Friday, October 8, 2010

Bad Fantasies to Worse Realities

My last year in college a lieutenant colonel from the Army spoke to one of my larger classes. He wanted us to join. We'd be made officers, he said. We'd be "taken care of," he told us. As for the others (he meant the front-line grunts who did the fighting), he smiled as he commented, "we don't care what they want."

In a flash -- pow, just like that -- I understood what was going on. There had been riots over Vietnam. People had fled the country. The military had learned its lesson: you don't draft the smarter and the well-to-do and turn them into cannon fodder. Instead, you turn them into officers who don't have to fight, and put those of average, or less than average, intelligence in the front lines.

As I heard an Army sergeant once say, "Sorry people in front, good people in back." The less-intelligent, the military has decided, are expendable. They're thow-aways. The military does not care about them.

I don't know how many people joined from that class. I didn't. It didn't seem conscionable under the circumstances.

I wondered then, and still wonder now, how easily those destined to be cannon-fodder fall for such empty words as "patriotism," "honor," "defending your country," and "liberating the oppressed." I think using those words is how recruiters get them to join.

I know they fall for them a lot easier than those who could be officers.

Those words are just fantasies in people's heads. They don't mean much of anything. In 30 years the war in Iraq will be as forgotten as the "war" in Vietnam. A new generation won't understand it at all, just like the current one doesn't understand Vietnam. It might as well be the War of 1812 to them.

But what happens when those fantasies in their heads runs up against reality? I mean those who come back permanently maimed. What do words like "patriotism" and "honor" and "liberating the oppressed" mean then? What do they mean to those blind and missing limbs?

I suppose at first those wounded will try to convince themselves it was for a good cause. I understand that. No one wants to believe you ended up in a wheelchair for nothing. You want to think it was for a noble cause.

Some years ago I saw a TV interview with an Army Ranger who had been in the invasion of Panama. He ended up shot through the spine and permanently in a wheelchair. The interviewer asked him if it was worth it. He said, "Yes."

One of the reasons for the invasion was to stop the flow of drugs to the U.S. Yet now, more drugs come out of Panama than before the attack.

What comes after the permanently wounded can no longer say, "Yes"? Unending hate and bitterness because of what has been permanently lost? How many kids is a quadriplegic going to have? How many are even going to have a marriage?

There was a man in a small town I once worked in who had been clipped across the back of the neck in Vietnam. What clipped him was a bullet. He was 19 years old. Had he fallen forward in the rice paddy he was crossing, he would have drowned. He fell backward.

He spent the next 30 years lying in a bed before he died of pneumonia. I'm sure he was never visited by Robert McNamara or Lyndon Johnson or any of the other men who started the undeclared Vietnam non-war.

Of those coming back now who are permanently wounded, how many have been visited by those who are the most rabid for war, but did everything they could to avoid serving? Chickenhawk cowards like the Rush Limbaughs, the Max Boots, the David Frums and Dick Cheneys of the world?

You'll never see any of them visit the wounded. Ever. They don't want to see them. It intrudes on their fantasy world of believing the war was worth it. Seeing the maimed would pop the bubbles the live in. Instead, they'll mouth phrases like "heroes making the ultimate sacrifice" and asking God to bless them, and for people to pray for them. They'll do it from a distance, though. They'll try to avoid thinking about the fact those words won't make limbs grow back, or the blind see, or the crippled walk.

The bad fantasies for those in the front lines is a just war, patriotism, liberating the oppressed. The far worse realities for those who come back from those front lines permanently maimed is different. It is to be forgotten.

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