I was the officer of the day at Camp Hansen, Okinawa, a stopover for Marines coming from and going to Vietnam. I was going. Since I was junior, I pulled the duty.
I was to supervise the movie in the enlisted men's club, referred to as “Dodge City” because of the debauchery at Hansen.
I pulled my pistol and fired a round into the ceiling. I didn't understand their reaction to the movie's scene. In retrospect, I think how easy it was to say, “Send the Marines.” The guys throwing the beer bottles were veterans of Khe Sanh, Hue and Tet. They did the bleeding the previous year.
Recalling that memory, I think of today's crisis in Syria, to bomb or not to bomb. I think of the president and the armchair generals who are screaming punishment but implying vengeance. Older men declare war, but it is youth who fight it. I hear the rationalization of why we must bomb. Hezbollah! Israel! Chemical weapons! Assad! Russia! Iran! We can't show weakness, we're told. But what did we do to Saddam when he gassed the Kurds in the 1980s? Nothing.
I don't know the solution. But I do know what happens on the ground when you do send the Marines. The novel I'm working on is a study of the human cost of war seen through the eyes of characters Seamus O'Grady and Elijah Bravo. They witness the cost of war and realize Ophelia Hawkins, the girl back home, was right when she said there is no glory in dying for your country.
It's easy to send missiles and put boots on the ground. But before we send the Marines, we should think of the human cost. It's not defined by a statistic citing the number of troops killed during a certain week. It's the body bags neatly aligned after a senseless mission. On June 27, 1969, Life magazine published “Faces of American Dead in Vietnam: One Week's Toll,” featuring 242 portraits of soldiers killed, stories about their lives and how they died. That's the human cost. Please Google that title, find the piece, read it, and tell me what you think.
The president makes his case to Congress and Congress debates, and then votes. Keep force on the table, we're told. But force is not a policy, it's a substitute for a policy. We're told we have a moral obligation to act. Where was that moral obligation in Benghazi? It's ironic when you consider that the president got the Nobel Peace Prize. He said, “I was elected to end wars, not to start them.” We're still in Afghanistan! Nixon said he'd end the war in Vietnam, but by the time he did, 21,189 more Americans were killed.
Countless justifications for war came from Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon. Deceit, corruption and misplaced values got us into Vietnam. I'm sorry, but I don't believe the administration. I don't believe their reasoning, their interpretations, and their understanding of history. I have no faith in their capacity to lead us. It's easy to start a war but it's difficult to finish one. Sending Americans to fight another war in the Middle East would be a disaster. Military operations have untold consequences.
It's been 43 years since I berated those two Marines for causing the riot in the enlisted men's club.
“Why did you do it?” I asked.
“Sir, you're a boot lieutenant and you don't get it,” they said.
But I didn't stay a boot for long, and eventually I got it.
JOE PUGLIA is a practicing counselor, a retired professor of education and a former officer in the Marines. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Visit his website at doctorjoe.us.