Friday, July 11, 2008Last updated July 14, 2008 11:41 a.m. PT
By EDWARD F. PALM
As a Vietnam veteran who struggled to get through college on the Vietnam-era GI bill, I am happy for today's young, and not so young, veterans who will be getting a much better educational opportunity than I got. But I do have to object to the rhetoric some of the proponents of the bill employed in securing its passage. If those now serving really do constitute a "new greatest generation," and those who saw us through World War II were the original "greatest generation," what does that make of us in the middle -- the baby boom generation that fought and/or protested the Vietnam War? A "new lost generation" perhaps?
In the words of the immortal Bard, "Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and others have greatness thrust upon 'em." But Shakespeare didn't say anything about greatness skipping a generation, as it seems to have skipped mine.
Don't get me wrong: Personally, I am in awe at how much today's overtaxed troops have managed to endure. A bit of bad Winston Churchill comes to mind: Never have so many asked so much of so few. But, at the same time, I doubt that the current mood of adulation is really good for the country -- much less the troops, past or present.
First, as oppressors of any stripe can attest, one of the best ways to keep people down, paradoxically, is to place them up on a pedestal. Just as women were once deemed to be too good for the professions or the world of work -- they were reserved for the nobler calling of motherhood -- today's underclass has been elevated to the honor of fighting and dying out on the fringes of the empire. Their sacrifice supposedly makes them, and their cause, unassailable -- especially since the rest of us were merely assigned the guilt-inducing task of stimulating the economy by shopping.
Second, it is not at all certain that the cause for which we're asking so few to sacrifice so much is making us any safer. As with my war, our indifference to so-called collateral damage may prove to be self-defeating. The rap against us in Vietnam was that we made more Vietcong than we killed. Once again, we may be merely stiffening the enemy's resolve and ultimately helping him to recruit.
Third, while my generation may not have achieved "greatness" in the highly politicized sense popular today, I think we were "born great." Raised in relative prosperity and nurtured in the great myths associated with America's founding, we grew up believing that "truth, justice and the American way" was a redundant phrase. And when we woke up from that American dream to a nightmare war that seemed to repudiate all that America stood for, we questioned authority and we spoke out. Some members of our generation even acted out, protesting and dramatizing their opposition with acts of civil and military disobedience -- until the rest of the country recognized the insanity that we were seeing. If demanding the America we had been promised wasn't a kind of greatness, I don't know what is.
In all fairness, those of us who bore the brunt of enemy fire and friendly folly in Vietnam have long known that we were hardly the first generation to be lied to and exploited by self-deluded and cynical politicians. But, somehow, we thought we'd be the last. If we stopped speaking out and let it happen again, it is because we allowed ourselves to be "swift-boated" -- all of us, not just John Kerry. We have been made to feel ashamed of not winning -- much less protesting -- a war we never should have been asked to fight.
The sad truth of the matter is today's veterans, for all they have endured, have had "greatness thrust upon them" by an administration that has found it politically expedient to do so. The proof of that is how the sponsors of the new GI bill had to call the administration's bluff. Many of the people who had been quick to lionize today's troops were strangely reluctant to put taxpayer money where their mouths had been, citing worries about eroding retention in the military. If that doesn't speak volumes about how the administration really views the troops, I don't know what does.
Edward F. Palm served in Vietnam as an enlisted Marine. He is now the dean of social sciences and humanities at Olympic College in Bremerton.
- Edward F. Palm
- Forest, Virginia, United States
- A long time ago, my sophomore English teacher, Father William Campbell, saw something in my writing and predicted that I would someday become a newspaper columnist. He suggested the perfect title for my column--"Leaves of the Palm." Now that I have a little extra time on my hands I've decided to put Father Campbell's prediction to the test. I'm going to start using this blog site not just to reprint opinion pieces I've published elsewhere but to try to get more of my ideas and opinions out there. Feedback is welcome. To find out more about me, please check out my Web site: www.EdwardFPalm.com (Click on any of the photos below for an enlarged view.)