Mar 12, 2014
We ‘Support’ the Troops by Burdening Them More
Posted on Dec 2, 2009
By T.L. Caswell
For a few paragraphs, simple labels will do: Soldier No. 1 and Soldier No. 2.
Besides serving in the wartime military, they didn’t appear at first glance to have been much alike. They were born in dramatically disparate cultural eras, Soldier No. 1 amid World War II home-front anxiety and rationing, Soldier No. 2 in a time of hippies and free living, during the Summer of Love.
No. 1 was reared on the country’s southeastern jut, in Miami, and No. 2 grew up on its western rim, in South Pasadena, Calif. Atlantic boy, Pacific boy.
No. 1 was a junior college dropout; No. 2—who had been a high school football team captain and a surfer—won a degree after majoring in criminal justice at Cal State Long Beach and later was a graduate student.
The first ended up in a store where customers were urged to consider the attractive features of wristwatches and rings. The second had a less cooperative and rougher-hewn clientele: He walked the thin blue line, a member of the Los Angeles Police Department.
But whatever their differences, in the end they had a terrible element in common, which we shall soon see. The lives of both were marked by deep calamity, and their tragedies—shaped by a monumental national force—deserve retelling for the lessons they hold for Americans singly and as a people. Especially in view of Barack Obama’s announcement Tuesday of a major escalation in the Afghanistan war.
A seemingly enlightened president, with the apparent acquiescence of much of Congress and, yes, the voters, has chosen to hurl more lives into the maw of warfare. Of course, Obama’s approach to the Afghanistan issue has been known since the presidential campaign, when the Illinois senator made clear that he thought military emphasis needed to be moved to that nation. Still, the decision is a grating disappointment to those who had hoped that Obama would shift his view after it became clear to him in the Oval Office that U.S. military participation in the Afghanistan conflict is elective and not vital to our interests.
There’s no need here to deal much with why it was not necessary or wise for the United States to invade Iraq and Afghanistan. Countless articles have been written on the subject: the absence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, the lack of a connection of Iraq to 9/11, the historical inability of invaders to conquer Afghanistan, the illogic of invading a nation because a cell of religious zealots carried out a despicable crime in our country, etc.
Soldier No. 1 and Soldier No. 2 stand here not so much as individuals but as symbols, reflecting what our national policies have done to harm scores of thousands of young and not so young Americans. Their cases are instructive and can direct light onto the human consequences of sending troops across seas to fight unnecessarily. Let’s look at what happened to two of our warriors.
* * *
Soldier No. 1: The Cries for Mercy Still Echo
Last summer, a man on the cusp of old age said he was sorry for something he did long ago. Normally, such a declaration doesn’t extend past the hearing of an aggrieved wife or an adult offspring with a wounded past, but in this case there were ripples that reached across the nation and even into foreign countries.
The Associated Press and other major news conduits didn’t latch on to the story immediately, so the information took a couple of days to spread widely out of Columbus, Ga., a city of 190,000 that doesn’t often attract the attention of the big media.
The unlikely news scene was a meeting of the Kiwanis Club of Greater Columbus. No members of the professional press were there to hear the invited guest who addressed the volunteer organization that day: a 66-year-old Atlanta resident named William Calley.
William Calley. For Americans of a certain age, the name sets off a firecracker in the brain, an explosion of memories of one of the most notorious criminals of the 20th century.
Apologists will passionately object to that characterization of Calley, but it’s accurate. A criminal: convicted as a mass murderer and given a life sentence at hard labor at a 1971 Army court-martial. Notorious: many millions of words spoken or written in reaction to disclosures that left the nation sick with revulsion.
(Although Internet and print sources have thousands of references to Calley’s “pardon” by Richard Nixon, according to my reading of the case the then-president never took any such action, although he did intervene otherwise; Calley’s criminal conviction was never expunged.)
Calley was infamous enough to provoke a damning reference in a protest song written by the legendary Pete Seeger, “Last Train to Nuremberg,” and to inspire a heroic portrayal in “The Battle Hymn of Lt. Calley”—a spoken song, set to the tune of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic”(!), that penetrated the top 50 on Billboard’s Hot 100 and Hot Country Singles. Hot indeed, our Mr. Calley.
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