service of a higher purpose. They are usually sharp-minded and sincere, often regretting the violence they may one day be forced to commit. These are real people and not the tin soldiers of childhood and video games, shooting up the world with a smile and then coming back strong to a dazzling parade. They are true, they are serious, and there is no real reason for them not to resent those in power, those who send them into battle for no valid reason.
This brings us to Donald Trump, inevitably, a human disgrace that we can no longer avoid trashing. There are so many things, so many foul and distorted fuck-ups that he has put into motion–greedy and inhumane battles with the sole intention of making a profit out of the death of Americans. I believe that the worst thing this man has done–and I do not wish to talk about political policies or even the ideologies that set us on a path and divine our deep-rooted opinions; those arguments are a matter of independent belief, and no matter what I or anyone thinks is right or wrong, that is not the issue I mean to discuss–the worst unpatriotic act of our President is what he just did in France. For whatever reason he cancelled a graveside tribute to the fallen soldiers of World War One on the hundredth anniversary of its end. He claimed it was because of rain, like the cancellation baseball game. He cannot seem to understand that during the war there were soldiers that drowned in the rain, puddles of dirt and blood clogging up their lungs until that could not even cough anymore.
This was an act of political cowardice on our President’s part. Again, I can make a claim of numerous other craven failures of the man, but I only want to stay here for a moment, taking this as a greatest exposure of Donald Trump’s indifference to America and the entire world. The other world leaders stood there solemnly in the rain, bowing their heads with silent gratitude to what these people sacrificed. Trump, bitter, resentful, having a tantrum over his recent losses, was angry that the other world leaders seemed to be showing him no respect. He thought that somehow his not attending this affair would show them!
Trump claims that America was the laughingstock of the world before he came to power. It looks otherwise. Everywhere I go I can hear the laughter, even if it is the smug and angry chortles of those who support the man. But this . . . this . . . how could anyone who calls themselves a patriot ever forgive this? Just remember the epitaph carved into the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Philadelphia: “Freedom is a Light for which Many Men Have Died in Darkness.” And yet the president, with this in mind, sulks by a flickering light bulb that has been burning out for quite some time.
Happy Veterans Day.