How I learned that terrible lesson about war
Anybody who knows me knows how much I hate war. I mean, it’s all just so stinking obscene. And now as the president, Congress, the media and the public contemplate military action in Syria, I can’t help but remember a conversation I had in the early 1970s with my ex-father-in-law — a retired Marine Corps lieutenant colonel — regarding the war in Vietnam.
John retired after he was wounded during the Tet Offensive in January 1968, ending his 22-year career. Shrapnel from a mortar injured his legs (now in his 90s, he still walks with a limp and uses a cane), and the concussion also damaged his hearing (he wears hearing aids).
John was among the first American advisors to land in Vietnam in the early 1950s. Although his service record reports he was a company commander in Hawaii for nearly 18 years, the family says he served exclusively in Vietnam during that time. No matter what the record says, John won’t talk. He says he took a security oath, and he can’t say anything at all about what he did during his military career. Not a peep.
I asked him once why he and the other men in many photographs in the photo albums aren’t wearing dog tags; why there are no insignias or patches on their uniforms as they stand beside their tiny pup tents in the bush. John said that was because if any of them were killed, the enemy would just find a dead guy in the jungle they couldn’t identify.
Now, John’s daughter and I had just started dating, and on this particular evening the time had finally come for her to bring this long-haired guitar player home to meet the folks. We had a few glasses of wine, I played a few songs and then we had dinner.
I must have brought the subject of Vietnam up — mindlessly spouting all the popular anti-war slogans of the day, no doubt, and totally enjoying the opportunity to spar intellectually with a real live lieutenant colonel who had been there.
But John, true warrior and true patriot he is, completely dismissed my political conversation as irrelevant. He said he wasn’t the slightest bit interested in discussing the politics of Vietnam because they had absolutely nothing to do with the war. Wow. He said he was simply a soldier who did what his country asked of him.
Then he dropped the first bombshell I hadn’t expected. He said we could have won the war in Vietnam easily. Right, I said, taking the bait. And just how could we have done that?
He said you just start in the south, go north and kill everybody who doesn’t like it. Dumbfounded, I told him that sounded kind of brutal. To my surprise, he agreed.
Of course it’s brutal, he said. It’s war! What exactly did I expect? Then he dropped the second bombshell that has stayed with me through all these years. He said that’s how you win a war, and if you’re not willing to do that — go north and kill everybody who doesn’t like it — you’re going to lose. Every single war, every single time. I hated to hear that awful message, and it grievously pained my soul, but I couldn’t deny its plain and obvious truth.
Over the years and through all the wars since then, I’ve listened endlessly to the talking heads and the pundits from the left and the right, the doves, the hawks, the presidents, the generals and the elected officials, but they never say anything at all like what John said that night.
And that’s why I’m so aggravated as we publicly contemplate yet another military excursion into the Middle East.
Since that evening talking with John, I recognize if we hope to win, we have to prove we have both the stomach and the will for all the merciless carnage, destruction and bloody, senseless slaughter that is war.
Without that resolve, we ought to just stay home because our defeat is guaranteed.