The Master Sergeant knew his sons were right about the war. They had both served a tour in Vietnam and came home shaking their heads at the horror, and the fruitless madness of it all. And yet they were proud to serve their nation, even as they cursed the civilian administration that had ordered them into Hell.
One brother would volunteer for a second tour. He was a medic. As long as the men of his beloved Charlie Company were “in country” he had to be there, with them, saving lives.
The Medic knew I wanted to enlist. What did I know? The Medic’s stories gave me nightmares. The Medic didn’t want me to enlist when I grew up.
“Hope it’s over before you get drafted.”
I was 13 when he told me he was going back for a second tour. The heroes I had admired in my comic books seemed trivial, and weak, next to the man I hugged goodbye.
Like many vets, he retired, surviving long enough to teach me firearm safety and to complain about veterans’ services.
At the end of Vietnam, persuaded by his veteran sons, the Master Sergeant conceded the truth: “No point in sending more to die.”
Former Secretary of State Colin Powell, a veteran of Vietnam, suggested we should never send our fighting men and women into harm’s way unless we could answer the following questions:
- Is it vital to our national security?
- Does our nation have a clear objective, overwhelming superiority and does the public support the mission?
- Did we exhaust all other means to resolve the conflict?
- What’s the exit strategy?
The Medic exited life an old, happy civilian. He is buried in the shade in the beautiful old post cemetery at Ft. Huachuca, surrounded by his beloved fraternity of “doughboys,” “dogfaces” and “grunts.” His grave marker notes his service in Korea as well as Vietnam.
When the Korean War started, he lied about his age to the recruiter. At 16, he was the sole survivor of a grenade assault on a crowded foxhole. He could never bring himself to tell the tale to any of us. “I’m no John Wayne.”
My favorite John Wayne story comes from the great writer William Manchester, a veteran of Iwo Jima, who tells the tale in his book “Goodbye, Darkness.”
He and his fellow war-weary Marines were not impressed by Hollywood’s version of the war.
“Once we polled a rifle company, asking each man why he had joined the Marines. A majority cited ‘To the Shores of Tripoli,’ a marshmallow of a movie starring John Payne, Randolph Scott and Maureen O’Hara.”
The Master Sergeant loved that movie and I, completely missing the point, loved Maureen O’Hara.
Manchester went on: “Throughout the film the uniform of the day was dress blues; requests for liberty were always granted. The implication was that combat would be a lark, and when you returned, spangled with decorations, a Navy nurse like Maureen O’Hara would be waiting in your sack.”
Manchester’s combat experience had not been a lark. He describes a long, grinding nightmare of wide-scale carnage colored with the stench of burnt flesh, bile, feces, urine and blood-soaked mud. Shot, Manchester was shipped off to join the gravely wounded at Aiea Heights Naval Hospital in Hawaii. Maureen O’Hara was nowhere to be seen. Hollywood’s version of the war was a grotesque lie.
“It was peacetime again when John Wayne appeared on the silver screen as Sergeant Stryker in ‘Sands of Iwo Jima,’ but that film underscores the point; I went to see it with another ex-Marine, and we were asked to leave the theater because we couldn’t stop laughing.”
Manchester and his fellow Marines got a treat one evening while they were recuperating. It was movie night at the hospital. From behind the movie screen, who should appear, but the iconic actor, John Wayne! The embodiment of patriotic schmaltz! Manchester wrote that Wayne was, “wearing a cowboy outfit — 10-gallon hat, bandanna, checkered shirt, two pistols, chaps, boots and spurs.”
The veterans greeted the pitiful actor with cold, stony silence. Then the boos and the jeers slowly came, until a chorus of disgust drove the Pretender from the hall.
Veterans despise fake machismo.
The Master Sergeant would agree. The only thing he despised more than phony patriots were the civilian politicians, the chickenhawks, who would order America’s finest into war with no clue about why they’re there or how to get out. “Special place in Hell.”
For our veterans, forget the schmaltz and ignore the phonies.
Post the flag. Thank a vet. Support only those politicians who truly support the troops. And send those who don’t to Hell. It’s the least you could do.