Letter to the Editor

Apparently the big guys, the tough professionals who understand the “real world” of politics, know what all of those Americans, who are tired of politicians who put party before principle, just don’t understand: that whenever things get tough, it’s best to lay low and wait for a better chance.

I am thinking right now about the Viet Nam Memorial.  When I first saw it with my wife Eileen, I started looking for my friends’ names.  I made a lot of friends while going through basic training, and while training to be a combat engineer in 1967.Combat engineers arm and disarm land mines and booby traps, known these days as IED’s, set up demolitions and build air strips and bridges under combat conditions.  When something blew an infantryman into the air, his squad froze and called for a combat engineer to find the rest of the things that blow up and disable them.  The guys I was training with were mostly drafted, and some were enlistees.  They would be heading for ‘Nam when we finished training, where they would have a very low survival rate.  As a National Guardsman who had enlisted to avoid the war, which I already hated, I would be going home.

One bitter winter afternoon during training, we were herded into a large smoky tent around an oil heater, where we were shown an “airborne” recruiting film.  The Army needed more airborne personnel to jump out of airplanes into bad places, and hoped some of us would volunteer.  As a 19 year old male, I was subject to the same hot flashes of rushing testosterone and adrenaline that afflict most young men, and the same emotional responses to the images of John Wayne heroism on which we had all been raised, qualities that made us such great cannon fodder.

The film was very good, similar to one I witnessed just a year ago at our local high school.  It had stirring music, images of historic heroism, flags, parents, beautiful girls and stuff.  When they got done I would have killed anything to have the opportunity to come home in my uniform as beautiful girls stood in awe of my daring heroism.

Some guys were there to sign any of us up who were willing.  I decided to do it, and told a couple of buddies, who were already destined for the rice paddies.  My buddies asked me to come outside for just a second.  We went out and they physically restrained me, shook me up and managed to delay me until they could talk some sense into me.  Eventually I relented, and reverted to Plan A: Go Home.  Because I’ve always tended to be a bit of a risk taker in threatening situations, I figure they saved my life.

So anyway, Eileen and I were walking the memorial in Washington, and I didn’t think it would affect me that much.  We walked along the wall, laid out chronologically from the beginning to the end of the war, and as we got up to around ’68 I started looking for names.  I don’t really remember many and found none, but I began to become overwhelmed by the size of the wall.  The biggest thing about the wall is the way the artist grew it taller and taller to the point of greatest carnage, I think around ’68 or ’69.  I stopped there and stared towards the end of the wall, so far away I could barely see it.  The place where we were standing represented the point in time when everyone, even the cheerleaders and war proponents, knew in their hearts that everything yet to come was just bullshit.

Tears welled in my eyes as I looked at the height of the wall over my head, behind me at the tens of thousands who died before ’68, and then down the wall.  Everything behind us was sad, but all of the thousands and thousands of names ahead were just tortured, shrieking ghosts.  They were all of the beautiful young men and women that we just kept pushing into the meat grinder as their eyeballs, arms, legs and pieces of their brains fell on the ground, blown up in a game we bought with our tax dollars, and approved in budgets in Washington.  For all of those years as their blood seeped into the mud, other people in Washington who knew more than us kept strategizing behind closed doors, and doing the best they could to function in the “real” political world, waiting for a better opportunity to do the right thing.

Those memories are impossible to escape this Memorial Day.

For politically pragmatic reasons in 2003, Congressional Democrats (exept Mark Udall and a few stalwarts) voted not for a war in Iraq, but to let the president decide. He was given leeway to use force if diplomacy didn’t work.  He attacked virtually immediately.

By not voting on the war directly, Congress was able to avoid being blamed for the war, or for not supporting it.  The strategy has worked out pretty well so far for the Democrats, as Republican chances are now buried under a pile of human bodies.

We are now looking forward to the 2008, and the same election dynamics exist as in 2003, and quite honestly, as in the last seven years of the Viet Nam War.  We Democrats recognize pragmatically that we can’t overide a president’s veto, and don’t want to take the chance of being blamed for the war by doing something to change it, to brand it as ours.  We don’t want the Republican operatives to have anything to hit us with next year.

In the meantime, the blood seeps into the sand.

Democratic, Republican and Unaffiliated acquaintances alike in the last 24 hours have told me they are nauseous over the lack of any difference between the political parties in Washington, because they thought something would happen once the Democrats were in power, but it didn’t.

Congressional elections take place every two years.  That means there are only two kinds of years:  The year before an election, and the year of an election.  The former, the kind we had this year, is Congress’ best chance to act on their instincts without fear of election year reprisal.  They didn’t use it this year because next year is a presidential election and a Colorado Senate election.  But do you know what?  It’s always something, just like it always was when we pushed tens of thousands of our children into the meat grinder in ‘Nam year after year, well after we knew it was over.

I know that our Democratic representatives in Washington have their hearts in the right place.  At the same time, they signed up to take the heat.  Maybe they couldn’t win against the president’s veto, but the Democratic grass roots still have every right, and a duty, to express their outrage over foreign policy gone completely awry, and to declare this functionally toothless vote to fund the Iraq War completely unacceptable.

Randy Wheelock
Clear Creek County, Colorado


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