Schwab: Reconsidering the message of a Memorial Day meme

Too often, our war dead didn’t die for freedom, but they deserve our thanks and our apologies.

By Sid Schwab

Herald columnist

Monday, Memorial Day, a friend shared a Facebook meme: “Only two defining forces have offered to die for you. Jesus Christ, and the American Soldier. One died for your soul, the other for your freedom.”

And I thought, those who served in Vietnam as I did, before and after, killed there, didn’t die for our freedom. They died because they were poor, mostly, couldn’t get student deferments, or have daddies who bought them a pair of invisible bone spurs. They died not knowing or caring why they were there.

Quoting another veteran, they died for a mistake. Taking and returning fire, they fought to protect themselves and their squadron, not anyone else. All they wanted was to ride those “freedom birds” back to the world with as many of their limbs as possible. The ones I evacuated mostly didn’t. Their Purple Hearts came at a much higher price than mine. And those who died were still dead three days later.

I served in Danang, not far below the DMZ. “Rocket City,” we called it. When the rockets rained in and we dove for cover, it wasn’t for anyone’s freedom but our own. The beach there, China Beach, was beautiful, though; white sand, mild surf, and warm waters comparing favorably with the occasional nurse from the 95th Evac stripping her combat fatigues down to a bikini, as choppers patrolled the shore, gunners sitting halfway out the doors, feet resting on the struts, protecting our freedom to swim.

Just down the beach was the civilian Military Assistance Command, Vietnam compound, fenced, guarded, green, quartering contractors making big money servicing the war. Someday, I figured, China Beach would be a destination spot, adorned with expensive hotels, win or lose. And so it is.

Protecting America’s freedom had nothing to do with it. Especially not to the orchestrators. The Domino Theory was a useful selling point. Now our trading partner, Vietnam did fall. And it has hotels and McDonalds.

If the term makes sense, World War II was a good war. There was a definable cause, and undeniable need. It liberated people held in cages, terminating that practice and Nazism forever for a while. And it ended the Depression.

Afghanistan was justifiable, might even have made us safer, had Rumsfeld not let Osama off the hook, had Bush not bailed to pursue unrevealed intentions. Iraq’s “Domino Theory” was “Bringing Democracy to the Middle East,” as bogus as the former, and as the Gulf of Tonkin incident. It was never about protecting our freedom, even though more who fought there, and more people back home, believed it was; more than was the case with Vietnam. By then, propaganda had found a louder voice. Dick Cheney’s stock in Halliburton made out. Oil companies and defense contractors, too. Most everyone else paid dearly for the adventurism, and the bill still isn’t settled.

It’s easier to believe our wars have been to defend freedom than to consider other reasons. No matter what, those who died deserve our veneration. And contrition, for the lives we’ve enjoyed since they lost theirs. And for our complicity in sending them, unquestioning, to fight wars instigated by old men whose kids rarely did, for reasons obscured beneath star-spangled bromides.

It’s wrong, and lazy, to define patriotism only in terms of war; equate it only with those convinced to fight, for reasons they’re made to believe. It’s not their belief that needs questioning: it’s that of those who slap “Support Our Troops” stickers on their cars and trucks, fly flags that say “Behold my patriotism,” coal-roll, vote for tax cuts that deprive veterans of their rightful benefits, and call themselves patriots.

After serving in Vietnam, Memorial Day makes me more angry than sad. Once a year the tears are real; the absence of those who died is eternal. Yet we remain at war, even as phony platitudes and intimations of future wars from a “president” who dodged the draft by fakery expose the day of remembrance as the manipulation it has always been.

My friend, an honorable man who didn’t serve, believes with all his heart. I respect him for that. My anger may be overly self-righteous; but military members aren’t the only Americans protecting our freedom. So are teachers, nurses, housekeepers, factory workers, researchers, parents, climate protestors, plumbers, Social Democrats, the remaining actual conservatives, community organizers. …

But not those keeping us in a state of perpetual war, selling the myth that freedom is the reason.

Email Sid Schwab at columnsid@gmail.com.

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