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The 50th anniversary celebration of the James Bond movie legacy was an Oscar’s highlight to me, personified by Shirley Bassey, still sultry in her 70s, and her powerful rendition of Goldfinger, emblematic of the Bond series and of an era when the power of gold still shone.
I wrote an essay rooted in those times, “All that Glitters,” which captures my own rendezvous with the gold vault at Fort Knox and the empty promises its symbolism held for me. You can find my essay by searching at http://www.chitlit.org for the title. Below is an excerpt:
“It was a cold late October night, four years later, as I hopped off the back of a military truck, my M14 rifle was handed down, and I reported for guard duty, marching the muddy perimeter fence at a mysterious place, the fabled United States Bullion Depository at Fort Knox.
“A few months before, I’d completed my degree in journalism, at Bradley University. As I trudged shivering along the barbed wire-topped fence surrounding the dimly lit vault building, 50 yards over my shoulder, I could barely imagine how my own path had brought me to this odd place.
“Absentmindedly, I wondered if the inside of the nearby vault looked anything like it had been portrayed in the newest James Bond film, Goldfinger, filmed right here at Fort Knox just the year before? And, were there still mountains of 27-pound solid gold bars, some 4,600 tons worth, stacked only yards from my humble guard path, or had those billions long since been trucked away and dissipated into the world’s coffers, as had been rumored? I wondered what was true, and what was just illusion. I was so far from any answers.
“In another seven months, I’d leave Fort Knox, bringing along two very small gold bars of my own — worn on my shoulders. My little war story had begun.”
Memorial Day is always a mixed bag for me. I do weep for those who served and suffered. But most of them were followers, even the officers, of political leaders who had made life and death decisions on their behalf, sometimes for very bad reasons. Of late, especially since Vietnam, those reasons have been somewhere on the scale between questionable and dead wrong.
When we had the draft, in the Vietnam era, one could have great compassion for the young who sacrificed their options in life to serve their country when called. Even those who dodged service gave up option then. Since the end of the draft, many who have served have done so just to get a job and some training that was not otherwise readily available for them. We can have sympathy for them that they made such a Hobson’s choice.
Today, as we honor those who served, and especially those who suffered and died in place of ourselves, and as we remember their families, we might best respect their loyalty to their nation by questioning the motives and the thinking of those who are our political leaders today, as to their military strategies. Do these strategies justify the continued use of our military might, and are the American people being served well by these strategies and the people behind them?
The loyalties and sacrifices of generations of Americans who have served and supported the military are best served, I believe, by an engaged, questioning, demanding public, that holds our leadership accountable for their strategies and decisions, and speaks out boldly on behalf of those who have served, are serving and those yet to be called.
America has too often been a nation of Forest Gumps, being led to the slaughter by cynical, distant leaders. Memorial Day should be about honoring those who serve by questioning those who lead. It’s not just about memories, but accountability. For a personal story about questioning and service, see my essay, “All That Glitters,” as presented to the Chicago Literary Club. http://www.chilit.org/Papers%20by%20author/Ebeling%20–%20All%20That%20Glitters.htm
I’ve been sadly reminded twice this week of political refrains that echo extremes of reaction during the Vietnam era.
Conservative political leaders have reacted negatively to the “Occupy” movement, and what I’d characterize as the excessive “police state’ enforcement in ways that remind me of the “hippie bashing” that became widespread regarding those who openly organized to oppose the Vietnam War. Of course back then, it wasn’t just the Republicans who went too far in restricting First Amendment rights of protestors — Mayor Daly’s over-reaction to demonstrators during the Democratic National Convention in Chicago was one such disgusting example.
The other conservative comment I found so evocative was in the national security Republican debate last night, when one candidate criticized the idea that the U.S. should withdraw from the Afghanistan War, after 10 years, as a “cut and run” strategy. We heard that from the politicians in the late 60s, and the Vietnam war went on until 1975, with 55 thousand American deaths.
Is there no sense of history in our leadership? Is there any sense at all?
Of the 2.59 million U.S. soldiers, sailors, Marines and Air Force people who served in Vietnam, the biggest lament of many is that the U.S. seemingly learned nothing from the experience, other than how to isolate the majority of the American people (the 99%) from direct involvement in the horrors of warfare, giving political and military/industrial leaders more free rein in pursuit of military adventures.
I recently wrote a memoir about my experiences during the Vietnam War, in the late 60s, and after thinking about President Obama’s speech last night on his strategy on getting out of Afghanistan, I realize again that we didn’t learn a thing from the Vietnam debacle. Cynical political calculations by Richard Nixon scuttled the Paris Peace talks in the fall of 1968, as revealed in recently released Presidential papers of then outgoing President Johnson (see Wikipedia under Vietnam War).
Candidate Nixon, with Henry Kissinger and Anna Chennault as messenger, told the South Vietnamese that they would get a better deal in the peace talks under a Republican administration than under the Democrats. Johnson found out, and wanted to expose Nixon as a traitor, but was advised that such an accusation could be socially destabilizing, so he didn’t. The result: Vietnam did not get settled under Democratic watch, and the U.S. proceeded to lose another 20,000 troops (plus a million Asians) before the Vietnam War was finally ended in 1975.
Lesson: Pulling just 33,000 U.S. troops by September, 2012, a month before the election, is another such cynical political calculation, designed to leave enough troops there (70,000) so that Afghanistan will not descend into chaos, as it likely will do, if the troops were mostly removed before the election, embarrassing the Obama administration with a lost war on its watch.
Sound like Vietnam 1968 all over again? The economic loss, and the loss in lives, will be the test.
Following is an except of an essay I’m writing on my experiences during the Vietnam War era:
“The confluence of my coming to adulthood, influenced by world affairs in the late 60s, and so much of my subsequent life, seem to all stem from events around that cataclysm which history now knows as the Vietnam War. Similar personal stories surely grow out of the current debacles in Iraq and Afghanistan, as they did from the Korean War, and other breakdowns of civilization through all of human history.
“As an adult touching old age, I now look at war as the most abominable form of wholesale natural selection, and I’m bitter that the politicians and counselors who commit us to our wars almost universally remain exempt from real personal consequences of their decisions, besides obligatory consolation of the bereaved and being the recipients of abusive rantings in the blogosphere. Instead, those “brave” leaders invariably commit a generation of excitable youth to be the proxies for their own complex, bruised egos, and plots to secure needed oil inventories and pressures to sustain the military/industrial complex. The young warriors lead the way with their own deaths and personal and family sacrifices, while the nation’s leadership continues to politic, govern, prosper and then move on to honored, gracefully reflective retirements, often discussing their “difficult” decisions in their memoirs and in endless book tours.”
A peaceful Memorial Day to all.
Imagine that a far right or far left or other faction in the U.S. were to actively attack their own government (for example, if the union protests in Madison had gotten out of hand and escalated in violence, resulting in a crazed governor ordering State Police and State Reserve forces to push back protestors, with injuries and some deaths). Then, China sits down and decides this is unacceptable, and drafts a U.N. order that commands the “allies,” in this case the military of China, Cuba and Libya to respond by enforcing a no-fly zone in Southern Wisconsin to prevent the government from further attacking and suppressing its protesting citizens. How would we, the people, feel about these violent assaults by foreign nations against the sovereign U.S. government, even if our government was wrong and had made big mistakes (what’s new)?
A crazy and totally inappropriate analogy, you say. It could never happen. Sure. But put your shoe on the other foot.
But how would you, as an American citizen loyal to your government, feel about such bombing and strafing of U.S. forces by China, Cuba and Libya? Of course, as Americans living in the real world, we are well prepared to determine how Libya should be organized and led politically, and we are more than willing to send our sons and daughters to die to make Libya conform to our vision. Right?
See my previous blog post, “Leave Libya alone.” I hope upcoming events prove me to be wrong in my cynical view of our foreign policy decisions regarding Libya, but our U.S. track record in such things is not very strong. P.S. I served in Vietnam.
All the rumblings regarding intercession in Libya have me deeply concerned. Creating a so-called “no fly zone” strikes me as equivalent to a declaration of war. All this talk of coordination with our “allies” is reminiscent of our conversations at the beginning of the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts, and of course, it was the U.S. that was really out front and accountable for what happened. We can disapprove of internal issues in Libya, provide humanitarian support, act as diplomatic intermediaries, and exert influence over Libyan assets abroad. But militarily, if we don’t learn from our mistakes of the past years, and stay out of their country, we should just fold our own tent and disappear into the desert, along with the Roman legions.
To die for an idea; it is unquestionably noble. But how much nobler it would be if men died for ideas that were true!
H. L. Mencken