If you google ‘August 8, 1974’ you get a lot of articles on the resignation of Richard Nixon. I had no idea the President was resigning for the first time in American history that day, because I was spending my first day at Marine Corps boot camp, getting my head shaved and trying to adjust to drill instructors yelling in my ear. I’d grown up with the Viet Nam war and the wrenching effects the war had on the country. Yet, at age 19, I enlisted anyway. I didn’t have any real job prospects, college seemed unaffordable and I hadn’t done too well in high school. Despite the turbulent times, I still believed in the greatness of America. Besides, the Marine Corps promised to train me to be a truck driver.
By coincidence I watched Born on the Fourth of July night before last; Charter cable happened to be offering it free on demand. In case you haven’t seen the movie, it’s based on the story of Marine Corps Staff Sargent Ron Kovic. Kovic was paralyzed from the waist down while fighting in Viet Nam. I get that it’s a Hollywood movie and that it’s Oliver Stone, but I again, find myself contemplating the justifications for war. Given the nature of humanity, I do believe there are times when war is necessary; who could argue that the world shouldn’t have gone to war against Nazi Germany? I’ve argued that the United States’ response to internal rebellion in 1861 was justified. (See here and here.) I’ve debated the merits of compromise vs. standing on principle. (See here and here and here.) Nevertheless, anyone who thinks the decision to go to war should be taken lightly, or before all other possible means of peaceful negotiation have been exhausted, should google “wounded veterans” and take a look at the images. Consider, also, the staggering numbers of veteran suicides. I came across a letter that Ron Kovic wrote to President Obama in 2010. Obviously, it’s a bit dated, but the message is still relevant. I found this paragraph particularly poignant:
You watch your friends and fellow veterans die year after year from alcohol, drugs, suicides, a shot gun blast to the face, a car crash, an over dose, festering bed sores, toxic shock syndrome, pneumonia, homelessness, destitution and the loneliness of being forgotten. You see it all and you know that there is no flag, no parade, no welcome home that can ever make up for what you and the others have lost, for all that you have seen and endured; all those speeches, Memorial Days, Fourth of July fireworks, slogans and rhetoric about freedom and sacrifice and how, “necessary” this or that war was, and If we did not stop them there then they would surely come to get us here.
When I look at the photos of myself as a Marine, particularly the official boot camp photo above, I can’t help but be struck by how young I look. Ron Kovic was only 21 years old in 1968 when his life was shattered. I was lucky. I never faced combat during my four year enlistment, but I could have easily been where Ron Kovic was, or the thousands of other young men and women whose lives have been destroyed by war. For another heart-wrenching story, read Fortunate Son, the autobiography of Lewis Puller, Jr., son of the most decorated Marine in history, “Chesty” Puller. Lewis also suffered devastating wounds in Viet Nam. Tragically, Lewis committed suicide in 1994. War might sometimes be necessary, but it should never be glorified. It’s ugly.