The earliest photograph I have of my father is actually a picture of a framed photograph of him kept on top of the television console. The photo was taken while he was serving one of two tours of duty in Vietnam. I can’t pinpoint my earliest memory of my father as a living, breathing presence in my life as he was largely absent the first few years I was alive, having been sent to by the government to scout the jungles of Southeast Asia. Most of my childhood memories associated with my father are linked to airports and the anxious heartache of departure or the relieved tears of a safe return home.
Even when my father was stationed stateside I was left living with my grandparents. This was the result of strange family dynamics that to this day I do not understand. I can’t say that I know my father the way a son should know his dad. I love him and respect him for what he has accomplished. He retired as a Sergeant Major, the highest rank an enlisted soldier can achieve. Not only did he serve two terms in Vietnam, but he also participated in the first Gulf War. He currently teaches Jr. ROTC at a high school just outside of Phoenix.
Given the distance between us, it should not be surprising that I did not follow in his footsteps although at one time I was encouraged to do so. In fact, I’ve had to reconcile what my father does for a living which goes against my own value system. I do not like seeing the military in our high schools, yet I know my father has done a lot of good. Whenever I visit I can count on my dad running into one of his former cadets while we’re out at the store or at dinner. I can tell they respect and like him. My dad always did have a way with kids even if he was kept alienated from his own son.
It is not so controversial now to say the war in Vietnam was a mistake, especially since we now know that like the second war in Iraq decades later, we entered under false pretenses. The Gulf of Tonkin incident was as fabricated as Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction. Yet something changed in American rhetoric between these two wars, around the time of the first Gulf War, and that is the meme of “supporting the troops.”
I think this began as a mantra intended to insulate our troops from the kind of venom and bile they received upon their homecoming from Vietnam. On one level, I agree. I support the troops in the sense that I do not want to see harm come to them. I believe that as a country we have a moral responsibility to never send them in harm’s way unless all other alternatives have been depleted and there is no other, and I mean absolutely no other, option available. Whenever war is on the table, and it seems that it always is in America, I ask the question if I would be willing to see my father participate in yet another battle. I also think of all those children who will only know their fathers or mothers through framed photos, never having the gift of knowing them for real, sacrificing that for the nation’s glory.
All too often, and by this I mean nearly always, the “I support the troops” meme is confused to often with support for the war. It is intended to silence criticism of sending our soldiers into combat. The ugly truth though is that we do not support our troops.
Bumper stickers and Facebook shares are empty words and gestures. If we actually did support the troops, one out of every four homeless persons would not be a veteran. If we supported our troops, there would not be an epidemic of suicides amongst those returning from Iraq and Afghanistan. According to recent reporting in the New York Times, a veteran commits suicide every 80 minutes. The Times called this the nation’s shame and I couldn’t agree more.
Like any steady drum beat, the drum beat of war is designed to put the nation into a trance where critical thought is replaced by a nationalistic fervor. We do not stop to think of the blood sacrifice required for American imperialism, or the lives given so that we can continue an economy predicated on fossil fuels. Think about that. Any time you purchase another product made of plastic or eat food that was transported thousands of miles or grown using petro-chemicals, you are not supporting the troops. In fact, you are ensuring that they will continue to be used, abused and forgotten.