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The Lessons of War That Few Have Learned

As I exited the Staten Island Ferry recently for an antiwar demonstration of 300,000 people down Broadway, a young man next to me noticed my Veterans for Peace T-shirt.

"What war?" he asked.


"Thanks for your service," he said.

"The war never should have happened," I told him. "It's not something to thank me for."

"Thanks, anyway," he said as we parted.

As a veteran, you get "Thanks for your service" a lot. It always irritates me. I never quite know how to respond because I'm not proud of my service in Vietnam, and don't feel I should be thanked for it.

I was 18 when I joined. I spent the most influential year of my life in Vietnam. Then I came home and educated myself. If people want to thank me, let them do it for what I learned from the experience, not for going there.

The main thing I learned? U.S. military interventions since World War II have generally been dishonest and in support of quite vicious governments. There's Iran in 1953 and Guatemala the next year. And, of course, Vietnam.

My service was hardly the stuff of national warrior myth. I was a kid, a radio direction finder in the mountains west of Pleiku locating enemy units so they could be destroyed. My job was to spin a silver antenna around and say here's a map coordinate, bomb it silly, and maybe, if I'm right, you'll hurt the enemy. Then again, if I'm wrong, you may level an innocent village.

You know... the fog of war.

I'm not a pacifist, though I have friends who are. I will defend myself with violence to the best of my ability. I feel that way, as well, about the military. But like a pistol, the problem is in whose hands the pistol is held and what he or she does with it. The military we have now is more and more the instrument of imperial assumptions beyond even the electoral process.

I know there are people who will distort what I'm saying, and I understand how they might feel. By implication, I'm commenting on the service of others, suggesting that they might transcend all the patriotic and macho mind-wash and consider what their service in places like Vietnam actually accomplished.

Instead of the superficial "Thank you for your service" approach, what if we honestly examined experiences like Vietnam and used them to learn something? Susan Sontag was crucified for saying this after 9/11: "By all means, let's mourn together, but let's not be stupid together." She was right.

If the men and women of the White House had valued the painful lessons of Vietnam over blind service, we would not be bogged down in another quagmire and we would not be having 300,000 people marching down Broadway led by a growing organization called Iraq Veterans Against the War.

These young men and women also choose to transcend the superficiality of "Thank you for your service." While these veterans honor the courage, and mourn the suffering and loss, of their friends in Iraq, they are acting on what they've learned from their experience, which is that the U.S. occupation is wrong and needs to be ended.

Anyone who feels this is unpatriotic should consider the words of a famous World War II combat bomber pilot: "The highest patriotism is not a blind acceptance of official policy, but a love of one's country deep enough to call her to a higher standard." That bomber pilot was George McGovern.

So next time you consider muttering to a vet, "Thanks for your service," take a moment to consider what that service meant to the people on the wrong end of it and whether it was worth all the pain and misery.

In my case, I'd rather be thanked for my service opposing the invasion and occupation of Iraq. In the winter of 2002, because of what I learned in Vietnam, I joined many others who were aware that the blind runaway train full of frightened and duped Americans racing toward Iraq was headed for disaster. Of course, the train went right over us.

If you need to thank me, thank me for that.

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John Grant

John Grant

John Grant is a writer/photographer/filmmaker living just outside Philadelphia’s city limits. He has worked as a newspaper reporter and has published both fiction and non-fiction. Starting in the 1980s, he traveled to Central America and other places as a documentary photographer for publication and for exhibits of his own large prints. He shot and edited an 80-minute documentary film called "Second Time Around" about a seriously wounded Vietnam veteran who chose to live and work in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, 35 years after his first tour there. John has been to Iraq twice during the war, once as an observer critical of the war and once as a cameraman on a documentary film. A Vietnam War veteran for 25 years, John has been an active member of Veterans For Peace. For 11 years, he was president of the Philadelphia VFP chapter. He has taught documentary photography at Widener and Drexel Universities and for nine years has taught creative writing to inmates in the Philadelphia Prison.

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