As a combat veteran who served in a tank battalion stationed out of Marble Mountain during the Vietnam War, my father taught me two important lessons: 1.) You ought to bring a healthy dose of skepticism to all news stories, and 2.) soldiers tend to be a lot more honest than politicians and pundits.
When Pop was 19, having decided not to attend college, volunteering for the Marines seemed to him like a good idea, despite the fact that the Vietnam War was in full swing.
"Listening to the news reports, it sounded like the war was coming to an end. So I figured it would be over by the time I got out of basic training," he told me.
He was shipped off to Vietnam in February 1967 just when the war to "roll back communism" in Southeast Asia had reached the depths of hell.
And Pop, like many of his fellow soldiers, wasn't surprised when the My Lai massacre hit the news, nor did he think it was an isolated event, which is part of the reason why, on more than one occasion, he reminded some of the more "macho" young guys in his unit: "This ain't no John Wayne movie. They're shooting real bullets. People are getting killed."
Even brave soldiers tend to listen to a 6-foot, 3-inch, 220-pound Marine with a rep as a boxer whose job was to scour the landscape in a tank looking for enemy mines to disable.
I have more family, friends and loved ones who have served and who are currently serving in the U.S. armed forces than I can count using both my hands and feet. Not one of them has accused me of being "un-patriotic" in my critique of policy issues, aware that being critical of policy planners is not the same thing as verbally spitting in the face of soldiers - the brave men and women who have taken oaths to defend this great nation.
Speaking of spitting, when I asked my father about how he was treated by anti-war types when he came back home, he said: "That crap about people spitting on soldiers and what not is a bunch of exaggerated bull(expletive)."
Support our troops? Yes. But this business where "support our troops" translates into support the policies made by people with no combat experience, planning and plotting in plush offices far from any immediate harm is a non-sequitur of the highest order.
Admittedly, the press conference video displays of our "smart bombs" doing their deadly business is impressive. Not quite as cool as the military video games on sale in toy stores across the country, but cool nevertheless.
In my more ponderous moments, though, I ask myself: What are those amazingly precise bombs destroying? Water treatment facilities? Electrical power plants like the one my uncle works for here in New England?
And what are the health effects of this destruction? There's reams of scientific data detailing the horrendous results it's had on the Iraqi civilian population ("collateral damage" that continues unabated without much notice in our media obsessed with "important" things like whether or not O.J. smacked his newest girlfriend at the golf course this week or precisely how many cosmetic surgeries Michael Jackson has really had).
Our troops? Government research on Gulf War vets illness is shrouded in mystery, but according to the U.S. National Gulf War Resource Center (www.gulfweb.org), as many as 40,000 U.S. servicemen and women may have been exposed to depleted uranium dust from exploded U.S. and British bombs.
And according to the Gulf War vets association, Swords to Plowshares, when a depleted uranium shell hits armor, about 70 percent of the round burns, dispersing the rest of the radioactive toxic dust in and around the target.
Erik Gustafson, a Gulf War vet who now works for the Education for Peace in Iraq Center (www.epic.org), told me last week, while depleted uranium is nothing to sneeze at and should be of tremendous concern for Gulf War vets who served in tank battalions like my father did in Vietnam, he is more concerned with other environmental hazards that he and fellow soldiers were exposed to during the war.
"The oil fires and the low-level chemical exposures that resulted when U.S. forces destroyed Iraqi ammo depots and other related facilities," for example. Clearly, Saddam is responsible for the destruction of Kuwaiti oil facilities. But, Gustafson says, we should also be worried about the destruction of ammo depots like Kampisiyah (March 1991). "There were probably a dozen or so similar incidents," he said.
Support our troops? The other day I saw a commercial soliciting financial help for an organization that provides housing for homeless vets. Homeless vets! It's a moral scandal that we even have homeless vets.
Support our troops? Yes. Thank you President Bush for having kick-started the weapons inspection process in Iraq. But let's support our troops by bringing them home and not expose them to the dangers that lurk in a war that has not been clearly justified.
Sean Gonsalves is a Cape Cod Times staff writer and a syndicated columnist. His column runs on Tuesdays. Call him at 508-775-1200, ext. 719, or e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Copyright © 2003 Cape Cod Times.