What Did You Do in the War?

by Renee Y. Brown

First off, people assume all veterans are male.

They are surprised when I tell them I am a veteran.

But worse than the gender presumption is the assumption that if you are a veteran, you must have been in a war, because in the public mind, all veterans are war veterans; that’s what makes you a veteran—you are someone who served in the military during a war or participated in actual combat. You at least had to “be there.”

Because if there isn’t a war, how can there be veterans, right?

World War II, Korea, Vietnam, the Persian Gulf War, Iran/Afghanistan—plus all the “little” wars (at least from the U.S. perspective) like Panama, Somalia, and Bosnia—there are veterans of all these wars among us; there’s even one last veteran of World War I still living. And you’re only considered a ‘veteran’ if you served during wartime, right?

So you’re a veteran. What war were you in?

My grandfather was a Navy submariner in World War II; my father worked on jet fighter engines in the Air Force during the Korean War; my sister was an Army chaplain’s assistant in the Persian Gulf War; and my niece served in the Air Force at the height of the war in Iraq.

Today it is considered ‘patriotic’ and ‘politically/socially/culturally correct’ to thank veterans for their service. Even if you personally didn’t believe in or support the war itself, you still show you’re respect and express your gratitude for the sacrifice and service of the individual veteran. It’s just the “right thing to do” in America today; and I believe most people who do this are very sincere about it. Sometimes I think people do it just to show other people in a public place what decent, patriotic Americans they are, so they’re doing it more for themselves than for the veteran, but whatever. My point is not about whether ‘thanking a veteran’ for their service is a genuine and self-less act, or just ‘showing off’ for other people’s approval. My point is: when you thank a veteran, one who’s no longer in uniform, if you knew that they’d never served during a war or in an area of combat or in actual combat, would you have even thanked them for their ‘service’ in the first place?

I sometimes feel that when a person thanks me for my service that they’re looking me over, trying to determine which war I could’ve served in, based mostly on my age, and not so much on gender since women have been serving in and near areas of combat since Vietnam. But I look too young for Vietnam, yet too old for Iraq/Afghanistan; it’s like I can hear them thinking, which war could she have possibly served in? Persian Gulf, maybe?

Because I’m a veteran, I HAD to have been in some war, at some time…

But the general public mostly doesn’t realize or is actively cognizant of the people who took the oath, wore the uniform, went through the training, and were there to fight, or die if it came to that, even though there was no war.

Veterans who served during peacetime are ‘forgotten veterans.’

Yet, if they hadn’t served, would that “peacetime” have been possible?

At work one day several years ago, a new employee learned I was a veteran. The Iraq and Afghanistan wars were “new” at that time, and my age ruled me out of those conflicts. So, which war…?

“Were you in the Gulf War?”

“No. There wasn’t any war when I served,” I replied. “It was in the early 1980’s.”

“Unless you count Grenada!” the employee said, laughing, as if that particular event was a joke.

No conflict in which American troops are killed is a joke, no matter how small the conflict, no matter how few died.

One death is too much. One is a monumental, tragic and honorable sacrifice.
Just ask the families of those servicemen killed in Grenada.

But the biggest war —

The most total, all-out, world-consuming war —

The absolute worst war in human history —

The war that would have ended civilization and perhaps even the human race…

Was the war that NEVER happened.

It never happened because I was there.

And “being there” is far more than just “half the battle”…”being there” was EVERYTHING that prevented the battle in the first place.

Every service-member of all the militaries of the United States and every nation allied with us throughout the 47-years long stand to prevent the “war that would end the world” deserves to be recognized for their service with the same respect and gratitude given today’s young veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan.

It takes courage, dedication, the will to make unimaginable sacrifices and the infallible conscience to accept the possibility of one’s own death for someone to go into combat and fight in war; yet how much the better for that individual to never need make those terrible sacrifices at all; how much better off the society that never loses its most conscientious and courageous individuals!

If “war is hell,” than preventing war is the nullification of hell.

People forget the Cold War because the nuclear Armageddon that was widely feared, even expected, during the 47-year stand-off between the United States and the Soviet Union, never happened.

But there were two “hot” wars that arose directly from the politics and tensions of the Cold War; Korea and Vietnam.

As tragic and terrible as those two wars were; as ALL wars ARE; it was global nuclear annihilation—basically, humans making themselves (and every other species on the planet) extinct—that kept the fear going for almost half a century.

First off, President Ronald Reagan didn’t win the Cold War all by himself, like conservative pundits love to claim. He had a little help—like several million soldiers, sailors, airmen, coast guardsmen and Marines—veterans all.

Veterans like me.

I’m a veteran of the Cold War, which was never a “traditional” bombs-and-bullets-and-battlefields war; because if it had been, I wouldn’t be here writing this; but YOU wouldn’t be here reading this, either, nor anything else; nor doing anything, or being anything, because you simply wouldn’t BE at all.

If the Cold War had gone “hot,” with the Soviets and Warsaw Pact lobbing nukes at the U.S. and NATO countries plus our other allies throughout the world, like Japan, South Korea, Australia, and New Zealand; and all of us shooting nukes right back at ‘em, …not to mention China getting involved, and what about the always problematic Middle East, and newly nuke-equipped India and Pakistan? Nuclear missiles would be flying all over the world like rolls of toilet paper when you TP a yard and well, what would be left after every nuclear weapon in existence had been used?

Nothing. At least, nothing recognizable as having once been part of 20th century human civilization. Perhaps nothing recognizable as human at all.

There would be no computers or Internet or cell phones or satellites or moon landing or space shuttles, no TV or CD’s or DVD’s or even VHS; no cures for polio or tuberculosis or eradication of smallpox or any other medical breakthroughs and advances; none of the technology we take for granted today.

Most of us would be subsisting at the level of people in the 19th Century, happy just to dig a few turnips up out of non-radiation-contaminated soil.

But that once highly-possible timeline—the end of civilization as we know it—is now all but forgotten. It never happened, so who cares?

And who cares about the military people who served during that time—the very people whose service prevented the worst disaster in human history, and kept civilization on track to where it is today?

We are forgotten, too, “second-class” veterans because we never fought in a “hot” war, a “real” war.

But if keeping the world safe from total nuclear annihilation is no biggie, then consider it this way: the total estimated death toll during World War II, including all military and civilian deaths, is 50 million; but the death toll in a Cold War gone “hot” with an all-out nuclear exchange would have been in the billions, including all those who would perish from radiation poisoning long after the initial cataclysm.

I’m not minimizing any death in any war or conflict, each and every one is a tragedy and should be taken into account and remembered. The loss of one human life due to armed conflict of any kind, whether “justified’ or not in the canon of human history, is of immeasurable importance and worthy of everlasting grief and regret and recognition in the collective human consciousness.

But global nuclear war would have been the worst war of all. It never happened because we—the veterans of the Cold War—were there. All we ask is to be included, and given a little credit.

Certainly the threat of nuclear weapons has not gone away, but what we face now is not on the all-inclusive global scale that a nuclear war between the U.S. and the Soviet Union would have entailed.

Possible global nuclear annihilation was as heavy a topic in 1983 as it was in the early 1960’s, when you had the Cuban Missile Crisis and a lot of post-nuclear holocaust episodes of “Twilight Zone.”

I served at U.S. Army Headquarters in Heidelberg, in what was then known as “West” Germany (the “free” Germany, as opposed to the communist, Soviet-controlled East Germany.) I worked in the same building as the Commanding General of the U.S. Army in Europe.

Tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union were high. People forget how high.

Radical leftist groups in West Germany, who believed that President Reagan’s policies toward the Soviet Union would lead to nuclear Armageddon, rallied outside American military installations, blocking cars and harassing soldiers.

Personal vehicles belonging to U.S. military personnel had distinctive license plates. While I was stationed in West Germany, several vehicles belonging to American military personnel were blown up.

With the persons inside.

I mean exploded. With bombs. As in terrorism.

And American soldiers were killed.

So the Cold War wasn’t without its casualties, even as I served where I served.  After the bombings, every vehicle entering a U.S. military installation was searched by military police before being cleared to enter. On the buses that ran between installations, American and German soldiers armed with M-16 rifles checked ID’s and rode along.

I was an army photographer. Once a week, the commanding general would hold a presentation ceremony on a small parade field adjacent to the headquarters building. These ceremonies were always to honor some special guest, such as visiting members of Congress, high-ranking officers from the militaries of allied countries, and politicians or other government officials of our allies.

Directly behind this parade field was a steep hill consisting of residential areas in the town of Liemen, a suburb of Heidelberg. From just about any position on this hill, one could see straight down onto the entirety of the parade field. That hill was a perfect spot for a sniper intent on taking out the general, his guest-of-the-week, or both. I was sent to photograph these ceremonies many times. I’d heard that U.S. Army snipers were hidden in various positions where they could take out an enemy sniper (who could be anything from a Soviet-trained army sniper, to an anti-nuke fanatic, to an anarchist with too much time on his hands).

While I photographed the ceremony, my back was to the hill behind us. I always thought of the possibility of a sniper’s bullet in the back of my head, but then, I was nothing compared to the real targets who faced full-frontal to that hill. So I figured the only way I’d get shot was if I blocked the sniper’s intended target. Standing a little to the left or right of the general or his guest was no guarantee, because there was no way to know from where on that hill a sniper might be, no way to guess the angle of trajectory of any bullet. So I just did my job and never worried about it.

Even popular culture of the time reflected the fear of a possible nuclear war. The television movie “The Day After,” which depicted the aftermath of a nuclear exchange with the Soviet Union, was broadcast in 1983 when I was stationed in West Germany, to great acclaim and much controversy; the West German pop group Nena released the song “99 Luftballoons,” or 99 Red Balloons as it was known in English, which was also about nuclear annihilation.

It was the obsession of the time, almost like the entire 1950’s condensed into one year.
The first place to go probably would’ve been NATO Headquarters in Brussels, Belgium. Geez, does anybody even remember NATO anymore, or what the letters stand for? North Atlantic Treaty Organization, the alliance of free, democratic nations of the United States and most of western Europe, in opposition to the Warsaw Pact nations, mostly in eastern Europe, which were dominated and controlled by the Soviet Union.

Sorry for the history lesson, but people forget.

Heidelberg, being the Headquarters of the U.S. Army in Europe (USAEUR), and the four-star general who commanded it, wouldn’t have been far down the list of initial Soviet nuke targets.

That’s why I am happy to have not served during a “hot” war. Not just for myself, but for the whole world.

You should be happy, too.

And when the conservative pundits in the media give Reagan all the credit for winning the Cold War, while bragging how much they “support the troops” and “appreciate the service of veterans,” uh, they just might want to mention that Reagan didn’t do it all alone. While the President was entertaining Mr. Gorbachev with champagne and caviar at the White House, we were on the front lines—the soldiers who patrolled the border between West and East Germany, getting shot by East German troops; the sailors in nuclear subs under the oceans of the world for months at a time; the airmen flying endless and dangerous reconnaissance missions in enemy airspace; the coast guardsmen constantly listening offshore; and the Marines slogging through the mud everywhere, always training, always ready for the call that happily, thankfully, never came.

So hug your PC, hug your Mac; hug your computer-controlled car with its global positioning system so you never get lost but will always remain geographically-challenged; hug your i-phones and Blackberries and 4G cell phones that do everything but wipe your ass (and I’m certain there will soon be an ‘app’ for that, too), hug your wall-sized HD-3D TV with it’s 500-channel capacity so you’ll never have to think about anything because you can just watch it instead; hug your i-Pad that will eventually be implanted where your brain used to be…

But if you are truly happy just to be in existence (or to still be in existence, as the age may be), then hug your mom, hug your dad, hug your spouse or life companion or equivalent; hug your kids, hug your dog, hug your cat (bird, iguana, ferret, fishbowl, et.al.), hug your friends, even hug your neighbor; and while you’re at it, hug your freedom, hug your country, hug this planet, and hug yourself—hug whatever it is that you value most in this 21st Century world—because none of it would be here if we, the veterans of the Cold War, hadn’t succeeded in our mission.

The living world of today—sure, it has its problems, but you’d miss it if it was gone. Or, more precisely, you’d never have known it at all if it had never happened. (Can’t miss what ya never had!)

The 21st Century: Brought to you by the Cold War veterans of the American Armed Forces (and some good-buddy countries out there, too).

Remember us, along with all the combat war vets.

Just a thought to ponder.

Happy Veteran’s Day…

This year, and always.

18 Comments on “What Did You Do in the War?”

  1. First off, I come from a military family and have a high level of understanding of the mind of the typical soldier (having spent much of my life on military bases) – as much as I find the intentions of the typical serviceman to be well-meaning, their actions are often grossly misplaced (mostly due to the culture of “following orders” – they refuse to break the cain of command, even if the orders they receive from it are completely insane).

    Secondly, there also seems to be a sense of self importance that permeates military culture – the article shows a glimpse of it when the author makes statements like…

    [Quote=author]The war that would have ended civilization and perhaps even the human race…

    Was the war that NEVER happened.

    It never happened because I was there.

    And “being there” is far more than just “half the battle”…”being there” was EVERYTHING that prevented the battle in the first place.[/quote]

    Not to say that the soldier doesn’t take a significant risk just by being on call, but the idea that their presence is what actually prevents wars (if anything, the existence of a mobilized, combat-ready standing military force calls for a war in order for the political class to justify its existence – see Vietnam or the present-day Iraq/Afghanistan conflicts) is just plain absurd – what actually prevented the Cold War from going nuclear was the fact that both powers had enough atom bombs to vaporize all life on the planet 4-5 times over: troop numbers are irrelevant when nations have this kind of firepower – what really matters at the end of the day in Cold War-style conflicts is whether both sides still want to survive or if one side (or both) is desperate enough to “go for broke” and hit the button (in this case, the U.S. got lucky in the the U.S.S.R. wasn’t run by suicidal madmen).

    Thirdly, “terrorism” is such a vaguely-defined term (as of today ther is no universally agreed, legally binding, criminal law definition of the concept) that any act of violence can be called “terrorism” by one party or another – thus rendering all talk of “terrorist” bombings and such moot: one man’s “terrorist” can easily be construed as another man’s “freedom fighter.” Besides, it’s not like the U.S. military never commited acts that have since been refered to as “terrorist” (the fire-bombing of Dresden, the My Lai massacre, the killing of journalists in the Middle East, etc…) so don’t even try pulling that card.

    In short, this article reminds me why I prefer a small, localized militia to a standing army – they tend to be more democratically-run, they don’t have such a sense of self importance (as they don’t see themselves as some kind of “guardian of freedom for all people” or any such tripe that has infiltrated the thinking of standing armies) and they recognize irregular warfare (oft called “terrorism” – except when the ruling government does it…) as being just another part of war rather than some kind of “evil” to be fought against. While I give my props to the guts and determination of the individual soldier, I put no faith in the institution he serves: I will instead invest that trust in people I know aren’t bound to the service of a government over their local community.

  2. I took my truck in for repair.I had disabled vet plates.The mecanic ask me what war was I in.I told him none.He looked at me like I had a nerve to call myself a vet.Now when they ask me I reply the cold war.They do not know how to reply to that.

  3. To Mark:
    YOU are exactly the reason I wrote this piece; the experience you described mirrors mine perfectly. And yes, people ARE dumbfounded when you tell them you served in “the Cold War,” I don’t know why; I hate to think that so many people are truly ignorant of a major part of recent history. Thank you for providing the best illustration my article could have, and thank you for your service.

  4. To Christopher:
    Thank you for reading my article. I don’t think you got the point, but that’s a subjective opinion.
    Also, I am not quite so egomaniacal as to actually believe my service in particular prevented World war III; I was speaking in hyperbole to illustrate my arguement.

    I don’t believe it was an active concern for survival that kept either the US or USSR from ‘pushing the nuclear button;’ remember how close BOTH sides came during the Cuban Missle Crisis in the early 1960’s when Kennedy was president; Kennedy was actually considering it as an option, a ‘last resort’ option, but it was on the table nonetheless. It was Kruschev in the USSR who backed down and prevented things from escalating.

    I NEVER said in the entire article that the US military is guiltless of ‘war crimes;’ I DO know about Dresden (and a few other acts committed by the Allies that are not well-known outside of Germany); i REMEMBER the My Lai Massacre; I’d have to research the claim of ‘killing journalists’ in the Middle East, but I keep an open mind and accept the truth whatever it may be. So I was not ‘pulling’ any ‘card’ on that subject, since i never brought it up.

    The ‘local militia’ versus the ‘big government’ is a classist arguement; when the local community gives you a paycheck for serving in the local militia, and pays all your college expenses, and gives you FREE medical care, then we’ll compare notes: like the vast majority of US military enlisted service members, my initial motivation for joining the military was economic; in other words, I was POOR and really had no other option at the time. It is only in hindsight that I realize my service had a meaning beyond my own economic survival.

  5. @ Renee,

    I got the point of your article alright, however it was the subtext of the article that I felt was worth commenting on – as I said, I was raised up in military culture and understand how the soldier perceives events: sometimes without even realizing it himself – just as fish don’t recognize that they are surrounded by water, people within a culture don’t often realize how much affect the collective mentallity has on them. To address your response…

    1. Regarding the Cuban Missile “Crisis” – I understand that the conventional wisdom states that both powers nearly launched the nukes, but what this thinking overlooks is that the U.S.S.R. was merely attempting to rectify an imbalance of nuclear power (by attaining first-strike capabilities comparable to the Allied forces): depending on who you ask, you get two differing opinions on the matter – they either sought to place missiles in Cuba or else simply used the missle deployment as a bluff to get the U.S. to give up its own first-strike capabilities (which they ultimately did). At the end, it was *both* powers that backed down – because they wanted to stay alive.

    Oh, and for the record – I am no friend of the U.S., U.S.S.R. or any other “state” entity out there: I hate them all the same.

    2. Regarding the “war crimes” (a contradiction in terms – as war is defined by an absence of “law”) – my point on that comment was that tactics the ruling power consider “terrorism” are no more or less valid than actions that the ruling powers don’t consider “terrorism.” In fact, the term is quite meaningless because it takes on whatever meaning the ruling power gives to it: the only purpose it serves is the demonize the violence of the enemy that they happen to be fighting at any given time.

    3. Regarding the state military vs. local militia in the area of personal gains – many members of local militias aren’t exactly from the “upper crust” of society either (although there are a few exceptions). While I can’t go into detail (as some of those details may not be “legal” under the rule of the present establishment), let me say that local militia forces certainly do have the ability to look after the financial needs of its members: we don’t necessarily get “pay checks” per se, but we do have opportunities to benefit personally from ops and form all sorts of “connections” that can prove quite useful to us.

    And about the money for college – degrees mean very little in an economy where many well-educated and experienced laborers have a hard time finding work (trust me, I know this first-hand). And the medical care that the military provides isn’t exactly the best (my parents *never* put much faith in the doctors on base – they always got outside opinions from the civilian world to avoid a bad diagnosis).

    I’m not judging you personally here or your decision to sign up in Uncle Sam’s forces (although Uncle Sam is considered a hostile power by me and mine – but my grudge is with the powers that be, not the soldiers under their command) – like I said before, I find a number of qualities about the average soldier to be quite admirable. What I wanted to get across here is that your article showed some of the elements of miltary culture that I find rather dubious: that you weren’t quite aware of it is no surprise to me – it’s difficult to recognize the culture’s impact on your thinking, especially when you are engrossed in it. I just felt the need to comment on that piece of subtext.

  6. To Christopher: “Coming from a military family” and “spending time on military bases” runs awfully close to “I once stayed at a Holiday Inn”. HUGE difference between that and actually raising your right hand, swearing by whatever God you serve that you will do whatever you have to do for duty, honor and country (including countrymen that may not even appreciate your sacrifice) – and all without knowing whether you’re going to be in a “hot war” or “cold war”. WAR, by it’s nature, is insane – so the orders we followed were by their nature “insane”.

    I could go on – but why bother. Instead I will close by saying, from one forgotten veteran to another, good job Renee. For the rest of the arm-chair, sunshine patriots like Christoper, an edited movie quote from one of those stereotypes they like to hold up as “insane”:

    “Son, we live in a world that has walls, and those walls have to be guarded by men with guns. Who’s gonna do it? You?

    And my existence, while grotesque and incomprehensible to you, saves lives. You don’t want the truth because deep down in places you don’t talk about at parties, you want me on that wall, you need me on that wall. We use words like honor, code, loyalty. We use these words as the backbone of a life spent defending something. You use them as a punchline. I have neither the time nor the inclination to explain myself to a man who rises and sleeps under the blanket of the very freedom that I provide(d), and then questions the manner in which I provide(d) it. I would rather you just said ‘thank you’, and went on your way, Otherwise, I suggest you pick up a weapon, and stand a post.”

  7. @ Tacitus,

    1. The difference between living on base and “spending a night at Holiday Inn” is that you actually get to know the people – I’ve lived amongst them for years, so I now their mentallity quite well. As a matter of fact, it was my constant exposure to military culture growing up that motivated me to never join up.

    2. I’m not a “arm chair, sunshire patriot” – in fact, I’m not a patriot at all! My loyalties lie with myself and mine, not to some abstract concept like “the nation.”

    3. I didn’t string together stereotypes from movies – my statements regarding the mentallity of the comon soldier come from my own observations and interacts with them in their own environment.

  8. Renee, thank you for this. I think we do forget that the minute anyone signs up for military service whether it be reserves or regular or even coast guard, they are (potentially) dedicating their lives to their country of choice.
    This was brought home during the gulf war and the current “conflict” “police action” whatever people chose to call it when many reserves who had thought to do drills on the weekend, but instead found themselves fighting a real war were caught surprised and snatched up out of their college classes. It is a reminder that no service should be embarked upon lightly as so many people seemed to in the 80’s and 90’s.

    As for what “peacetime” soldiers did. How could I hope to speak to that? I wasn’t a servicemember, I don’t know the cost to people like you who were, so I honor your experience. In addition, even if there was no “action” there was work done by our service women and men. We can thank them for a myriad of things from infrastructure to technological advances as you stated.

    A good article and a nice reminder this vetran’s day.

  9. Tacitus:
    Thank you for your understanding, support, and service. Again, it is to veterans like you that this article is dedicated, and the reason I wrote it in the first place. I was NOT making ANY political statement here, just trying to get recognition for “forgotten veterans” who served during peace-time.

    Christopher:
    I will agree to disagree, with all due respect for the freedom of speech here, and leave it at that. I thank you for reading and commenting.

    Grainnerhuad:
    You understood my purpose and meaning here from the ‘civilian’ point-of-view; that this is NOT a political statement but an effort to gain some recognition and appreciation for veterans who served during peace-time, and that we DID make contributions to our current time and place that are of value. Of course, what is considered ‘of value’ differs from one person to another, as it differs from one country to another, from one culture to another. That’s why at the end of the article I asked people to ’embrace’ whatever it is that THEY, THEMSELVES, consider ‘of value’ in their lives today in America; if someone considers there to be nothing ‘of value’ to them in America today, that is, of course, their right, freedom, and personal choice; and I am happy for them to have it.

  10. Renee, I know you mean by presenting your life experiences and I understand that what you have lived is by no means easy or worth ignoring. The nomenclature itself gives way to polysemantic misunderstandings that reverberate in people’s lives in a most intimate way, and I understand that by writing that article you mean to shed light on a matter that has been sorely overlooked. I have known people in the military, before, during and after the war in Irak, but even though I sympathise with these people on an emotionnal level I also realize the rationale behind state or corporate-sponsored military is inherently absurd and proto-fascist.

    The concepts of nation, patriotism, honour, glory, even peace through superior military power are abstract, symbolic even. You believe in them because they are referred to, but in itself, they are human creations and exist in thin air alone.

    When Orwell wrote in 1984 that “War is Peace”, he meant to illustrate the convoluted, cognitive dissonance of organized governance.

    Believing that trained killers are the key to worldwide peace is non-sensical to say the least, and most military personnel’s insistent belief that their work has noble purpose is only symptomatic of the lack of critical thought and otherwise positivist culture transmitted to the members of the armed force – the higher up, the more deluded.

    Investing meaning into the categories of State, Nation, Western/Eastern, Law, etc. is merely staging the set to conflict, as they necessarily exclude others and distanciate the human subject from itself, giving room to misunderstanding, aggression, arms race, demonization, etc.

    Lastly, it shouldn’t be overlooked that the overwhelming majority of people enlisted in the army (in most any army) are the poor, the underclass, who risk their own lives in the hope of ensuring a better future for themselves.

  11. (“Lastly, it shouldn’t be overlooked that the overwhelming majority of people enlisted in the army (in most any army) are the poor, the underclass, who risk their own lives in the hope of ensuring a better future for themselves.”)-Raven

    Did I not say this exact thing in one of my comments here earlier? I joined the army because I was POOR, along with about 90 percent of the other people who joined at that time (early 1980’s). During my entire 4 years and out of the hundreds of people I met, however briefly, I can recall only 2 or 3 individuals who had joined out of “patriotism” or “glory” and were actually gung-ho about going to war; everyone else, along with me, thought of those people as ‘crazy idiots’ and avoided them as much as possible. When I was in the army and afterwards up to today, I’ve never been deluded into believing that if I’d actually been sent to war, that I’d be participating in some ‘noble cause.’ I recall a conversation with another enlisted soldier in which I told him “I’m NOT going to risk my life for the oil companies and other big corporations that actually control this country, and the world;” and he agreed with me. So just because a person has joined the military doesn’t mean we’ve been ‘brainwashed’ into believing all that ‘patriotism, self-sacrifice, dying for your country’ BS that they try to feed you; give enlisted people SOME credit for having intelligence and awareness. To be an officer you have to have a college degree, but ALL of the smartest people I met during my 4 years were ENLISTED people.

    Nevertheless, for whatever reason someone joins the military, if and when they are forced (because it’s NOT a choice) to go to war, whatever the ‘officially declared’ reason may be, these people DO sacrifice themselves and for that personal courage I honor them. I don’t believe in the current wars, especially Iraq; I never ‘bought’ the bullshit reasons for going in there, but I honor the courage of the service members who had no choice but to go and ended up dead, or permanently handicapped, or mentally damaged for the rest of their lives. When I go to the VA hospital and see young men, decades younger than me, in wheelchairs, missing legs or paralyzed, their lives destroyed at the very beginning of them, I can barely hold back the tears and I cannot face them eye-to-eye because I feel I AM NOT WORTHY, I am not equal to them so I haven’t the right to that honor. Here I am, 52 years old and walking, my body whole and functioning; and there they are, in their 20’s, maybe even younger, in their wheelchairs, where they will be for the rest of their lives and they have so much more life ahead of them than I do–it feels so unfair, that I even feel guilty to be as old as I am AND able to walk and function, for the past 34 years of my adulthood and for a likely next 20 or so years ahead, while they are condemned to those chairs for ALL that same amount of time or more. I will long be in my grave before most of those young men even reach the age I am today.

    And not that women don’t make sacrifices, too; some the same as those young men, but in ways that are, unfortunately, unique to women. My sister joined the army in 1988 to get money for college, and obviously NEVER imagined or expected that a war would occur during her 4-year enlistment—but it happened. She never got deployed to the Gulf, but to this day she bears scars so deep they will never heal; first, she was sexually harassed by the CHAPLAIN officer she worked for; then she married another soldier who seemed to be a paragon of virtue (I know because I met him BEFORE they married, and I liked the guy), but after they married, he became an abuser of such magnitude I believe that the term ‘domestic violence’ is far too mild for him; he was a ‘domestic terrorist’ or ‘spousal terrorist,’ whichever is preferable; but he beat her regularly, and tried to KILL her several times; and to keep her from telling anybody, he threatened her family, including ME, and much worse, our 4-year-old niece! It’s been 18 years since she left him, with my help, but the physical and psychological damage he inflicted on her is still something she lives with everyday. Oh, and that 4-year-old niece he threatened back then? She joined the air force in 2005 when she turned 18, and was RAPED in basic training. Now she has PTSD rape trauma to live with the rest of her life. Like those young men in wheelchairs, she is condemned for her entire adult life; and for NO other reason than being POOR and turning to the military as a way out.

    So don’t give me a bunch of fancy literary words or political bullshit trying to tell ME what the military is or isn’t, what it does or what it doesn’t; what it means or what is meaningless about it; because MY SISTER and MY NIECE are NOT some abstract political concept or overblown intellectualism or ‘things to be used by other people’ from far left to far right as ‘throw pillows’ to make their ideological couch more comfy—THEY ARE HUMAN BEINGS who lost a great part of their lives and souls by serving in the military; the reasons they joined are irrelevant but the fact that they were THERE and just like those young men in their wheelchairs, were not as fortunate as I was to emerge unscathed—I don’t care about ANY goddamn politics when I hear that my sister can’t breathe through her nose because it was broken so many times by her ex; or my niece can’t sleep at all night after night because of the night-terrors that flashback to her rape; or when I can’t look into the eyes of the young men in wheelchairs at the VA hospital. Do not wave your political flags in my face until you can see what I see, know what I know, and feel what I feel—if you could, then hopefully you might put those flags down. I have long ceased to wave ANY flag of any kind because flags are just ‘things,’ like ideas are just thoughts and ideology just an expression of thoughts; none are more important than people, and NOTHING IS MORE IMPORTANT THAN THE PEOPLE YOU LOVE.
    That is it,
    That is all,
    That is everything.

  12. Thank you for putting it in words Renee. I too served in the FRG, 1/80 – 8/82, but at a NATO site for Lance Nuclear warheads. Few people understand the Cold War was not a game. Thank you from those of us that kept watch and were ready. To this day, it still amazes me how I would sign for X number of nuclear warheads and I was 20/21!.

  13. Thank you Jeff for your kind words and support. Again, it is for veterans like you that I wrote this piece. I’m glad that I was able to express what many Cold War veterans experienced and how they now feel that their service is ignored and forgotten. And you were one of the people who would’ve had to launch nuclear missiles if the order had actually come down! Thank you for “being there.”

  14. @ Jeff and Renee,

    Being the guy in position of “having to launch the nukes” (as though he doesn’t have the option to *not* act on suicidal orders…) is nothing worthy of thanks – as the first guy to hit the button is the one who spells the end for life on earth as we know it. Contrary to all that government propaganda that was spread about during the Cold War, there is no way to win a nuclear war: the only possible result of such a conflict is total annihilation – Ho Chi Min was right to call the atom bomb a “paper tiger,” as it’s only real use is to deter others from launching their nukes at you.

  15. Well said, I served during the cold war USAF. security police, SAC. in upstate New york, PACAF. ROK. South Korea and again with SAC. at FE. Warren AFB. Wyoming, Honorably discharged in 1984, currently I am nearing the end of my career in Law Enforcement, I never whined about entitlements but I have to say that being tagged a non-veteran by the civil service system, because of the discriminatory practices relating to who and who is not a veteran that are decided by legislators who have no clue (and most likely few have ever served)has been the single most disheartening issue I have ever experienced,
    member of VFW. and American legion but our politicians don’t see fit to recognize all who served, I have noticed over the years however they (in the legislature) are very swift in passing reforms when the issue is PC. and will either gain them politically or when the issue is financially lucrative for the state, in these cases legislation is enacted swiftly,
    Thanks to all veterans who served honorably and those currently serving.

  16. “Being the guy in position of “having to launch the nukes” (as though he doesn’t have the option to *not* act on suicidal orders…)”

    Option? What military are you talking about? Because a servicemember in the U.S. military who refused a direct order of such magnitude coming down all the way from the President himself in the midst of war — that person’s “option” to NOT follow orders would mean, at best, spending the rest of his life in the military prison at Ft. Leavenworth, or, at worst, since not following orders during war time is considered treason (and I’m NOT saying that I agree with or condone any of this, I’m just stating facts without my personal opinion) such a person could face execution.
    Now my opinion: No, it’s NOT ‘right’ or ‘fair’ or even ‘justified’ in any way; but that’s the law, those are the rules, and once you put your hand up and swear to “follow the orders of my commander-in-chief” (the president), there are going to be consequences if you renege on that pledge; that’s the reality of military service. If you can follow your personal convictions instead of your orders and be willing and able to accept those consequences, up to and including death, then I honor and respect and admire your courage; but I also believe that NO ONE truly knows or can accurately predict what they would do in that situation, knowing the consequences of choosing either ‘option’ because it’s a lose-lose prospect; if you follow orders and press that ‘button,’ you’ll have to live with the knowledge that you just killed thousands of people, while you yourself survived (protected deep in a nuclear bunker); or NOT follow orders and don’t press the ‘button,’ and spend the rest of your life in prison or face execution. What military recruiters DON’T tell prospective recruits is that once you raise your hand and take that oath, you no longer have any Constitutional rights; those rights and freedoms and protections guaranteed by the Constitution to every American citizen are swept away and replaced by the “Uniform Code of Military Justice,” or UCMJ; and it is by those rules and regulations that your life is governed and judged. As the saying goes, “could have knocked me over with a feather when they finally told me,” and far too late to change my mind.

  17. [quote=Renee Y Brown]Option? What military are you talking about? Because a servicemember in the U.S. military who refused a direct order of such magnitude coming down all the way from the President himself in the midst of war — that person’s “option” to NOT follow orders would mean, at best, spending the rest of his life in the military prison at Ft. Leavenworth, or, at worst, since not following orders during war time is considered treason (and I’m NOT saying that I agree with or condone any of this, I’m just stating facts without my personal opinion) such a person could face execution.[/quote]

    And the alternative to life imprisonment or a lable of “traitor” is exinction (for you and everyone else on the planet, including those closest to you) – which is precisely what would have happened had he followed the order to launch the nukes. If faced between a punishment handed down from society and a consequense of certain death (which is exactly what would happen if he hit the button), I’ll take my chances with rebellion against the mad society that ordered me to my own demise: yes my rebellion might fail and I might be forced to face unpleasant consequenses, but that’s a risk I’m willing to take – for the consequenses of obedience to the order to hit the button is, plain and simply, suicide (the established order may as well have ordered that fellow to put a gun to his own head and pull the trigger).

    If that fellow had an once of independent thought in his brain, he would do the same should the launch orders come down the pipe…

    [quote=Renee Y Brown]Now my opinion: No, it’s NOT ‘right’ or ‘fair’ or even ‘justified’ in any way; but that’s the law, those are the rules, and once you put your hand up and swear to “follow the orders of my commander-in-chief” (the president), there are going to be consequences if you renege on that pledge…[/quote]

    “Law?” Ha! It’s just a fiction created by the political class – a word they use to render their will to be hallowed by the masses and obeyed without question. I have little use for this “law” that you speak of (in fact, I defy it quite frequently).

    It’s precisely the kind of thinking you disply here that ultimately dissuaded me from following in my family’s footsteps – I’m not capable (even if I wanted to) of surrendering my will to some chain-of-command, nor am I one to make oaths to incorporeal powers (like “the nation” or “god” – just reified mores and values society has crafted and held above question). I will make oaths and bargains with *individuals* I know and have come to trust, but I will *never* make such pacts with social fictions.

    [quote=]If you can follow your personal convictions instead of your orders and be willing and able to accept those consequences, up to and including death, then I honor and respect and admire your courage.[/quote]

    I will never find myself in this position – as no one gives me orders that are above my sovereign will. In fact, I would go so far as to say that no sane, rational individual would ever put himself in such a position (as that is the position of exploitation – the position that those in power can easily leverage against you).

    [quote=Renee Y Brown]if you follow orders and press that ‘button,’ you’ll have to live with the knowledge that you just killed thousands of people, while you yourself survived (protected deep in a nuclear bunker)[/quote]

    Not for long you wouldn’t – the bunker will protect you for a time, but eventually it’s stores of provisions will run dry and you will die too (within a matter of months at best).

    Like I said before, such an order is suicide – plain and simple.

    [quote=Renee Y Brown] What military recruiters DON’T tell prospective recruits is that once you raise your hand and take that oath, you no longer have any Constitutional rights; those rights and freedoms and protections guaranteed by the Constitution to every American citizen are swept away and replaced by the “Uniform Code of Military Justice,”[/quote]

    1. You don’t have any “constitutional rights” – that’s another civics class fiction. Yes, there is a document that outlines a series of “rights” that the U.S. citizen is supposed to possess, but it’s so selectively enforced that one’s “rights” can be revoked at any moment that the established order deems it convenient (just see the “patriot act” or the “criminal” trial courts [where about 90% of cases are settled by plea bargains to avoid hasher penalties – even when the defendant is innocent]).

    No, you have no guaranteed “rights” – you only have what you are capable of fighting for and taking for yourself and yours.

    2. I’m quite familiar with the so-called “Uniform Code of Military Justice” – and just like the U.S. Constitution, it too is quite selectively enforced (nearly always against dissidents in the military, but almost never against the unquestioning soldier who simply follows orders). It’s just another tool of the establishment to enslave its people with: a means to get the common soldier to follow orders without any regard for the consequenses thereof.

    This is a major reason I prefer small, localized militias to national military forces – no oaths to incorporeal entities are required, no “justice” code (nothing beyond an oath of solidarity to your comrades, really…), one is free to leave at any time without consequense (provided he doesn’t betray his comrades-in-arms in the process, that is…) and, most importantly, one knows *exactly* what he’s getting into when he joins up (no competent commander wants a delusional fighter in his unit – such people tend not to be trustworthy).

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