Dulce et decorum

Remembrance Day in Commonwealth countries, Veteran’s Day here in the US. Ninety years ago, November 11, 1918, the guns fell silent for the first time in more than four years. In London, there was silence, and the bells rang, and people wept.

I was 13 when the first US combat troops landed in Vietnam. That war played in the background throughout the rest of my school years. I was a senior in high school one spring morning when my English teacher walked in and silently wrote four names on the board: Allison Krause, Jeffrey Miller, Sandra Scheuer, and William Schroeder. The invasion of Cambodia had set off protests across the country; at Kent State the National Guard responded by marching on the young crowd—two of those victims were not even a part of the demonstration—with fixed bayonets and bullets.

I can remember reading Wilfred Owen’s most famous Great War poem in high school, and clearly remember its failure to engage me. Why, I wonder? You’d have thought a person who watched television broadcasts of men her age slogging through rice paddies and planes dumping chemicals on the landscape would respond to phrases like “Men marched, asleep. Many had lost their boots…all went lame, all blind.” One would think that the ending might have spoken to her adolescent angst:

My friend, you would not tell with such high zest

To children ardent for some desperate glory,

The old Lie; Dulce et Decorum est

Pro patria mori.

The belief that it was “sweet and right to die for your country” defined attitudes in the Great War, and infused that horrific slaughter with its peculiar bittersweet quality.

But by the time Vietnam grew up across the sea, we at home saw the soldier as being one with the commander: Johnson made his war, the man in the uniform fought it, all was of a piece. When those boys came home, they were looked on with mistrust by civilians who had read about My Lai and daily atrocities.

We were angry, and had no energy left for pity, or even compassion. That attitude, thankfully, no longer exists. Even the most ardent anti-war voice will pause to speak a word of understanding for the actual soldier on the ground. Which is odd, when you stop to think that in 1968, most of our soldiers had been drafted.

That shift in attitude may have been why I wrote about Vietnam (in Keeping Watch, which happens to be the current book under discussion at the forum.) It was an incomplete and harsh understanding of that war, boiled down to a stark Them and Us, and the guilt of the self-righteous, stay-at-home civilian remained in my bones, growing like a cancer until I could bring it to light.

Remembrance Day. Spare a moment of silence for those who did not, those who will not, return.

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  1. Laraine on November 11, 2008 at 8:06 pm

    Thanks, Laurie. I’ve thought about this issue (troops identified w/Commander In Chief) many times, as I was also a teenager while Nam raged in the air, on the ground and vividly in our living rooms, and I was of two minds: I wanted my two cousins to be safe, my ‘boyfriend’–we corresponded during his first tour, dated when he was home on leave, continued corresponding when he went back to ‘the Nam’–to come home instead of re-upping (twice, and I never heard from him after his third tour), my brother not to be drafted (he stayed in school and got married); BUT, I also strongly felt that the military leaders were very much in cahoots with Johnson/Nixon and that the administration’s decisions were not ones I wanted nor supported. I came late to demonstrating, but was well onboard by the time the anti-nuke movement blossomed, and have the strong conviction (tested frequently lately) that each of us, even those getting a bit frosty on top, OWE our community, our children, and our country our courage to speak up and stand up, whether in a crowd on the streets or an e-mail on the web or what. I never would have cursed at or spat on one of the troops in the ’60s and ’70s, but there were times when I would gladly have expressed my anger, grief and outrage had one of the leaders crossed my path! I never understood fully why it is that men whose lives were wrecked by that war felt so passionately that they had to defend the war and the leaders that flung them into it. But, then, a beaten spouse often defends the violent partner, inexplicably.
    I could be wrong, and apologies if I offend anyone reading who feels that GWB has led well in war, but I think it is far easier to see our troops today as innocent pawns in the grip of an agenda that disregards and disrespects them, so our compassion and appreciation for the troops is not apt to be confused with our dislike of the leaders who sent them into danger.
    As was said in responding to your previous post, Laurie, I agree that your work attracts thoughtful people who are more likely than not to take the pain/difficulty of understanding that there are those in the world who think differently than me/myself/I, and attempt diplomacy. I’m of variable skill in restraining my enthusiasm and overcoming judgemental tendencies . . . but I appreciate this community and the generosity of all who post here.

  2. rielphaek on November 12, 2008 at 8:19 am

    “Which is odd……… most of our soldiers had been drafted.”
    I’m confused. Drafted or not, a soldier is a soldier. Whether or not they wanted to, doesn’t change the value of the sacrifice they made.
    Maybe I’m not reading that right.
    Anyway, thankyou Laurie King and all who make this blog possible. Cheers to those who participate, keep a sense of humor and the language clean.

  3. Merrily45 on November 12, 2008 at 2:54 pm

    This was beautifully said, Laurie. I’m a little older than you are so remember Viet Nam and that era very vividly, and agree that the troops who fought there didn’t get the respect they deserved when they came home. There was just so much anger!
    I think you did much in “Justice Hall” to improve our understanding of how truly devastating WWI was…I think I knew intellectually before I read that book, but after I finished it, my understanding was emotional as well.
    And having come to know quite a number of your fans, both online and in the real world, I have to say that your books attract the most amazing people – which says something very special about you. Keep ’em coming!

  4. Kerry on November 18, 2008 at 5:57 pm

    Well said, Laurie, and beautifully expressed, Laraine. Merrily, I think Laurie’s point is that it’s interesting that we as a collective seem to have more compassion now for men and women who volunteered for war than we did for men who had little or no choice in the matter. Great compassion and understanding are owed to all, I think (and I’m pretty sure Laurie would agree) — but perhaps an extra measure belongs to those who were forced into the situation?

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