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.