My uncle died seven years before I was born. My uncle Patrick also served in Vietnam, and my father volunteered in 1965, but was turned away because of a minor heart defect. I would not say that my family has a long tradition of military service, although two great uncles were at Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, and my grandfather served in Okinawa in 1945.
The enthusiasm of my uncles and my father for the Vietnam War was not shared by my grandparents. My family has been Republican for a very long time. My grandmother came from western North Carolina, which was one of a few Republican strongholds in the South. My grandfather came from Missouri, and all of his brothers, save one, were strong Republicans. My grandparents were patriotic, although not terribly religious, and they deeply loved Ronald Reagan. One day, after taking the Cadillac in for service, they were driven home by Governor Reagan’s driver in Governor Reagan’s Cadillac limousine, a story they never tired of telling.
My grandparents hated Lyndon Baines Johnson. They hated him for domestic reasons, but they also hated his foreign policy, which was about to embroil their sons in Southeast Asia. When Marshall was drafted, they begged him to go to Canada, but he refused, saying that he would never be able to hold his head high if he ran. When they sent him back, he had a bronze star and a purple heart.
Although my uncle died seven years before I was born, he was still a presence in my family as I grew up. His portrait graced one of our walls, as did his medals. My grandmother never fully recovered, although I think she saw me, oddly enough, as some kind of replacement. We visited Marshall’s grave every other month or so, but always on Memorial Day, always on September 19, and always on Veteran’s Day. The local community also felt the loss. Marshall was the only Vietnam War casualty from Folsom, California. They named a softball field after him, and have erected a memorial inside the new city library and named the local dog park in his honor. Years later, when I considered a military career, my grandmother’s objections were adamant. I wasn’t quite enough of a rebel, even then, to do something just because she hated it, and rejected the military for other reasons.
I don’t really have a point. Vietnam created 55000 families and communities with holes in them. Iraq, thus far, has created 1600 families and communities with holes. Both conflicts did far more damage to those we were “saving” than they did to us. These effects have lasted and will echo long after the specific conflicts are over. Soldiers ought to be honored and respected, but their particular duties need to be subject to political debate, rather than nationalist fervor. Policymakers who decide to fight a war for reputation often end up defending their own reputation more than that of their nation. Had the media, the people, and Congress asked the right questions n 1964, my uncle might not have been in Vietnam in 1967. Something to think about.