Photo by Edward F. Palm)

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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.)

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Old Soldiers and the AVF

[Above, please find a "Palm-Print" of Larry Scroggs, one of the very young men I served with in Vietnam.  Am I the only one noticing how many older soldiers--men in their 40s and 50s--have made the casualty lists from Iraq and Afghanistan? Back in the 1980s I had occasion to join other Vietnam veterans in public panel discussions of that original "wrong war in the wrong place at the wrong time." When my turn came to speak, I would try to lighten the mood by suggesting that my fellow middle-aged panelists had to be frauds because all the guys I served with in Vietnam were very young.
In any event, below, I try to explain why I find I find it especially troubling that today's young veterans will never be able to make such a joke. Instead, they're probably already making jokes about how things must be getting dull out at the home.--EFP]

Gen. MacArthur got it wrong. “Old soldiers” don’t “just fade away.” They do indeed die.

On May 10, Army Maj. Steven Hutchison, age 60, was killed by a roadside bomb in Iraq. He holds the dubious distinction of being the oldest service member to die in that conflict, although others have come close. The casualty lists have too often included soldiers in their late forties and in their fifties.

Not to be outdone, the war in Afghanistan, on August 18, claimed 59-year-old First Sgt. Jose San Nicolas Crisostomo. He too fell victim to a roadside bomb, earning the dubious distinction of being the oldest soldier to die in that conflict.

Cynical students of history might see a certain poetic justice in this turn of events. From time immemorial, old men have been fomenting wars that young men have had to fight. But Hutchison and Crisostomo had no part in starting either war. Rather, they were among the few people willing to step forward these days to shoulder the burden of national defense (or national offense, as the case may be). And our willingness to let them—and too many like them—serve in combat speaks volumes about the inadequacy of our All-Volunteer Force. It also speaks to the hypocrisy of a citizenry that publicly venerates the military but is largely indifferent to the manner in which we are overextending and exhausting our troops.

A bit of bad Churchill comes to mind: never have so many asked so much of so few. Personally, as a Vietnam veteran, I am in awe of the current generation of troops. The tour of duty in Vietnam was 12 months for soldiers and 13 months for Marines, and rarely was anyone forced to go twice in the course of a four-year enlistment. Today’s troops--regulars, reservists, and National Guard members alike--have endured repeated combat deployments, sometimes with only a year or less at home before having to deploy again. And their tour of duty is now 15 months. No wonder old soldiers are welcome.

War has traditionally been, and should continue to be, largely the business of the young. This is not to suggest that either Crisostomo or Hutchison failed to measure up. Both were Vietnam veterans, and by all accounts, their maturity and experience were welcome. I submit, however, that they had already done their duty and that it was someone else’s turn to go to war.

It is time for politicians and the public alike to face the bitter truth. If stabilizing the situation in Iraq and winning in Afghanistan are truly national imperatives, we will need more troops—a lot more troops. And that will require reinstating the draft.

I see at least three spin-off benefits from doing so.

First, it would benefit the economy by providing a holding pattern (and even some useful training) for large numbers of young people who would otherwise remain unemployed or under-employed.

Second, it would enable us to field the sort of large decentralized military we once had and which could respond to a natural disaster or a devastating attack—as well as bolstering the local economy wherever bases are established or reopened.

Third, and most important, our national leadership would have to think long and hard before deploying a citizen-soldiery instead of a small professional force.

For my own part, I much prefer the mordant irony associated with my war over MacArthur’s sentimental idealism. I call on Country Joe McDonald, of Woodstock fame, to revise and update his “Feel Like I’m Fixin’ to Die Rag.” This time, however, Country Joe should mean it in calling on young people to “put down [their] books [or their video game controllers] and pick up a gun.” He will also have to revise his final stanza, this time shaming us all with the call to “be the first one on your block to have [grandpa] come home in a box.”

--Edward F. Palm


Nickname unavailable said...

Ed I have to disagree with your opinion on the draft. My beliefs probably tend to be more Libertarian than yours and forcing a citizen into the military against his will is one of the worst transgressions a government can commit. The first Marine draftees arrived at MCRD San Diego while I was in boot camp in 1965. I remember thinking how much more difficult this experience must be for them than it was for me, a four year volunteer. No, let's keep our volunteer military. Let the free citizens of our country vote for or against a war by refusing to enlist in the military or voting out the politicians who sent our military to war.
Your comments on "the hypocrisy of a citizenry that publicly venerates the military but is largely indifferent to the manner in which we are overextending and exhausting our troops" rings true. A couple of years ago I learned the word "slacktivist", defined as a person who supports a cause as long as it doesn't take much personal effort for them to do so. Unfortunately that word describes many Americans today. It greatly saddens me that our society has reached this state.
Larry Scroggs

Edward F. Palm said...

You make a good point. I like that term "slacktivist." That pretty much captures it. --Ed