Lessons from Vietnam as applied to Afghanistan and Iraq:
#2. Honor veterans when they return; honor the soldiers while they serve. One of the great errors of Vietnam was the failure to hold parades for returning soldiers. Regardless one’s views of the war, or its justness, or its execution, the soldiers who served deserved thanks, kudos, and a warm welcome back. They also deserved top-notch medical care for their injuries, physical and mental — Bob Dole, John McCain, Daniel Inouye, John Kennedy and others stand as monuments to what returned veterans can do for the nation when welcomed back and given appropriate medical care.
Vietnam was just a repeat of the error, however — Korean War veterans also got no homecoming parades. The Korean conflict is in fact known to some as “the forgotten war.” So we have more than 50 years of bad habits to break in figuring out how to honor our soldiers and veterans. We as a nation have not gotten it right for a very long time.
Honoring the veterans does at least two beneficial things: It helps the veterans readjust to life, if only a little, knowing that people at home appreciate them as individuals, and that people appreciate the sacrifices they made to serve the nation even when those sacrifices are so great as to be beyond comprehension.
It also helps citizens at home recognize and realize the depth of the sacrifices — a critical need in an era when, as historian David Kennedy notes, a thoroughly professional, volunteer army means that so few decision makers in Congress and the administration have family members serving in war zones, and when so little sacrifice is asked or expected of people who at home. Honoring veterans is a small but significant step in fixing the asymmetrical problem the U.S. has with a standing professional army, and the way that army affects the people who ultimately are responsible for it, the voters.
(I’m not making this point so well as it needs to be made; there is much discussion, mostly opposing my point, at Dadmanly from some months ago. Ultimately, the air around discussion is so tainted right now that even a call of support for the troops from anyone opposed to Bush is regarded as a “call for an Iraq pullout” regardless the details. If Nancy Pelosi negotiated for the European Union to provide 150,000 troops to relieve the U.S., AND got the Sunnis and Shiites to agree to stop shooting and rebuild the nation, Bush and the Republicans would call it “cut and run.” That’s part of the problem.)
The second thing honoring veterans does is separate out our love of our fellow citizens, our wives, husbands, daughters and sons in uniform, from our discussions of foreign policy — and it sets the stage so they can be full participants in that discussion. One of the unwarranted but too often made assumptions is that every person in uniform is part of President Bush’s political team. The same assumption was made during Vietnam, and it was patently untrue, as untrue when Lyndon Johnson was president as when Richard Nixon was president. Such assumptions provide an easy way to devalue any statement of opinion of a veteran: “Oh, he’s just biased and defending his own biases and errors.”
Failing to listen to the troops was one of the key failures that led to many of the mistakes of the current wars. The only member of the Bush team with practical and substantial military experience, Colin Powell, was shunted to a position where that military experience would be less valuable, and then he was ignored for being out of his field in the closed-door discussions.
Experience may differ, but it is all valuable. The Colin Powells of the world should not be shunted aside in any case. Their advice should not be ignored in any case. Our honoring the troops sets the stage to be sure that they will be respected as humans enough that the rest of us will pay attention when they tell us their opinions.
So, honoring the troops is a feel good for the troops (we hope); honoring the troop is essential for the rest of us, who need to hear what the troops have to say.
In Iraq, our nation ignored almost every lesson taught to us by Vietnam. We were able to do that because Vietnam troops were not honored, and were often actively dishonored.
Some of the most egregious dishonoring of the troops was done by people in positions of power who pay lip service to the troops while dishonoring them behind their backs, or who dishonor the troops openly. The unholy demonizing of Vietnam vets John McCain, Max Cleland, John Kerry and others, is part of a syndrome of disrespect for those with the information we need to have, a syndrome whose spread was actively pursued by President Bush for crass political ends. The rest of us should not have let that happen.