Remember the fallen - and those left behind

Memorial Day is the time we remember and honor those who gave their lives for us, and our country. I grew up in the aftermath of World War II and the Korean War. I lived through the Vietnam War and all our subsequent conflicts. The men and women who died all seem to blend into one long line of needlessly lost souls. The ones who survive seem to be a little different from the previous conflict.

World War II had an almost mythical quality through the 1950s and 1960s. It truly was a war to save the world. The veterans I met and knew seemed to accept its necessity and the sacrifices it entailed. After the Korean War, not so much.

We “had” to defend against the Communist Menace, but questions arose when that conflict ended without ending. Those vets did not seem so accepting. They started to question the need to go to where they would die with little purpose. Then came Vietnam.

Who remembers seeing the nightly news in the 1960s and 1970s? The flag-draped coffins were juxtaposed with tales of the latest atrocities from both sides. It affected our national psyche in ways previous wars had not. Whether returning dead or alive, Vietnam vets were not accorded the universal respect given to vets of previous wars. Many of those involved questioned the necessity of that war. When you question a war, the next step is to question the deaths. Were these deaths really necessary?

In my high school civics class, I was the token hawk. I was castigated for having the temerity to suggest using “the bomb” in Vietnam. I did not then have the words to clearly explain my position. It just seemed useless to get into a war we did not seem to be trying to win. That endless line of coffins bothered me, as it seemed to serve no purpose.

Classmates assumed I reveled in war, but mostly I just wanted it to stop. Even at 17, I knew that myths were better than the realities shown on the news.

My brother Stephen had been in the Army before the war’s escalation. The military gave him a clarity and purpose he did not have before or after his hitch. Perhaps that purpose would have put him in one of those coffins. Would he have gone thinking he served a noble purpose? Or would he have gone in shock at the futility and uselessness of it all?

Surviving Vietnam vets were different than those of previous wars. There was anger with society, with authority, with life itself. A lot of vets dropped out, but a lot used that anger to try to make things better. I don’t think they succeeded. Now, instead of endless Asian or European conflicts, we have endless Middle East and North African involvements.

Thankfully, the men and women of our armed forces now get the respect denied our Vietnam vets. But they still are dying. They are still being maimed physically and mentally. They don’t seem as angry as Vietnam vets. But they are questioning the need to go to where our leaders are sending them.

I have a lot of military customers. I hate it when they leave. Their lives are disrupted, and some don’t return. The carnage is not confined to the dead. Marriages fail. The lives of their children are forever changed.

On Memorial Day, we remember the fallen. We should also remember the collateral damage. We should always remember the husbands and wives and parents and children who will never again see their loved ones.

Perhaps vets returning from the Middle East will take up the torch lit by Vietnam vets. Maybe they can figure out how to end the madness. It would be nice to have fewer deceased troops to remember. When will the carnage be enough?

Originally printed in The Olympian on May 27, 2013