What Are We Fighting For?

Don’t ask me  I don’t give a damn, next stop is Vietnam.

I loved that song when I was a kid. I didn’t agree with the sentiment but it was easy to sing, simple to remember, witty and had a fun beat to it. It expressed the dominant narrative of young Americans from the Woodstock generation. They continued to feel strongly about the war and the draft until there was no draft. Once the risk of interrupting and then risking their lives by being drafted into the Armed Forces was removed they started feeling strongly about other things.

As The Vietnam War series continues we’ve been offered several examples of why the men who fought there served. Karl Marlantes interrupted his Rhodes scholarship work to resolutely serve as a Marine rifle platoon commander. He had strong reservations about the war but they did not trump the obligation he felt he incurred when he accepted a ROTC scholarship and attended Marine OCS. His combat record was exceptional and he showed no regret about his decision despite being haunted about killing an NVA soldier at close range during a fierce battle when his blood lust was up.

Karl has made several appearances with Mac on All Marine Radio. He tells a story about bonding with his platoon which is too good not to share. Shortly after his arrival he had demonstrated the tactical savvy and leadership Marines in combat appreciate. He knew this when he and his Marines were cleaning their weapons shortly after he had took over his platoon. One of his squad leaders walked up to him and asked; “Sir is it true that you went to Yale and are a Rhodes Scholar”?  Karl admitted that was true. The Marine replied “and now your here? Sir you have to be the dumbest fucking Rhodes Scholar there ever was”.

Karl laughed, his men laughed; Karl sheepishly admitted you could make that case. He knew at that time he had just been accepted as their leader, the one who would now make the decisions on which their lives would depend. That had to feel good. Considering Karl’s feelings about the war that achievement was beyond impressive.

We also heard from Tim O’Brien, a draftee who served as an army infantryman and is the author of the excellent Vietnam book The Things They Carried.   Tim also was against the war and also carries significant guilt; not about what he did in Vietnam but for not having the intestinal fortitude to go AWOL and escape to Canada. I don’t understand that sentiment but respect the man for having the courage to admit it.

When talking about Canada Burns mentions in passing that over 5000 Canadians joined the American armed forces to fight in Vietnam. My first 1st Sergeant in Charlie 1/9 was one of them. 1st Sgt Daily had his own office between the company commanders office and the platoon commanders bull pen – a large office area where each lieutenant had a desk and access to a shared typewriter. There was a hole in the wall next to the 1st Sgt’s desk with a piece of wood which he could slide back and forth. When the wood slide open and the words “Mr. Lynch, a word with you sir” boomed out from the 1st Sgt’s office I knew the fitness reports or other reports I had just submitted had been found lacking. The ensuing corrective lecture was going to be brutal; the smart lieutenant kept his mouth shut and took it like a man.

I once asked 1st Sgt Daily why he left Canada to serve in the Vietnam war. We were in the field and the 1st Sgt had things to do so his answer was terse. “There was a shooting war going on lieutenant where would you want to be”? I didn’t press him on the point knowing that I would get a 15 minute lecture on the deficiencies of young infantry officers who waste the valuable time of their company 1st Sgt when they should be attending to more important duties. When the 1st Sgt wanted to sit around and BS (which he did often) it was best to wait for him to come to you.

I never questioned his motivation; I felt the same way as did all my peers. Iraq wasn’t that different from Vietnam in the sense that the military was committed  for spurious reasons while ham strung by constraints imposed for political expediency. It would appear we learned nothing from the Vietnam experience, Rumsfeld was no different then McNamara, the Joint Chiefs were again sidelined in the decision making and rolled over just like their Vietnam era predecessors. Yet when Mac and I were discussing this on his show one day my response was “there was a shooting war going on Mac, where would you want to be’?

There are no longer antiwar protests of note which I attribute to there no longer being a draft. That fact puts the antiwar protesters in a less favorable light than the Burns documentary portrays but (as the grunts in Vietnam would say) there it is. We have an all volunteer force (actually a professionally recruited force), only around 0.4 percent of the citizens serve in the military. That may account for the lack of protests. Not many Americans have skin in the war game anymore so what is there to protest about?

Many of the officers I know didn’t agree with the reasons, force levels or tactics used in Iraq and Afghanistan yet none of them had a problem joining the fight. Why?

I’ve been thinking about this for several days and found a partial explanation while reading the latest post from John Del Vecchio concerning the Burns documentary. Check this out:

Still photographs are the most powerful weapons in the world. People believe them; but photographs do lie, even without manipulation.

John was writing about the photograph of General Nguyen Ngoc Loan I discussed in my prior post. Now consider these three iconic photographs from three different wars:

World War II  (AP Photo/Joe Rosenthal)
Vietnam War Photo by (AP Photo Eddie Adams)
Iraq Conflict (photo by Michael Yon)

The Rosenthal photograph was controversial when it was published. Many thought it had been staged propaganda knowing it to be the second flag raised that day.  Had it not been for Sergeant Bill Genaust, a Marine combat photographer who was standing next to Joe Rosenthal (and who was killed during the subsequent fighting) recording the flag raising with a 16mm movie camera the most iconic picture of WW II may not have withstood the scrutiny it first received. But it did and it spoke to all who saw it by capturing the courage and tenacity of the American fighting man in WW II.

The photograph from Vietnam also spoke to all who saw it but it did not speak the truth. I blogged about the full back story here as John Del Vecchio does here. As brutal as that image is it was a legal act under Vietnamese law and the law of land warfare. Read the two linked posts to find out why.

The third photograph was not controversial. Unlike the other two it did not win the photographer, Michael Yon, a Pulitzer. Michael is a blogger, not part of the establishment media so despite shooting the iconic photograph of the Iraq conflict he received no love from the Pulitzer Prize committee.  Yet the photograph is every bit as powerful as those above it. It encapsulated our efforts in Iraq perfectly in the form of an army infantry officer comforting a little girl who had been hit by an insurgent IED. Efforts to save the child were futile just as our efforts to save the Iraqi people from each other proved to be.

When you study the three photographs above you can’t help but conclude the Vietnam Vets got a raw deal because their iconic photograph told a story that was not true. Fate is fickle, it is not fair, it is just there and sometimes deals a rotten hand. The Vietnam Vets were dealt a dead hand when fate put Eddie Adams in Saigon during the 68 Tet Offensive.

The Vietnam War series has dumped a metric ton of information, interviews, data and supposition into a giant pile for the viewer to sort through. There are no answers, there are no lessons, there is a liberal slant to the presentation but you have to know a lot of history to detect it.

What were we fighting for? It wasn’t for the constitutional freedoms Americans have always enjoyed. Vietnam was not a threat to them then just as the Taliban and ISIS are not threats to them now. Contending that Americans are fighting and dying overseas to allow the rest of us to knell during the national anthem or protest whatever it is people are protesting today is rubbish. Yet we’re still fighting…..why? Why does the country seem to be as divided today as it was during the tumultuous years of 1968 and 1969? Have we truly learned nothing?

There’s something happening here

What it is ain’t exactly clear

7 Replies to “What Are We Fighting For?”

  1. I’ve read about the militarization of the police but the reverse is also true. Rather than WW 2 where the troops went for the duration with the intent to get the job done with as quickly as possible and get home, the modern career soldier is more like a cop assigned to a really crummy neighbourhood. He goes on patrol without any real notion of ending the need for his being there. He is surrounded by people that he’s suspicious of and they’re suspicious of him. Both fear each other. He kinda of wants to help them but deep down thinks it’s futile and the whole things a waste….but he’s paid well for doing an interesting job, his family think he’s cool and what are the alternatives? Car sales?

    This is especially true of SOF with it’s short but frequent tours. Based on a FOB- fairly safe with many of the comforts of home- and then a short patrol or raid and them back to Netflix, weight rooms and Green Beans possibly to return to the same AOR next year and the next and the next.

    I think it’s quite acceptable to join for a job, it’s the family business, adventure, travel, training and education. I’m suspicious of modern soldiers who say their primary motivation is duty, honor & country. They may be deluded or simply saying what they expect you expect to hear but if you want to run optional small wars around the fringes of the empire you’re going to need Legionaries not Minutemen.

  2. I believe that history has shown wars have many reasons: i.e. independence, against genocide, against a dictator, against being forced to believe a specific ideology. Some wars have been for a perceived insult, but mostly something political. The last war where our enemy was clearly defined by a uniform was in Korea. The V.C. and N.V.A.’s clothing tended to blend in with the local populace from what I read and saw on tv nightly. I don’t know what influenced me. My mom told me that when I was 4 years old I said that I wanted to be in the military and a police officer. That would’ve been 1959 and I only remember my toy guns and toy soldiers and no one ever read me war stories. I have always been deeply patriotic and I admit to being fascinated by watching the news nightly about anything related to Viet Nam. Virtually every book I’ve read has been a history book and I have hundreds of them within reach as I write this. I knew when I enlisted in the Marine Corps at the end of Viet Nam how unpopular it was to even be in the military. Society basically painted anyone actually enlisting in the military as a loser. There were only two of us from my high school class that ever went into the military. During my tour I remember being harassed at airports and booed by people even in 1975, even though I’d never been to Viet Nam. As a former Marine and as a patriotic American, I always actually regret not having been in combat wondering if I would’ve been as courageous and/or as scared as those that were in it. I know, it seems foolish to some. I watch politicians like John Kerry go to Viet Nam as an officer, attempt to gain as much acclaim and medals as possible, come back to the U.S. become an anti-war activist, gain as much acclaim as possible, then become a politician, gain as much acclaim as possible and then touts his medals and service in Viet Nam! Wow, how many countries allow a person to do that?! I disliked hippies and anti-war activists and NFL players that take a knee against a flag and country that has provided entitled athletes with amazing opportunities and wealth. How many of them have been oppressed in their lives? How many of them take a knee when they’re asked to sign autographs or take a knee in their own yards, or in front of their wives when asked to do a chore? How many NFL players actually spend their off time trying to help people and make a positive change against the alleged oppressors? Why do Americans burn our flags? Kill and injure police and each other? Why weren’t they shown love of country? I have been a career police officer (after the military) and have patrolled mostly ghetto areas and been shot at (by Americans) and was involved in a shooting (against an American). There are bad police officers and sheriff’s out there, but they are a very small percentage. Many of the best have been killed in ambush by cowards. Somewhere there are small kids in this country watching news from Afghanistan that are today’s version of what I was watching Viet Nam. These kids have heart, guts, patriotism and in the future will join the ranks of the military, the police, firefighters and EMS to try to do their part to help their fellow citizens. I know that I have never oppressed anyone nor, has any member of my family (as they came from Canada in the 1880’s).
    I hate ignorance, greed, power, kiss-asses and narcissists, but I love the U.S.A. and would fight in Afghanistan now if the Marine Corps would let this former Sergeant back in.

    1. That is an awesome comment and as a guy who enlisted in 1978 I can relate to how the military was perceived by the public back then as a collection of losers. And John Kerry – that motherfucker – I notice the Burns Documentary did not include that asshole throwing him medals over the White House fence. Then when he married into money and got elected all of a sudden his medal were back on his office wall. I forget how he explained that and don’t care to look it up. What I do care is he is one of the toxic vets – one who didn’t earn the medal he received and used the system to write up bogus reports until he got what he wanted. He lied about patrolling up the Mekong into Cambodia during Christmas but that lie was shot down by Vets who knew better. He does not represent the typical Vet and I resent his attempts to leverage his mediocre service to lend him gravitas. I think the legacy of Vietnam was those kids you watched on the TV in Afghanistan – they were awesome; just as your generation was but now the public seems to understand better that the fighting man is one of them not one of the Kerry like swamp critters.

  3. The fact that Michael Yon’s work has not won a Pulitzer, is a damned shame. Some will argue that Yon is not in class by himself when it comes to war reporting. Well, I will say this much, what ever class Yon is in, it does not take long to call the roll. Excellent article. I met O’Brien a few years back when he was speaking at a private school commencement. This was after I returned home from a year in Iraq as an IDMT. We had a nice chat about writing and Iraq. He asked me if I wrote and I deferred, telling him that it was not my forte’, He none the less encouraged me to do so, saying that the stories of my generation need to told. Nice man. I wrote him a thank you letter and sent him a unit patch. He sent me a signed hardback copy of “Things They Carried.”

    1. Very cool story and I agree with O’Brien about the writing as it sure does help dealing with the frustration of knowing we’re never going to be able to do something like that again. Michael was not only a good writer and photographer he was fearless about going outside the wire to get at the ground truth in Afghanistan. He bitched a bit much about my driving but fearless none the less

      1. He also needs to spend a wee bit more time writing that god dammed screenplay I have been on his ass about writing for about 2 years now…

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