PARTING SHOT SOMEONE ELSE’S WAR

The guys on the radio were talking tough. if they use chemical weapons, one guy said, we’ve got to hit ’em hard. Can’t let em get away with that. We’ve got to take it to the homeland.

Take it to the homeland. It sounded so easy. Whistle up a squadron of B-52s, if we’ve got one left, and make a barbecue pit of downtown Baghdad. Simple as that.

I’ve started this column several times-after the Russians shot down KAL 007, after the Chinese troops crushed the students in Tiananmen Square, after other crises. Each time I put it away, knowing it would be hard to write and easy to misunderstand. But it won’t stay put away. Every time there’s a flashpoint that could involve American soldiers, I find myself thinking some of the same warlike thoughts as the tough guys on the radio: kill em all, let God sort ’em out.

And therein lies the problem, for me and many men who were middle-class baby boomers during the Vietnam War. My point here is not that the saber-rattlers disgust me, or that I have some philosophy about war that makes me superior to them. Not at all. The truth is, I agree with a lot of what I hear from the talk show generals.

You see, I can rattle those sabers with the best of them. After Saddam Hussein threatened to place foreign hostages in weapons plants and other strategic locations to be used as “human shields.” I heard myself telling my wife one morning that we should take out an Iraqi city for every American killed. One person, one city. Simple as that.

In my heart, at least for that moment, I had neatly solved the thorny problem of the hostages. Apparently I had decided that they were soldiers in the battlefield, just as if they had enlisted. It was too bad what had happened to them. But we could not let ourselves be paralyzed by their plight. If they were killed.. .well, this was war, or whatever you call it when people are getting killed before war has been declared.

Of course it’s possible to take a cooler, more critical view of the Middle East venture. Of course the Americans caught behind enemy lines are not honorary soldiers. They’re civilians who went to Kuwait or Iraq to make profits, not war. Second, where were our contingency plans for just such a crisis? Our civilians have been working in a bear trap that was bound to slam shut sooner or later. Third, what is really in the nation’s vital interests? There is something strange about sending young men to die for cheap gasoline. As a nation we should be much closer to weaning ourselves away from dependence on foreign oil-from any oil, for that matter, since it is a very short-term solution to our energy needs. History will likely note that the casus belli of 1990 was a vanishing fossil fuel that may not even be a factor by the year 2020.

This kind of thinking suits me more than bloody rhetoric. All that said, however, I believe we were right to send troops to the Persian Gulf. Saddam Hussein is a certified menace to civilization, right up there with the Ayatollah and Gadhafi. He’s not as drunk on God as the Ayatollah, but he’s sure not above trying to dignify his thievery by issuing more of those boringly frequent calls for another holy war against the Great Satan, America. Too many of the Middle Eastern societies are run by mullahs and zealots who tend to confuse a very earthly desire (like glomming onto Kuwaiti wealth, or silencing pesky novelists) with the divine will. A barbarian is one thing. A barbarian who thinks he has a private pipeline to God is an altogether more dangerous creature.

So I’d love to do some unabashed flag-waving right now, just as I want to do every time some dictator or international outlaw pulls Uncle Sam’s beard. But when I start to wave the bloody flag, this nagging voice in my head takes most of the fun out of my patriotic gore.

The problem is summed up in the old question, “What did you do in the war. Daddy?” For millions in my generation, the answer is, nothing. I was prime draft age during the peak years of the Vietnam War, but I don’t remember holding any burning convictions about the war. According to the Sixties myth of song and story, every draft age male was “galvanized” by Vietnam or spent those years in tortured soul-searching. Reading about it now, you’d think everyone was either a Green Beret or a protest leader. Far be it from me to accuse some of my co-generationtsts of retrospectively inflating their political awareness, but on the issue of Vietnam, mine was so low as to be nonexistent.

Whatever beliefs I had one way or the other, they weren’t very strong. I didn’t join the Army, or puncture my eardrums, or hitchhike to Canada, or hedge my bets in the National Guard. I just drifted along through college, shielded by a student deferment system that would not have existed had the country been fully committed to the war. But it did exist, and it granted thousands of middle-class kids the luxury of preparing for nice careers while regarding Vietnam as someone else’s war. When I left school for a year and was immediately slapped with a 1-A, you’re-next classification, it looked as though I would have to decide something. But the call never came, not even for a physical. Maybe some file clerk spilled a mug of coffee on my folder and just quietly dumped it in the garbage, figuring there were plenty more kids out there. The following year I drew 245 in the lottery, putting me out of reach for the duration.

It’s an old story, getting more militaristic as you get further from military age. If you’re a veteran, you’ve earned your opinions about the current crisis. If you’re a true pacifist, opposing all wars, at least you’re consistent. And if you believed that Vietnam was immoral (and therefore you couldn’t fight) but the Middle East is, uh, different (so younger people can fight), you may have a defensible-if slippery-position.

Those of us who took the easy way out should be wary of belatedly enlisting as armchair generals in the talk show brigade. We can support our soldiers and pray for their safe return, but haven’t we forfeited the right to rattle sabers without hypocrisy? There are, I believe, just wars, and this may be one of them, but surely we should pay some price ourselves before we are so free with the blood of others.

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