The Futility of War.
The tides of history swell high for one thing, and then they recede. And then they rise again for another.
Just like the whims of fashion, the big issues come and go, just as the skirt lines rise and fall.
Vietnam came and went. A great rolling tide that swept through my generation and took 57,000 of us (who were unfortunate enough to have been born at just the wrong time) to be harvested by the drafts of war.
The passions of the old men for their convictions, for their patriotism, and for making their marks on the shifting sands of history — these men and their passions come and go with the administrations, with the shifting political parties, and with the ebb and flow of the manufactured news we’re fed and the causes we’re told are of vital importance.
Vital, that is, only until the next election. Until the next summer breeze of political fashion sweeps down the beltway. But, the deadly consequences of those changing breezes may have spilt, by then, into our lives with a cold and unrelenting permanence that denies the transience of those fickle summer causes.
Recently, I watched “Nixon: A Presidency Revealed” and it left me sad about all the things that happened back then and what we were told and led to believe at the time. And angry at how it has all come out so differently now in the clarity of time and hindsight.
Then, so much of the essential machinations were hidden, and we had to rely on the explanations we were given to make sense of things. They said we were saving a country from being overrun against its will. That we were leading the fight to preserve democracy in the world. That our leaders knew the best course of action for the country as they guided our great enterprise through the shoals of history.
They said that we were not quitters. That we had the integrity of our convictions. They told us that the lives we were spending would be vindicated by the judgments of histories yet to be written.
But, in the White House, behind the magic curtains, different stories and motivations were weaving their webs. Paranoia begot paranoia and the tape recorders ran. Lists of enemies were drawn up, and break-ins planned and almost executed cleanly — but not quite.
Vice-President Agnew departed in deep disgrace for his own crimes, and Nixon, left behind, stonewalled the press and the public while the bombs fell into the jungles of Cambodia and Vietnam and into the lives of those unfortunates on the ground there.
As the House and Senate met to begin the process of driving the President out, and that strange war began to wind down into defeat, the last chapters of its illogic were writ large before us, even though at the time we couldn’t recognize them as such through all the spin they were packaged in.
In one deep irony, the North Vietnamese, after long negotiations with the United States, agreed to end the war jointly with us. But, when we carried this news to our allies, the South Vietnamese, they rejected it.
So, we rewarded the flexibility of the North then by sending in the bombers again to bomb their population centers and to force them into a new agreement — one that the government of the South might like better. And all this time, the lives of our 57,000 were dribbling away.
And Nixon, isolated in the White House, fretted and ranted, plotted and schemed. And extended the months and years of this whole long saga of political decisions gone bad. A war we couldn’t even remember why we were in — a sideshow to his crumbling fortunes.
57,000 killed, and I don’t even know how many were maimed and crippled physically, emotionally and mentally. All of it, the death and dismemberment, so utterly permanent.
The wives, the girlfriends, the parents, the children and the siblings left behind, in every American community, to pick up the bits and pieces of their shattered families, lives and dreams.
Think of the old photographs that sit now on honored tables and shelves remembering a life that could have been, that almost was, before it was cut short serving the cause.
The thing that I feel most deeply about wars like Vietnam and Iraq, and the thing that I have the hardest time expressing well, is this:
This juxtaposition between the absolute permanence of the deaths and maiming caused, versus the ephemeral transience of the political causes for which they were done.
The administrations and the political passions of the old men come and go. But, for the young ones who died, for those who are crippled, and for those who remain afterwards — as half-men and -women with half-minds and half-lives — they will suffer their burdens until the entire scarred and misused generation passes away.
When I said No to Vietnam, while in the military back then, I was deeply ostracized by my superiors, ignored by my peers, and supported by very few of them.
They told me how unpatriotic I was and how disloyal I was to that great country. They told me that our leaders knew what they were doing, and that they should be beyond questioning by the likes of me. They said that my job as a soldier was just to get on with whatever I was told to do.
I lived with the pressure, the silence and the promise of a court-martial for many months out on the Texas coast during that terrible year of 1970. And all the while, I listened as President Nixon denied on the radio and TV that we were bombing and invading Cambodia.
And all this, while the men in my unit who rotated back from Southeast Asia that year were telling us about the Cambodian bombing that they’d been doing.
“This is the end
This is the end
My only friend, the end
Of our elaborate plans, the end
Of everything that stands, the end
No safety or surprise, the end
I’ll never look into your eyes… again.” ~ The Doors
So, Iraq spun its story out. The reasons and the spins swirled around us in the press. The administration said this, the press said that, and foreign governments said something else. Everyone said something, and everyone had an opinion. More troops; let’s do a surge and win; no, let’s pull the troops out without destroying the country.
Some say that war was about oil, not democracy, and others say that war was about democracy, not oil. And if you don’t agree with them — all of them — you are a traitor and a coward.
We’ve heard it all. And, very likely, we’ve heard very little of what we will be hearing in 20 or 30 years when hindsight and the historians have cut through the fog of war and revealed all the things that go on now behind the magic curtains.
But, the young men and women who are dying today for us, everyday, everywhere, who are crippled and maimed for life? We should cry for them.
Cry, that that they are so naive, so innocent, so willing, so trusting, so patriotic and so foolish as to risk everything they have without having ever understood the history of the Vietnam War or how the passions and causes of the old men on the Beltway come and go with the political seasons like passing fancies.
Without having ever realized that this cause that they are dying for will be yesterday’s news as soon as the breeze changes again in Washington. Today’s resisters will be pardoned tomorrow, today’s great causes, that seem so worth dying for, will be tomorrow’s raked-over errors and misjudgments, quickly forgotten by the political players.
Somewhere, a young man will sit without his arm, or his manhood, or his sanity, and wait for the rest of his long and damaged life to dribble away. These passions and great causes will have turned to dust in mere months while the consequences to him, for him, will fill all of the rest of the days of his life.
And these young who died for us — their names will be written on stones in graveyards or on walls in the Capitol, and their pictures will sit on honored shelves in family homes. Until they are finally packed away into boxes for the future generations who will forget, as they always do.
But all that they could have been, all their dreams and potentialities, all their children, families and careers, that could have been? All gone. All gone.
An American who emigrated to New Zealand, Dennis Gallagher now holds dual citizenship and lives in Christchurch on the South Island. He considers himself a citizen of the planet, a poet, a programmer, a writer, a futurist, and a flâneur. He is deeply grounded in systems thinking, and when he imagines our possible futures, he doesn’t like what he sees.