When war glory prevails
Nov. 18, 2010By Edwin Cooney
Last Thursday being Veteran’s Day, it was almost inevitable that I would hear once again Sgt. Barry Sadler’s big 1966 hit, “The Ballad of the Green Berets.”
As I listened to Sgt. Sadler’s description of these men with “silver wings upon their chests,” I was both stirred and saddened. I was stirred by my memory of the time the song was popular and by its description of men of patriotism. I was saddened, however, by the idea that the fighting man represents “America’s best.”
Those of us born between 1940 and 1960 were raised on the glorious deeds of those who fought and died for our freedom during World War II. We revered the flag and loved the soldier, most of all perhaps, the handsome and daring marine. We were thrilled with the memory of FDR’s and especially Winston Churchill’s wartime eloquence. We only hoped that as the Soviet menace threatened to engulf us, we would be as well protected by our current leaders as we were by those of yesterday.
Then came the war in Vietnam. Suddenly, what President Eisenhower once identified as the “Military-Industrial Complex” joined forces with our political establishment to convince an increasingly dubious younger generation that unquestioning military service was a patriotic obligation that went along with one’s American birthright! Thus, as the war dragged on and the number of casualties increased, many Americans began to see the military mindset as being coldly indifferent to young America’s legitimate anguish regarding the wisdom, legality and even the morality of that war.
Hence, many Americans invariably vented their frustration and anger with the Vietnam War on Vietnam veterans whether they reluctantly or enthusiastically answered the calls of Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon to fight Vietnam’s civil war. For the brave soldiers of the mid and late 1960s and 1970s, there would be fewer benefits and much less appreciation than their World War II fathers and uncles enjoyed.
One has to be 50 years old to have experienced the anguish of Vietnam. Most people today believe that President Reagan’s willingness to play nuclear stick-em-up, more than the decay of the Soviet system, ended the cold war. Today’s veterans recall with pride President George H. W. Bush’s glorious adventures into Panama and the Persian Gulf. President Clinton even gets a grudging pat on the back for limited casualties during the 1999 conflict in the Balkans. As for President George W. Bush, criticism of his Iraqi conquest is somewhat muffled due to the comparative sizes of the Iraqi vs. Vietnamese war casualty lists. Additionally, our national political leadership has become savvy enough to devise ways to keep the horrors of war off television. Presidents today don’t have to wonder, as did LBJ and RMN, how well the war news as edited by independent evening network news broadcasters is being digested at America’s supper tables.
While listening to the lyrics of Sgt. Sadler’s 44-year-old hit, I wondered: Were the men of the Green Berets really “America’s best?” Was it then and is it now wise to believe that men whose mission is internationally sanctioned murder, even in the defense of freedom, are delivering the “best” America has to offer? Even more, isn’t it sad that Sgt. Sadler’s Green Beret hero’s fondest wish for his son is that he too may wear “silver wings upon his chest” and thus perhaps suffer his father’s fate!
Surely, modern America stands for political, social, economic and religious freedom to a greater degree than any other nation in the world. However, I find the following perspective compelling even when considering how legitimate and necessary our military establishment is to protect our national sovereignty. The need for fighting men and women really and truly represents human failure more than it does human glory!
Certainly, we are right to honor the bravery, patriotism and “supreme sacrifice” of what Dwight D. Eisenhower used to refer to as “the regular soldier.” Ike used to insist, “… a soldier is an agent of his government to do a very necessary and desperate task.”
Unlike the doctor who cures illness, the teacher who dispenses knowledge or the preacher who instills religious faith, the courageous soldier’s skills and tasks are at the command of often willful, greedy, suspicious and egocentric national leaders of numerous ideologies. Remember, during wartime, cruelty, courage and valor visit all sides.
Even as the individual soldier’s glory legitimately shines in all of our hearts, we can be sure of two realities. The “regular soldier” never starts a war — and thus all honor is due to his name. Excessive glorification of his suffering and death, however, invariably fuels the righteous anger that makes future wars almost inevitable.
Of course, we should celebrate Memorial and Veterans days so long as we’re determined to honor the memory of all veterans by making the future safer than the world we called on them to “please, please save!”
As for “America’s best,” I nominate the men and women of the American Red Cross!
Edwin Cooney is a national political and historical columnist.