Saturday, November 11, 2006

Veteran's Day Ruminations

I'm a veteran, but not a combat veteran. Many years ago I had an opportunity to volunteer for duty in Vietnam. I would have been a forward observer with an infantry unit. My boss, a captain who had done 3-4 tours in Vietnam with Special Forces in the 50's and early 60's, called me into his office. He strongly advised me to complete my obligation to Uncle Sam, get out, finish college, and take care of my family. He said that Vietnam was not a country worth dying for. I took his advice. Not too many years later I was a successful businessman.

Before I checked out of the 101st Airborne Division I had the honor of speaking with friends who had volunteered and had already completed their first Vietnam tour. They were changed men. Some had become emaciated from bouts with malaria. Some were bitter over the gung-ho early tactics that resulted in obscene casualties, and some of the West Point grads were resigning their commissions. Some were going back for more. All of them had experienced something that I could never in my life relate to: a fight to the death. So I am not one of them.

In the years that followed my goodbye to my warrior friends, I've been fortunate to have had quite a number of business associates and friends who, by conventional standards, were the cream of the crop - intelligent, motivated, sensitive to others, and ethical. Yet, looking back, among my top role models were the senior officers who somehow coped with us young lieutenants, and the great NCO's who saved us from ourselves. Calm, forceful, experienced, honorable, dedicated. These are the characteristics I have remembered and attempted to emulate all these years. I will always be grateful for the years I worked and played with them, and I have always been confident in their ability and their willingness to protect our country.

The Vietnam War turned out to be a tragic error. It was not the fault of those brave men. The Iraq War is a tragic error in progress. It is not the fault of the troops who are fighting there under the American flag. Our military is answerable to the civilian Commander in Chief, and to the civilian Secretary of Defense, and then to the military chain of command. They have the opportunity to speak their mind, but in the end they follow orders. The great majority fight only those who wish to fight them, and they abide by the rules of war even in difficult circumstances. They have a job to do, and they do it to the best of their considerable ability. I may grieve over the assigments some of them are given, but I support them all the way.

At the end of the day, it is the citizens of our country who choose the wars we fight. In our electoral process we select men and women who have told us quite a bit about how they will govern, and the President - Commander in Chief is the most important of these. However, we often fail to consider that critical aspect of the President's job until it is too late to change our minds about the person we have elected.

In 2000 a slim majority of electoral votes elevated George Bush, a self-professed Christian man, to the presidency. Mr. Bush had stated he had no appetite for "nation-building", and the voters paid little attention to the neo-conservatives like Dick Cheney who followed him with briefcases full of war plans for Iraq. Then came the tragedy of 9/11. The anger and fear generated by the terrorists provided perfect cover for initiating the neocon plan, which concluded with the pitiful "coalition of the willing" invading Iraq. In no time the man who had purported to follow the Prince of Peace morphed into an acolyte of Mars, God of War. Our military has suffered 2,900 deaths and 21,000 injuries since that fateful day, and untold numbers of Iraqis have perished. We would like to put the blame on George Bush, but we gave him the job and the power. The fault lies with the American people who made a bad choice.

So, on this day I salute the veterans who have done their job, following the orders of our democratically elected government. On this day I mourn all those, friend and foe, combatant and civilian, who have perished in ill-advised wars started by presidents from Texas. May our memories last forever, so that we never again give presidential power to men or women who resort to war before exhausting every opportunity for peace.

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