Friday, November 11, 2016

War as a "Home Game"

We have discussed at length, Prof Andrew Bacevich's comment that for Americans, war is a "spectator sport".  Considering that some 94% of the US adult population has not served in uniform, those spectators haven't even been in the stadium for the many "away games" the US military has fought, no less on the field.  Rather, they witnessed those games via TV, war stories and the like.

For the past 11 years, we have lived where war has been fought as a "home game", and there are still some folks alive who were on the field during those home games.  Our little island was occupied, and there were skirmishes between partisans and the occupying Germans, and resulting executions that were part and parcel to German occupation.  Across the country, there was considerable damage to homes, villages, etc, and some 4% of the population died as a direct result of the invasion and occupation.  The majority of them civilians.   Meanwhile, during that same War, in the US, one military base was damaged and just under 1/2 of 1% of the population died as a result of military action.

I'm not going to discuss the heroism of the Greek people during WWII.  The examples of their resistance to the Italian and German occupiers, and the brutality the occupiers displayed, is well documented, to include notable incidents on our little island.  However, what I share is my anecdotal experience, as a US combat veteran living among people for whom war is not a spectator sport.

When asked by Greeks what I did in the US, I simply respond that I was a soldier.  That usually results in the question, "What did you do in the Army?".  I reply that I flew helicopters.  Of course, taking in my age and MOS, they immediately ask if I flew in Viet Nam.  When I answer, "Yes", the normal reaction by anyone over 30 is along the lines of "How sad".  At first, considering that I had told them that I was a career soldier, I was a little taken aback.  But it wasn't long before further conversation on the subject made it clear that they were commenting on what I had witnessed, not particularly any danger I may have faced or US foreign policy.  They were saddened by the death and destruction I had to witness.  Virtually no questions of the right or wrong of our involvement.  Just compassion for what I saw first hand and how it must have been terrible.  And, of course, folks my age or older actually commiserated based on their first hand experience of the tragedy of war for all involved, to include the innocent.

Now, when an American would learn that I flew in Viet Nam, the reaction was quite different.  For non-veterans, there was often a voyeuristic obsession with what is was like to kill or blow things up.  Many wanted to know if I flew "gunships".  "Did you get shot down?"  Those who might have been anti war might comment on that aspect, but never in terms of my witnessing the horrors of war, but perhaps being responsible for them.  It was the rare, no very rare person who expressed sadness for the Vietnamese or for my being witness to it.

Point is, war isn't glorious, manly, fun or anything of the sort.  It is mankind at its basest.  It is a breakdown of civility and mutual respect.  I am not glad that I ever had to fire a shot in anger or help those that did.  I chose a career and accepted the good with the bad.  And I grieve for the Vietnamese who suffered through it all.

The last Veterans Day before moving to Greece, a 28 year old hot shot approached me after church services and did the obligatory, "Thank you for your service".  But the proud GWB sycophant with his flag pin on his lapel took it a step further and said, "I guess you wish you could be in the thick of things in Iraq."  I smiled and said, "No more than you seem to be."

To my comrades in arms here at MilPub and everywhere, I wish you a peaceful Veterans Day.  Been almost a century since the end of The War to End All Wars, and it seems not much has been learned.


  1. Nicely done, as usual.


  2. Thanks for that Al.

    I fear we will never learn. We all assume a quick and glorious victory with just few casualties, and forget about the horrendous consequences on civilians in the affected area. By "we", I mean all mankind, not just Americans or Europeans. But us Americans certainly have our own share of hubris. The fist Battle of Bull Run (or First Manassas if you prefer) in July 1861 was expected to be decisive by both sides. Unfortunately four years and many ruined cities later we found that was not the case.

    All or most of Europe experienced the war you mentioned firsthand. Except perhaps Sweden, Switzerland, Spain and Portugal - who am I missing? Soon there will be no person left alive who experienced that horror and it will fade into distant history. What then?

    BTW - thank you for referring to this day without using an apostrophe. Many throw that apostrophe in there in the possessive sense. Wrong! The day does not belong to veterans alone, it belongs to us all.

    I still often slip and refer to Veterans Day as Armistice Day. Although I was only 12 when the term was changed, my grandfather and great-uncle Dinty who served in France in WW1 never adapted to the new name. I can still hear their voices, when whispering reverently about the 'Aahmistice'.

  3. Related; Americans (profess to) cherish their "veterans".

    Germans don't. We didn't have a golden generation of veterans returning from glorious war-winning. Instead, almost everyone who hadn't emigrated in time was a veteran post-WW2. At most 20-30% of the population (those ineligible for military service AND living in rural areas) had not experienced the terrors of war themselves.

    The soldiers who return from Afghanistan and actually saw combat there (a small minority of those who went to Afghanistan) complain about this, but they return to a country that had a stable 55-65% majority against the ISAF and OEF participation. They have no right to expect gratitude for a service that was not wanted. No-one really bought the nonsensical political narrative that they were fighting for our security.

    1. To be honest, Sven, I never expected "gratitude". It's a profession of self sacrifice I willingly chose. Sacrifice means one does not expect something in return.

      Even more seriously, I really don't like being fawned over or "thanked" by people who assume that I embraced their politics of certain wars, just because I wore the uniform. Particularly when they chose to let someone else make the sacrifice of serving. Thus my comment to the war promoting young man above. The one and only time I ever did such.

      Yes, there are a hell of a lot of "Bumper Sticker" supporters of veterans who choose not to make the slightest sacrifice in doing so. But, if it makes them happy, so be it. Fortunately, I no longer live among them, so I do not have to put up with it on a regular basis.

    2. I would add that at the time I initially entered the Armed Forces (1960), the draft was going strong to man a 2.4 million person active force, and encourage enlistment in a 2+ million person Guard and Reserve force. Thus, military service was no big thing, so to speak. A little over 60% of the males in my high school graduating class served in the active or reserve military, and we lived in n affluent bedroom suburb of NYC.

      Servicemembers returning from WWII were, indeed, welcomed home with great fanfare, but then the nation put the war behind us and turned to on restoring normality. Thus, after a couple of years, you didn't see the "thanks for serving" phenomenon that abounds today.

      I suggest that the current fawning over veterans is a result of several factors. One, the Bush Administration glorified military service to promote their adventures and to aid recruiting. Especially once it became very difficult to meet recruiting goals. Another may be rooted in the fact that a fair number of the population wouldn't take the risk of serving in uniform on a bet, and thus do their "patriotic duty" by fawning over those that do serve. And, it has become the "in" thing to do. I'm sure there are some folks sincerely expressing thanks as well.

  4. S O,

    Soldiers have no choice in the matter. Let the civilians debate the unpopularity of a war.

    We Do owe them our gratitude. That is how this American feels.

  5. Happy Veterans Day to all (though "happy" it an odd thing, in some ways, to say.)

    You write, "It was the rare, no very rare person who expressed sadness for the Vietnamese or for my being witness to it."

    When I meet a VN veteran, I ask where he was. If he saw combat, I reflexively say, "I'm sorry", and that is what I mean: "I'm sorry you had to see and participate in such brutality."

    For the VN veteran, it also means, "I am sorry your country received you so poorly".

    It is the same feeling for any combat veteran.

  6. Lisa -

    You are right that there is a great deal of incongruity by saying "Happy" in regards to Veterans Day. I much prefer Al's turn of phrase above: "... wish you a peaceful Veterans Day."

  7. Now for a bit of levity.

    One of the men in our village, a couple of years older than me, has a small house where he idles his retirement away growing some grapes and making great wine. His dress and demeanor lead us to conclude that he had been a business professional of some sort, and when I inquired, he said he was a lawyer. When he asked what I did in the US, his response my answer was to say, "I forgive you." Kinda bowled me over. Other than that one statement, he remained quite friendly. But it made me wonder.

    About a month later, he invited us over for a "wine tasting". He had about 10 different vintages and types in casks in his cellar, where we sampled them, and he then filled two bottles of the two we really liked. Then it was upstairs to sip and chat in his limited English and our limited Greek.

    Looking around his living room, I saw a photo on the mantle of his fireplace. It was him and his two sons. He was wearing the uniform of a Greek Navy Vice Admiral, and they were in Naval junior officer uniforms. Laughing, I said, pointing at the picture, "Is that why you forgave me?" "Yes, of course", he said with a hearty laugh. "I thought you said you were a lawyer", I said. "The best kind, a Navy lawyer", was his response. I asked, "Would it help my standing if I told you that I was a Naval War College graduate?" "Of course", he replied. "Having gone to the same school is helpful." Turns out his final assignment was as the Defense Ministry JAG, and the Navy's JAG before that. His older son is a JAG, and has served as chief legal officer on NATO anti-pirate flotillas of the coast of Somalia. His younger son is a line officer. Both have also studied at Newport. So now, when I finish reading my copies of Naval War College Review, I no longer throw them out, but pass them on to my Navy neighbor and his sons.

    And, of course, I now understand what the villagers mean when a naval vessel anchors off the coast near our village and they say, "Nikitas, is that boat here to take you fishing?"

  8. Well said, Al. As always. Proof if any was needed that the old leg infantry saw about birdshit and fools being the only things that fly is a black lie...

  9. And I'd note that one effect of seeing war as a game played by others has convinced the American Public that "war works" (the ridiculous tongue-bathing the servicepeople and the armed services get doesn't help, either...).

    So it is childishly easy for a U.S. pol to "sell" force as a solution to foreign troubles, and the media seldom have the attention span to followup on places where more rubble meant more trouble...

    So I feel confident we'll have still more veterans this time next year...