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Wednesday, September 10, 2003
Reflections on Veterans Day, 2002
By Mackubin Thomas Owens
Posted November 11, 2002
Master Gunnery Sergeant Rogers was one of the most remarkable Marines with whom I ever had the honor to serve. He was a "Montford Point Marine," named after the base in North Carolina where African-Americans who enlisted during World War II and served in all-black units in the segregated Marine Corps of the era, mostly in combat service support jobs, were trained. One of his first assignments was to help transport the bodies of dead Marines back across the beaches of Okinawa during the ferocious battle for that island in 1945. As distasteful as his early experiences may have been, he persevered, the Marines were the first service to integrate in the early 1950s, and Master Gunny Rogers had a long and distinguished career in the Marine Corps, lasting well into the 1970s.
If Master Gunny Rogers was bitter about his early years in the Corps, he never said so. What he did say is pertinent to the observation of Veterans Day: "There is nothing sweeter than to be an old man who has fought for his country." Indeed, the original Latin meaning of "veteran" is the "old ones," the old soldier of long service. One thinks of the old Roman legionnaires, or Napoleon's Old Guard.
In the United States Veterans Day honors all who served — not just the long-term soldiers, but the two-year draftees of the Cold War era, not just those who died in wartime (Memorial Day), but those who served in peacetime or who fought and survived, not just the minority of servicemen who saw combat, but the vast majority of the armed forces who provided them with the support necessary for them to succeed.
Today when we think of veterans, we often have in mind the "greatest generation," the soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines who fought World War II and who now are passing rapidly from the scene. Their story has been told by historians like the late Stephen Ambrose and in innumerable films, from Guadalcanal Diary to Saving Private Ryan. They have, especially in recent times, been the object of particular affection.
Those who fought in Vietnam have not fared as well. This is largely because those who shape popular culture today are often those who avoided service in Vietnam, and transferred their loathing for the Vietnam War to those who fought it.
According to the conventional wisdom passed down from the anti-war left of the '60s and '70s and absorbed by the shapers of the popular culture, the Vietnam War was uniquely unjust and brutalized those who fought it. At first vilified by the anti-war left as a war criminal and a baby-killer, the Vietnam veteran soon evolved into a victim — victimized first by his country, which made him poor and then sent him off to fight an unjust war, then victimized by a military that dehumanized him and turned him into a killer.
James Webb, the best-selling novelist who was awarded a Navy Cross for valor in Vietnam as a Marine infantry officer and who served as Secretary of the Navy during the Reagan administration, has pointed out that the largely negative view of the Vietnam veteran comes from the same Baby Boomers who are big boosters of the "greatest generation." The irony is that those who fought in Vietnam did so because they looked to the World War II generation as, in Webb's words, "their heroes and role models. They honored their fathers' service by emulating it, and they largely agreed with their fathers' wisdom in attempting to stop Communism's reach in Southeast Asia."
As Mr. Webb points out, those who came of age during the Vietnam War differed from their parents in that they were not members of a unified generation but merely an age group. Despite the fact that nothing divided this age group more than the war, the media and the academy anointed those who opposed the war as spokesmen for the Baby-Boomers as a whole. But they never spoke for all. As Webb notes, "The sizeable portion of the Vietnam age group who declined to support the counter-culture agenda, and especially the men and women who opted to serve in the military during the Vietnam War, are quite different from their peers who for decades have claimed to speak for them."
The point of course is not to denigrate the unparalleled accomplishments of those who fought and won World War II. It is to remind Americans that Veterans Day is inclusive. It ought to honor all veterans. The fact remains that while different people join the service for different reasons, all are equally subject to long, arduous, and often hazardous duty.
American veterans would do well to remember the Saint Crispin's Day speech of Shakespeare's Henry V.
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he to-day that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother; be he ne'er so vile,
This day shall gentle his condition;
And gentlemen in England now-a-bed
Shall think themselves accurs'd they were not here,
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin's day.
And they should remember the timeless wisdom of Master Gunnery Sergeant Rogers.
* Owens on Veterans' Day, from Precepts