This week has been one of mixed emotions for me. Monday, of course, was Veterans Day. My heart warmed to see the many expressions of gratitude being poured out to today’s veterans. The “thank you for your services” filled the television and computer screens. This is as it should be. The young men and women who fight our country’s wars today do so by choice. They risk their lives daily for our protection, and the whole country should be grateful.
But Veteran’s Day also brought reminders of the war in which I participated—the one in Vietnam. An article in the Washington Post eloquently related the long struggle of the women who nurtured our wounded soldiers in that conflict to obtain recognition at the Vietnam Memorial. A quote from one of the women released memories I had tried to suppress, “We were bitter and angry about how the country treated the Vietnam generation.” It was bad enough that the young men, mostly conscripted against their will, who fought in Southeast Asia were branded “war criminals” and “baby killers” by the antiwar movement. How could they have been so petty and small-minded as to throw the same epithets at women who devoted exhaustive hours to saving the lives of our wounded soldiers?
Many of us who served in Vietnam considered ourselves the “Tommy Atkins” generation. For those of you who have not read Rudyard Kipling’s classic lament of Victorian soldiers, here’s a little background. Tommy Atkins was the phrase Brits use in place of our “G I Joe.” Here’s a sample:
I went into a public-'ouse to get a pint o' beer,
The publican 'e up an' sez, "We serve no red-coats here.
" The girls be'ind the bar they laughed an' giggled fit to die,
I outs into the street again an' to myself sez I:
O it's Tommy this, an' Tommy that, an' "Tommy, go away";
But it's "Thank you, Mister Atkins", when the band begins to play,
The band begins to play, my boys, the band begins to play,
O it's "Thank you, Mister Atkins", when the band begins to play.”
The poem goes on through several verses describing the indignities thrown at Victorian soldiers by an unappreciative public and concludes:
For it's Tommy this, an' Tommy that, an' "Chuck him out, the brute!
" But it's "Saviour of 'is country" when the guns begin to shoot;
An' it's Tommy this, an' Tommy that, an' anything you please;
An' Tommy ain't a bloomin' fool -- you bet that Tommy sees!
In his speech accepting the Democratic nomination for president, John Kerry opined that many “blamed the warrior rather than the war” for Vietnam. He got that right.
The other factor that made this past week melancholy for me was the 50-year retrospective programs on the assassination of President John Kennedy. Anyone alive and adult at that time can tell you exactly where he or she was when they heard the shattering news. The very idea that such a thing could happen in modern day America was unthinkable. The entire country was plunged into grief. Kennedy had just led us through perhaps the most perilous time in our history—the Cuban Missile Crisis. Few people realized at the time how very close to nuclear Armageddon the world came in those few weeks. For people my age, the killing of the President began a long series of events that harmed our country: The assassinations of Dr. Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy; the Watergate scandal; push-pull inflation that ravaged the economy; the national disunity over the Vietnam War; the double-digit inflation and interest rates of the Carter Administration.
Winning the Cold War under President Reagan removed the threat of nuclear annihilation but seems to have made the world safe for smaller conflicts. No one is afraid of sucking in the Great Powers and causing a world war anymore. I have a liberal friend who has told me, “Sometimes I miss the Cold War.”
One thing about having lived many years is that today’s challenges don’t seem so overpowering anymore. There’s not much my generation hasn’t faced before and somehow overcome. Humankind continues to adapt and survive. All may not be right with the world, but God’s still in His heaven.