Most soldiers die in vain

May 29, 2002 at 12:00 am

You may have noticed that mail wasn’t delivered and the schools were closed Monday, which was Memorial Day. That’s a day, some of us vaguely remember, when people wear paper poppies and put flowers on soldiers’ graves or something like that.

Time was, back in the 1960s and before, when Memorial Day was May 30, regardless of the day of the week. The Indianapolis 500 was held the same day, which may have caused some gearheads to think the concept commemorated those drivers who, like Eddie Sachs in 1964, hit the wall and were cremated in their flying fuel tanks.

But it really is supposed to be about our soldiers, all American soldiers, who died fighting in any of our wars. There have been, by my count, at least 651,957 of these, from the Declaration of Independence to the Gulf War.

They died for many reasons in many places; another 430,288 soldiers died of other causes during our various wars — everything from bar fights to influenza. Many of the sacred dead actually thought they were fighting to make the world safe for democracy.

Congress, however, decided in 1968 that our soldiers really fought and died so federal employees could have another three-day weekend. After that, Memorial Day, which dates back to the Civil War, became a portable holiday and was rapidly converted from a day of remembrance to a day of barbecues and drives back from up North.

Even so, there are those who remember what Memorial Day was. This year, for the first time since Vietnam, the day found us in a sort of ersatz war. Worse, it was an election year, which gave all sorts of politicians, starting with our draft-dodger president, an excuse to say sanctimonious things about sacrifice.

They vowed that our men fighting in Afghanistan will ensure that the 3,000 people incinerated Sept. 11 won’t have died in vain, blah, blah, blah.

Well, maybe. But here’s the dirty secret no one talks about: Most wars are fought in vain. Most soldiers’ deaths are not worth it. Had I not been hiding in college I probably would have been sent to Vietnam, where, given my abilities, I likely would have been converted into meat paste right quick. Two of my high school classmates were.

And they died for nothing. Let’s not forget — ever — that more than 58,000 Americans died in Vietnam, and died for nothing at all. Our worst fears came true. The communists won; they unified ’Nam, and today we have diplomatic relations with them. We sell them Pepsi; they offer packaged war-nostalgia vacation tours.

But wasn’t World War II necessary? Yes, probably. But any historian will tell you that World War II was only because the world screwed up the peace settlement after World War I, the most unnecessary and horrible war in history. The world wars actually were the same war, with a two-decade time-out needed to grow more cannon fodder.

Since Vietnam, we have fought mostly comic-opera wars, against enemies like Manuel Noriega, the pock-faced Panamanian pretender. I have no idea whether the parents of the 18 kids who died liberating the postage stamp called Grenada think their deaths were worth it. We “won” the Gulf War and were able to replace the emir of Kuwait’s gold bathroom fixtures for only 148 lives ... but then, we did need the oil.

Now we are fighting a “war” against a shadowy enemy called al Qaeda, which isn’t a country and has no clearly defined aims or goals. Nor do we know how to stop it or end it or even make peace with whatever al Qaeda is.

We get almost daily semihysterical warnings claiming that new terrorist attacks are imminent (the Statue of Liberty was the latest object of fear) or that suicide bombings are just around the corner. But the attacks never seem to come; much of the public tuned out long ago, many correctly assuming the government was engaging in major-league ass-covering, in case something did happen.

Knowing what we should do about all this is not easy. Back during Vietnam, the answer was simple, clean and crystal clear: Get the hell out of these people’s civil war.

Knowing what to do now is much harder. There are no clearly defined good guys. It is fashionable to blame Israel, but the Palestinians are no freedom sensations, either. Yasser Arafat could have had a settlement that would have given him a state and most of what he wanted, but he chose to start the present bloody mess instead.

Where we go now isn’t clear. George Bush is off whipping up other nations, possibly for a coming ground war against Iraq. “As an alliance, we must continue to fight against global terror. We’ve got to be tough.’’

Thanks, macho man. Saddam is a bad guy. But do we really know what good a major war against his country would do? Have we thought of how many people, or since we don’t really care about the wogs, how many of our boys might die?

The scariest thing is that the warmongers can probably get away with it. Those who protested Vietnam had a powerful incentive: They or their boyfriends could very well get drafted and sent off to die. Then Richard Nixon was smart enough to figure out that if he ended the draft, the protests would stop. Stock an army with poor hillbilly kids, blacks and brothers from the barrio, and the campuses won’t care. Right?

Somehow, I think the best memorial to all those dead boys of my generation, and your kids too, born or unborn, would be if you, me, all of us tried to stop it. I knew some of those guys under the grass. None of them gave a damn about paper poppies anyway.

Jack Lessenberry opines weekly for Metro Times. E-mail [email protected]