Published on Wednesday, October 23, 2002 by the Minneapolis Star Tribune
'We' and War
by Peter Smith
Their names are less than 3 feet apart on the wall. They died less than three months apart somewhere in Vietnam. Both were lieutenants; both were killed by hostile fire.
One was a big, gawky guy from Spokane, Wash. We were in the same squad at an ROTC summer camp at Fort Riley, Kansas in the summer of 1967. Because I was big too, the drill instructors constantly paired us up.
Bayonet training, for example.
The drill instructor shouted: "What is the spirit of the bayonet?"
The correct answer was -- and probably remains: "Kill! Kill!"
We joked when we yelled it. We made faces. We acted like the big, doofy young men we were. All summer, we stood next to each other in formation. We shared pup tents on bivouac. We shaved out of the same steel helmet full of scummy hot water.
He was a rugby player and rock solid. He was killed in action on June 29, 1970. I remember the shock. It was palpable. A lieutenant myself, I was stationed in Germany, but en route to Vietnam and when I read his name in the Army Times casualty list, I knew he had been tough as hell. If they could get him, they could get anybody. Even me.
Searching his name on an Internet site devoted to the wall, I came across this remembrance of him:
"He was due to come home the day after he died to see the daughter he had never met. We all love and miss him so much."
The other guy was the president of the high school class a year ahead of mine. He sang and danced and had the lead in every musical the school put on while he was there. As a joke once -- for the high school paper, just to see what might happen -- he got a bunch of change and tried to call President John Kennedy from the pay phone in the high school lobby.
Later, he dated a friend of mine. The last time I saw him, he was on the lifeguard stand at Zion State Park north of Chicago. It was night. The park was closed, but we didn't care. The Army had us by then (What were they going to do? Send us to Vietnam?). We were drinking beer, watching boats out on Lake Michigan and talking about what we wanted to do when we got out of the service and our lives were once again our own.
He was killed Aug. 8, 1970. On the same Web site, a high school classmate posted this remembrance:
"Never forgotten, always a friend. Everyone who served gave something, some gave everything. Tom always gave everything. A friend through High School, a dearly missed friend forever."
It's important for me to remember these two young men. Especially now, when so many people who have absolutely no sense of the real ramifications talk about war and what "we" should do.
Because "we" won't be the people who die on the battlefield. "We" will be sitting on his or her well-padded derriere in a Barcalounger or on a bar stool.
"We" will be too old. "We" will have a trick knee. And when they gin up the draft again, "we's" kid will miraculously manage to avoid the draft without having to face charges that he or she really evaded it. The we to whom "we" refers will be your kid. Or my kid. Or maybe the disadvantaged young man or woman who joined the National Guard to get money for community college.
If "we" goes to war, we will do the dying.
Then "we" will build another monument to another generation of truncated lives, broken-hearted loved ones and lost potential.
And, except when the occasion calls for phony patriotism or more empty-headed rhetoric, "we" won't bother to remember at all.
Pete Smith, an advertising executive, lives in Hopkins, Minnesota.
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