The Cost of War at the End of an Empire
Picador Publishing recently released a 40th anniversary edition of Philip Caputo's Vietnam masterpiece, A Rumor of War. I was happy to purchase a copy, having read my original copy to tatters some 30 years ago in my ongoing quest to better understand my oft-inscrutable father, and to better understand the war that left such a deep, damaging mark on him.
Caputo's harrowing memoir was one of many dozens I pored through over the years in that endeavor, with limited success. The Vietnam War is everywhere, and nowhere. It touches everything and everyone even all these years later, yet nobody talks about it; Ken Burns made a mighty documentary attempt at opening a conversation on the massive meaning and impact of that war, but his endeavor fell far short by failing to recognize the significance of the war resistance that was, after all these years, proven absolutely right.
When I was a boy, the old men like my grandfather were veterans of World War II or Korea, or both. The sailors wore hats emblazoned with the ships they had served on, the infantrymen marched in the annual parades, and nobody avoided the subject of war around them. This seems strange in retrospect, because the "Good Wars" also involved astonishing acts of carnage committed against civilian populations. They also involved active war resistance, though not at the scale seen in the years to come.
Now that I am a man, the old men are Vietnam veterans, and while we don't flee the topic of the war the way we did 30 years ago, it is best left alone. Old scars still bleed, and the killing fields remain only a nightmare away.
Today, as with every Memorial Day year after year, there are flags. The Boston Common is filled right now with more than 37,000 small US flags, placed there by volunteers to commemorate every Massachusetts soldier killed in battle since the Revolution. Thousands of those flags represent soldiers who died in Vietnam. The fluttering sea of red, white and blue creates an uncommon silence in the heart of the city.
More than 100 soldiers from 93 different Massachusetts towns have died in Iraq and Afghanistan since 2001. Their flags share the Common with their Vietnam forebears, but more than that, they share the vicious fate of having died in wars that should not have been fought. The astonishing Vietnam War memorial in Washington DC should not exist. Should someone finally choose to honor the fallen of the Forever War with a wall of their own, it will be a monument to our gross failure as a society to keep them alive. Should a wall ever be erected honoring the civilians murdered in these wars, it would blot out the sun and stand as brick-and-mortar evidence of crimes against humanity.
When Philip Caputo marched off to war in 1965, he and his fellow soldiers were filled with the missionary zeal imbued by President Kennedy in those years, when the majority of people in this country bought into narratives of US exceptionalism and the moral righteousness of US military hegemony. "For Americans who did not come of age in the early sixties," wrote Caputo in his memoir, "it may be hard to grasp what those years were like -- the pride and overpowering self-assurance that prevailed." It didn't last, of course; the war beat the idealism out of them one long day at a time. "We left Vietnam peculiar creatures," said Caputo, "with young shoulders that bore rather old heads."
It is strange to imagine such idealism today. The Vietnam War lasted 25 years, and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have lasted 27 years with no end in sight -- the Trump administration is wrapping our seemingly eternal involvement in Afghanistan in multiple layers of secrecy -- shattering the lives of millions in the gritty disarray of a military empire in collapse.
It took decades for the country to come to grips with the folly that was Vietnam, but it was abundantly clear that Iraq and Afghanistan were a disastrous fool's errand before the shooting even started. Yet we invaded anyway, and still we remain so many years later, because war is what we do.
It is our principle export, a vital economic engine, the hub to which all the spokes of our rickety national wheel are attached, and it is visibly cracking. You can't steal $6,000,000,000,000 from a country in less than 20 years and fail to make a monstrous impact on the very bones of that society, yet that six trillion is merely loose change compared to what we have squandered on permanent war since 1947.
Every bomb dropped, every missile launched, every bullet fired, every bandage used, every body bag filled represents money that once belonged to all of us but has been transferred to a small group of wealthy war profiteers we will never meet. The theft is generational in scope, and affects everything from the hospital bills we can't afford to the roads too potholed to drive on to the schools without enough teachers and books. The damage done to us all is comprehensive, and that's before we get to the body count.
And so there are the flags of Memorial Day, meant to honor the sacrifice of those who died in the wars. The remaining war survivors in the US are victims of a lethal machine designed to extract maximum profit for as long as possible, as are their brothers and sisters in the cold ground, as are the murdered civilians in Asia and the Middle East, as are we all.
Vietnam, Afghanistan, Iraq … it's all the same war, bolstered by the same profit motive and veiled in the same empty promises. Only the dead -- the fallen US soldiers and those they have killed -- know the true cost of war here at the end of empire. A truly fitting memorial would be a Memorial Day when no new flags are needed, when we have all the dead we can stand and choose not to make more.