Inside looking out: Hard lessons about patriotism
I love our country. Despite the insanity reported in the nightly news, we still have the safest and the best place to live in the world.
Yet I have known four men of the military who have changed my view of American patriotism.
A few years back, I did a story for this newspaper about a local Vietnam veteran. I sat with him at his kitchen table where he twice had held a gun to his head before his wife stopped him from pulling the trigger.
He spoke to me with a certain tone of contempt about Memorial Day parades.
“You see this man marching down the street in front of hundreds of people waving their little American flags. He’s wearing his ironed Army fatigues with gold medals pinned everywhere. He smiles and waves to the crowd. At the end of the parade, no one would dare to pull him aside and ask him about his combat experiences.
“Ask him if he saw his best friend’s head get shot off right in front of him like I did. Ask him if he ever saw dead American soldiers with their genitals cut off and stuffed inside their mouths by the Viet Cong.
“Vets like me don’t march in parades. We don’t join veterans’ clubs. And here’s something else the people won’t ever hear from that parade soldier. When we fired our guns at the enemy, we weren’t thinking about the American flag or freedom for the people. We were scared to death. We fought for one reason — to stay alive so we could come back home.”
A New Jersey veteran I know was a Vietnam Army platoon sergeant. One morning he walked into a camp tent to find one of his privates raping a 9-year-old Vietnamese girl. He described the act to me in all of its sordid details.
“When I walked in on him,” explained the vet, “he turned around and said, ‘You want some of this, Sarge?’ ”
“I walked back out of the tent as if he had asked me if I wanted bacon with my eggs for breakfast. Insanity was normal in ’Nam. Nothing was outside the limits of acceptable behavior.”
Every morning when this man awakens, his mind looks inside that tent and it replays the scene of that child being assaulted. He punishes his conscience with the same question over and over again. “I was his commanding officer. Why didn’t I do anything?”
Vietnam soldiers didn’t come home to celebrations and parades, and though their terms of duty were more than 50 years ago, many are still haunted by the war’s unspeakable atrocities.
World War II also left the minds of combat soldiers locked inside a time warp of terror. My Uncle Al described the invasion of Normandy to me.
“The men coming to the beach in boats were open targets. Some were praying out loud. Others were crying. Some clung to the bottom of the boat and wouldn’t get out. Bodies were blown into the water. You looked at the blood on your sleeve wondering where you were shot, but it wasn’t your blood. It was from the guy next to you in the boat who was shot in the face.”
Uncle Al said that the courage that had been ingrained from basic training drills never prepared soldiers for real war.
“We weren’t shooting at the Germans for our country’s freedom. It was kill or be killed. Staying alive was our only motivation.”
Another WWII vet from Lehighton who I interviewed spoke of a cold night in Austria. Two privates in his platoon had jumped into a deep foxhole they had dug. He remembered telling them to climb out after dark and retreat to a more secure location behind the trees.
“They were too scared to come out, so we left them in the hole. In the early morning we heard a grenade explode and both had been killed.”
He told of a young soldier who, in the middle of a gunfire exchange, dropped his gun, climbed out of his foxhole and walked right into the line of fire.
“We tried calling him back. We heard him shouting. ‘Mom, are you there? I’m coming home, Mom. I’m coming home.’ We watched helplessly as he was gunned down.”
Every war in history was declared for political reasons, but contradicted by human experience. The Confederate flag is vilified today, but if you think about it, a scared 19-year-old Alabaman boy who marched behind that flag upon an open field during Pickett’s Charge at Gettysburg was probably not thinking about preserving slavery. He too was trying to stay alive so he could go back home to his family.
John Knowles, in his novel, “A Separate Peace” wrote, “Wars were made by something ignorant in the human heart.” He talks about how young men are sent to die in a game played by “fat old men” who stick out their chests to boast of patriotism and freedom.
Soldiers prove their bravery the second they step into combat, but a fear of dying can overwhelm thoughts of fighting for cause.
When I look at our flag now, I think of the men and women who fought for something greater than the freedom for America’s people. They fought to come back to their families and live the rest of their lives with peace of mind.
Serving themselves just might be a greater act of patriotism than serving their country.
Rich Strack can be reached at email@example.com.