Henry: Honor the fallen, but not the follies of war

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Memorial Day has a way of bringing back home the sacrifices made far away in defense of a homeland blessedly removed from strife because men and women answered the call of duty.

So it was again this past Monday. In many communities, a distant bugle sounding across the generations summoned the patriotic to parades. Old soldiers marched to give proof that they have not yet faded away and that their ideal of service will never fade away.

They were reinforced by ranks of marching bands and community groups, the young and the old. Such respect is the enduring mark of a great nation.

Later, crowds gathered in local parks or around a monument, where a dignitary offered reassurance that those who made the ultimate sacrifice did so to preserve freedoms for the rest of us.

If only it were true. How I dearly wish it were true.

That shocking skepticism carries a caveat: In the greater sense, this noble sentiment of justifiable sacrifices being made is indeed correct, because in times of clear and present danger, we and our freedoms are protected by those who serve. Of course.

But a danger lurks in looking at service and sacrifice through a gauzy sentimental veil that obscures a bitter truth: Many wars in which our forces take the field have little to do with preserving our freedoms or way of life, and no amount of pious speeches or editorials will make this so.

In fact, if you count the conflicts that really did represent life or death to the nation in recent generations, only World War II unambiguously qualifies.

As for the rest, they were undertaken for reasons ranging from the shabby to the reckless. American forces were too often committed in the service of some political notion later revealed to be crackpot or fanciful. This was not the fault of those who served so honorably.

Last month brought a grim reminder: The 40th anniversary of the fall of Saigon and the end of the Vietnam War. That was my war, albeit in the uniform of an American ally, Australia.

By April 1975, watching TV one day after I had moved to London, I was incredulous at the sight of a North Vietnamese tank knocking down the gates of the presidential palace in Saigon. I had driven by the palace almost every day as part of my unheroic duties. Incredible. What is this?

American veterans of the Iraq War are now subjected to similarly depressing sights. The city of Ramadi has fallen and forces of the Islamic State, a bunch of literal cutthroats who make the Viet Cong look like choirboys (which they were decidedly not), are perilously close to Baghdad. Incredible. What is this?

It is the fruit of folly. The politicians who backed the Iraq War were at pains at the time to dismiss Vietnam comparisons. The cultures were different and the strategic situation was not comparable, they plausibly said, plucking a web of lies like the strings of a harp. Yet here we are and the ghosts of Vietnam are shrieking.

Once more we realize that we chose to blunder arrogantly into a culture we ill understood. Once more we have not lost a battle but may lose the war — and with worse possible consequences.

Once more we have allies, in the recent words of Defense Secretary Ash Carter, who lack the “will to fight.” Once more we have demonstrated a truth that our enemies already knew: American public support for wars lasting years cannot be sustained.

Once more we have exhausted our blood and treasure, so that now we can do little but watch events out of our control take their awful course. Oh, yes, a part of me wants to send in the Marines, but that would just compound the original mistake.

As for those who promoted this fiasco, they play the blame game, trying to protect the president who let loose the winds of war so that they can condemn the president who reaped the whirlwind. They say the war was won — yet another mission accomplished — and never mind that all the burning fuses left to smolder were certain to ignite again.

It would be better if all concerned heeded the lessons of now two wars so that on future Memorial Days, we can honor those who serve in the full knowledge that the rhetoric once more completely matches the reality.


Reg Henry is a Pittsburgh Post-Gazette columnist. Email: rhenry@post-gazette.com