Veterans…Then and Now
I’m a veteran. US Army. Viet Nam era. 1958 through 1970.
When I was younger, in my military days, Americans didn’t look at veterans the way they do now. A large part of the country saw us as villains. Viet Nam was an unjust war. The draft conscripted young men into service, often life-threatening service, and that seemed wrong to a lot of us. Lt. Calley was infamous for the atrocities he committed against helpless Vietnamese villagers. The news was full of images of a dirty, brutal, never-ending war, and the movies made it look like we were all on drugs. Just being veterans saddled us with all of that negative baggage, whether or not we deserved it.
Wars are stupid, wasteful, and cruel, and soldiers fight wars, so soldiers must be stupid, wasteful, and cruel, right? No, not at all. When politicians declare wars, or get us into undeclared wars, it’s not the soldiers’ fault. Soldiers sign up for duty, but they don’t choose that duty, politicians do.
Nowadays, things have changed. Politicians (rightly) get the blame for stupid, dirty wars, and soldiers (rightly) get praise and respect for fighting them. Our nation has come to see that soldiers are just people doing a tough job; and the job isn’t the person. Now, veterans get automatic respect. “Thank you for your service” is the mantra.
That’s as it should be. Put the blame where it belongs and give praise where it’s due.
So what made America’s opinion swing from vets are bad to vets are good? What shifted? Soldiers haven’t changed much…a lot more women, of course, but soldiers are still mainly young people looking for their next step in life, hopeful that it will be a good one. Politicians haven’t changed either…they wage war for political reasons having little to do with ethics or honor.
I think Americans changed their opinions based on two important events; two tipping points. First, back in the seventies, America eliminated the draft. No more involuntary servitude. When people volunteer for military service, they know that war might be part of the deal, and nobody is forced to do it. It’s fair and there is full disclosure—if you sign up, you might go to war, and you might die. If you don’t want to sign up, you don’t have to.
Some say that voluntary service unfairly burdens the poor. They have fewer choices, and therefore are more likely to pick military service as an option. But that’s wrong-way thinking. Yes, the poor have fewer choices, but military service can be a good one. Not only do you get three squares and a bunk, but you also get training, personal development, and a way to bridge that gap between childhood and maturity that others bridge with college or the Peace Corps (and many don’t bridge at all). And when you finish your tour, if you can qualify, Uncle Sam will pay your way through college or help you find a job. The American people, even those who aren’t well educated, aren’t stupid. They can see the leg up that military service can provide, and the fact that veterans make better-than-average employees, and become better-than-average citizens.
The second tipping point—the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001—taught the nation a lesson about people who put themselves in harm’s way, risking their lives for others. The first responders of 9/11 behaved heroically, honorably, and unselfishly. We all saw them on television, minute by minute, in horrific detail. You couldn’t not be awed by that kind of character, honor, and dedication. The nation came to revere first responders, be grateful for them in many ways, and love them. Soldiers—like first responders—also put themselves at risk for others. They came to be included in that deeply respected cohort of Americans.
So now, America respects soldiers. The question remains, why do young people volunteer to become soldiers, when modern history tells us that America engages in questionable wars, has managed those wars politically rather than militarily, and has sent many thousands of honorable young people to fight and potentially die for doubtful causes?
I served in one of those stupid wars. Viet Nam wasn’t even a declared war, but a “conflict”—and I knew it wasn’t a war we should be fighting, even as I volunteered for my first, and then second, combat tour in Southeast Asia. Why did I do it? And why did I volunteer to do it a second time?
I did it because I wanted to do something positive with my life. I couldn’t afford college back in those days. The Army was my ticket to a better life, and because my father was a soldier, that’s really all I knew. So I enlisted, eventually graduated from West Point, and later, thanks to the GI Bill, graduated from Harvard Business School. My bet on the Army paid off. I haven’t been a soldier since 1970, but I still think of myself as a military man…always will.
There were, and still are, millions of stories like mine, different in the details, but the same in spirit. Young people, often with limited options, want better lives and choose military service. Like me, they may think war is stupid, but also like me, they see soldiering as honorable; maybe even admirable.
So, I’m glad to be a veteran, not so much proud as grateful for the opportunity to serve, and grateful to have been able to grow and mature in a way that only soldiers and first responders can.
As a nation we had it wrong in the seventies, but eventually we got it right. America thanks me for my service. In return, I thank America for the opportunity.
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