November 10, 1990   

THE MOST MIS-USED GENERATION

I'd like to go back to a Veterans' Day a couple of years ago. My wife was out of town and I was at loose ends.  In the American Legion hall, the Vietnam Veterans of America  served a spaghetti dinner from 1100 hrs to 2000 hrs. "All you can eat" for four bucks. At that time, I didn't belong to the Legion but I felt that the Legion Post would be a good place to visit on that day.

The spaghetti was good, the folks most hospitable;  but the occasion was, for me, haunting and vaguely unpleasant. Looking around me, I realized that I was in the company of the most mis-used generation in history.

I first sailed into Saigon in 1964. My final visit was about three months before the American bug-out. 

I served in the Navy in three oceans in WWII and worked as a Navy civilian in Korea during the "police action".  Later, as a deck officer on American merchant ships, I was involved in carrying ammunition to Viet Nam.  In eight or a dozen voyages to Vietnam, I wasn't too impressed by what I saw.

I am proud of my generation and how we handled our war. I was uneasy and somewhat ashamed of how things went in Nam.

The men I saw in the Legion Hall bore little resemblance to those I had seen in Saigon, Vung Tau, Da Nang, Cat Lai, Cam Rahn, etc.

I saw a bunch of weary-eyed, middle-aged men, many with scraggly beards, and the look of laborers and clerks and construction stiffs.  Most wore at least one piece of camo clothing. A badge of membership, I guess.  There was a quiet gentleness about them.  It is an attitude that may be a conscious attempt to counter a violence inside.  It may be the resignation of defeat. At any rate, they appeared to be gentle and considerate of each other and of me.

The  women, too,  show the signs of wear. Their bodies are still good but the wear shows in the faces of wives who have to hold down a job and run a home, worry about kids and the mental state of a husband who feels that he has somehow been screwed over. Like women in every age, these are the stabilizers, the care-givers.  The relationship with the husband is liable to be touchy.  He (and she) are not quite sure or don't want to talk about just what was done to him, or how it happened. During the war he did a good job according to his convictions and ability and within the limits of what command allowed him to do; he resents too many lousy leaders of every rank, is quietly sore at the country that dropped his eighteen-year-old butt into the boonies and then neglected to honor the wounds that he will bear forever. He has almost a love-hate relationship with America.

The grey is in the hair of some, the bodies are thickening. They all appear to be in dead-end jobs. I don't see much future glory.

The people destined to be the movers and shakers of that generation seldom went to Nam. Only the sons of working people were drafted. The others received deferments. They went to college for extended periods of time or into at-home National Guard units or to the Wharton School to learn how to run the real world and to manipulate junk bonds and bottom lines.

They aren't like the Pearl Harbor Generation, this crowd from Nam. For the first time, the veterans of one of America's wars feel compelled to hold themselves out as a group distinct from other veterans. They have a perverse pride born of our nation's scorn for them and for what they did. It was not like this when we WWII folks were fighting our war and when we came home. The men from the Great War that preceded ours welcomed us as their legitimate successors and the heirs of their ideals and their heroism. 

Somehow, no matter how heroic were the actual actions of the Nam guys, and heroism abounded, their war has a muddied  image that sinks their suffering in a moist and  mildewed jungle mist from which our nation cringes.

Theirs is the generation that was over the hill before it reached the crest. The most mis-used  generation of fighting men in the history of this nation.

God Bless America!

 

1994

 

When I was a boy in the 1930s the Saturday newsreels sometimes flickered upon the faces and figures of bony old men, white-haired and feeble and forever proud.  They were the last remaining veterans of the War between the States.

The ancient heroes of Antietam and Gettysburg and the Wilderness were honored like national treasures, revered and respected. I also saw, in the flesh,  a few veterans of the Spanish-American War.  They were a sort of curiosity not worthy of much esteem because they had conquered an inferior foe in a miniature, almost comical war. There is little honor in a victory unequal.

The vast majority of our veterans were the men of World War One. They were men of early middle age, younger than many of today's Vietnam Vets.

To a man, they were proud of having served. Those who had been wounded, and especially the gassers, their lives foreshortened, wore their wounds and coughs like a badge of honor. To have been in the trenches, in the stench of bloody mud and rotting corpses was a mark of distinction and worthy of respect. Among the finest things that could be said of a man was, "He was in France."

It didn't matter upon what day of the week Armistice Day might fall. That day was the day upon which it was celebrated with parades and memorial services at monuments inscribed with the names of all who had served. Too sacred to move, Armistice Day was observed on the eleventh of November.

Armistice Day reached its highest moment at eleven AM, the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month. At that hallowed hour, the towered clocks of every small town struck solemn eleven.  Activity ceased, people halted, bared their heads and and looked inward for a minute of silent meditation. Automobiles actually stopped beside the road. A grateful nation mourned and exhaulted as weeping bugles sobbed the tearful notes of TAPS.

Later would come a quiet lunch, perhaps a picnic if the weather allowed. The country rested and remembered.

With World War Two and Korea, Armistice Day was changed to Veterans' Day to include the veterans of those and all future wars. That was right enough. But America lost its small town values, its uncomplicated patriotism.

Now, Veterans' Day may be celebrated almost a week on either side of the eleventh day of the eleventh month so that fun-seekers may have a carefree three-day holiday and marketing giants may run "Veterans Day" sales for an uninterrupted three days of profit.

When there is an observation of Veterans Day, it may be celebrated with parades glorifying a sandbox war in which one hundred and forty-one Americans died through mishap, friendly fire and premature computer shutdown. It was a victory over a foe unequal.

It was the action of a President who was an oil and banking autocrat, supported by a Congress of purchased puppets. In the hoopla of a jingoistic press it was hailed as a victory as great as World War One or Two or perhaps the two combined, with Korea, Vietnam and Gettysburg thrown in.

The press and television did a job of which Goebbels would have been proud. They  blatantly twisted the dirty treatment of the Namvets into an American guilt trip to shame the citizens of our sovereign nation into supporting  the use of its sons and daughters as hired cannon fodder for the oil cartel.

Straggling along toward the rear of the veterans' day parade with its sand-colored tanks and humvees  there is a handful of middle-aged men wearing pieces of jungle camo and bearing a black flag with a white device. The only sound is that of jungle boots on the pavement. There is a little polite applause as they pass.