Yesterday I attended a funeral for a friend’s mother at Arlington National Cemetery. During the service, my eyes focused on three nearby gravestones — a Lt. Colonel, a 1st Lieutenant, and a captain. The inscriptions on the gravestones stated that all three had served in Iraq and Afghanistan and that all three had died in 2011. I noticed that the captain died at the age of 30.
All I could think was: What a horrible waste of life. Three lives shortened, needlessly. All three, dying for nothing.
It was the captain’s gravestone that hit me the hardest. Inscribed near the bottom of that gravestone were three letters: “VMI.”
During my first year at Virginia Military Institute (VMI), I became accustomed to those times during evening meals when an upperclassman would take the microphone and make some sort of special announcement. I don’t recall exactly what he would say but whatever it was, everyone knew what it meant and a hush would immediately sweep across the mess hall. He would then announce something like, “Attention to orders. 10 December 1968. Lt. Smith, J.S., VMI class of 1966, killed in action this day, Republic of Vietnam.”
When I arrived at VMI in 1968, the Vietnam War was in full swing. I believed the government’s pronouncements and trusted the judgments of U.S. officials. I really believed that U.S. troops were fighting to protect our rights and freedoms here at home. I really believed that without the U.S. intervention in Vietnam, the dominoes would start falling and the communists would soon be taking over our nation.
In other words, I believed all the government claptrap and propaganda that the young men and women who enter VMI today undoubtedly believe — that without the invasions and occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan — without a vast overseas military empire encompassing hundreds of military bases all over the world — without the U.S. Empire policing the world, al-Qaeda or some other group of terrorists would soon be taking over the United States.
I continued to believe the claptrap and propaganda until my junior year at VMI. I don’t recall any particular event that caused me to break through the lies and propaganda but at some point, I realized that it was all just a bunch of bull. I realized that VMI grads and others were dying (and killing) for nothing. The dominoes weren’t going to fall. Communism wasn’t going to absorb the United States. Americans weren’t going to lose their freedom if South Vietnam fell to the North. I realized that in fact, Americans were increasingly losing their freedom to their own government, owing to the war itself.
I wasn’t the only one. I’d estimate that at least 30-40 percent of the VMI corps of cadets, and maybe even more, had achieved the same breakthrough I had by the time of the 1970-71 school year.
The VMI administration was obviously not pleased with those who were questioning the war. After all, genuine red-blooded American patriots were supposed to support America, which meant supporting the troops, the government, and the war effort. Everyone knew that people who opposed the war were nothing but a bunch of no-good leftists, socialists, or communists — i.e., people who needed to be spied upon and monitored by the FBI.
During my sophomore year, a group of cadets submitted a formal request to the VMI administration to attend an anti-war rally at Washington and Lee University, which was situated next door to VMI. Big anti-war leftist radicals like Jerry Rubin were scheduled to speak at the rally..
To everyone’s amazement, the administration granted the petition. However, the administration prohibited cadets from wearing their uniform to the rally, which was somewhat amusing given that VMI regulations prohibited VMI cadets from wearing civilian clothes in town.
When the cadets returned from the rally, the administration hit them with a surprise inspection, at which they were determined to be guilty of having “long hair,” for which they were penalized them with demerits. Of course, “long hair” was one of those subjective and relative offenses listed in the VMI Blue Book of regulations, given that everyone at VMI was required to keep his hair short all the time.
I’m sure that the VMI administration was totally befuddled and not very pleased over the fact that a large segment of the student body was turning against the war. After all, since everyone lived in the VMI barracks, they had control over us 24 hours a day. Yet, here were an increasing number of students who were arriving at conclusions about the war that were diametrically opposed to the official government position (which was the VMI administration’s position) on the war. Even worse, our views on the war were aligning with those of liberals, leftists, socialists, and communists!
Unfortunately, the administration could not step back and appreciate what actually was happening: VMI was producing independent-minded students who were refusing to be taken in by government propaganda and lies — students who were unafraid to critically analyze government policy and take a stand against it when they concluded that it violated correct principles or individual conscience. To me, that’s something that a school should be proud of.
Undoubtedly, many of the 58,178 men who died in Vietnam believed that they were dying for a noble cause. But they didn’t. They died for nothing. The North Vietnamese won the war and reunited the country. The dominoes did not fall. The United States did not fall to the communists. Today, the Vietnamese people are still suffering under communism but no one is calling for a war to free them. The United States and the communist regime in Vietnam have friendly relations with each other. The result would have been the same without the deaths of all those American troops.
It’s no different with Iraq and Afghanistan. There was never any danger of the United States falling to Saddam Hussein, the Taliban, al-Qaeda, the terrorists, or anyone else. All the invasions and occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan have accomplished is to make things worse, not better, for the American people.
Enough is enough. The only genuine way to support the troops is not by cheering for them in Iraq and Afghanistan but instead by pulling them out and bringing them home, just like we did with Vietnam. We don’t need any more gravestones like the ones I saw yesterday in Arlington National Cemetery.