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If Not For . . .

If Not For . . .



In my frequent nightmares I was in a jungle in Vietnam, rifle bursts coming from all directions, the Vietcong slipping unseen and unseeable through the fetid night. My night sweats were jungle sweats.

I had been drafted and was in Army Basic Training, being schooled in the dark art of killing – exhorted to impale the gooks on my bayonet and to follow orders without question. I had been an indifferent and careless college student, but I was an engaged and skillful trainee.

Over the next nine months I was further indoctrinated into the craft of war, fluent in M14, M16, M60, mortar fire, hand grenades, calling for air support and shining boots and buckles to a mirror sheen. I earned a commission as a 2nd Lieutenant and wore my gold bars with the pride I had lost when flunking out of college.

For the next two years I served with neither risk nor distinction, lucky in my assignments and thereby avoiding the grim choices I had imagined. Had I gotten orders for Vietnam, would I have fled to Canada or been compelled to affirm my manhood and join a war I knew to be futile and immoral? I’ll never know, but I suspect I would have submitted to the latter, as did many of my friends, who didn’t live to reconsider.

A provocative column in the New York Times raises many questions about unjust wars, soldiers and how we honor the dead on Memorial Day. The piece, written by Phil Klay, an ex-Marine, offers cogent perspectives, worthy of Memorial Day reflection.

Among Klay’s observations is the use of social and economic immobility to ensure a steady supply of military recruits. Young men and women who see limited prospects are drawn into the military for useful training, secure employment and future benefits, including the possibility of reaching the elusive goal of a college education. For many it is indeed a step up, although the ladder is often unsteady, as deployment to a war zone may be the final rung.

Klay’s analysis misses what may be the most significant dynamic in sustaining the war machine.

A great many boys and men – perhaps all of us – crave respect and recognition. (I omit women from this analysis as they comprise only 17% of our military. For many of those women, the motivations may be similar.)

Our culture offers a competitive gauntlet, where race and privilege provide a head start to some, while impeding others. There are many avenues to self-worth that are pinched closed to the vast majority of ordinary folks. Even professions that should draw wide if not universal respect are unevenly appreciated. Nurses are underpaid and overworked. Teachers are too often blamed for the problems that are caused by societal neglect or political gamesmanship. The most noble work – on behalf of the unhoused, the neglected, the fragile environment and social justice –  is largely unnoticed or ridiculed by smug critics.

The two life choices that seem sure to bring universal affirmation are the military and first responders. First responders differ in the crucial reality that there are no, or very few, controversial missions to taint their social standing. Soldiers, by contrast, are called to do noble work for an ignoble purpose. As Klay contends, and I agree, every war in which we have engaged from Vietnam forward, has been highly questionable and ultimately futile. There are, to be sure, selfless, often heroic acts that deserve admiration and respect. But saving a fellow soldier or pulling a small child out of rubble we created does not erase the broader immorality of the wider conflict.

I know from my time, and Klay confirms the contemporary truth, that many soldiers are acutely aware of the political expedience that sends them on a deadly mission with no ethical or practical justification. But as I might have done, they soldier on nevertheless. The American concept of “being a man” requires it.

The price is high, but respect is earned. It is ubiquitous. “Thank you for your service” rings warmly in the minds and hearts of many who would otherwise be invisible. “Support Our Troops” is offered unconditionally despite the meaningless loss of life our blind patriotism perpetuates. With the very brief exception of the immediate aftermath of Vietnam, a military uniform is sure to draw thanks, praise, a smile and occasionally a free beer or two.

One does not dishonor the dead by noting the causal circumstances. On Memorial Day we can both grieve the lost souls and mourn the injustices that took their lives.

It should be a time to examine the cultural and political factors that perpetuate war and that unconditionally celebrate its collateral victims.

As a bumper sticker demands, “Support Our Troops By Ending War.”



Steve Nelson
Steve Nelson is a retired educator, author, and newspaper columnist. He and his wife Wendy moved to Erie from Manhattan in 2017 to be near family. He was a serious violinist and athlete until a catastrophic mountain bike accident in 2020. He now specializes in gratitude and kindness.

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