I was struck by the fact that the announcement of the new Washington memorial for World War I veterans, and the exposé of high administrative costs for the Wounded Warrior Project came out at almost the same time. It’s interesting that the Vietnam War was the first American war in which veterans were widely reviled and hated, not counting the Civil War, which was a special case. Other small wars were not widely supported, perhaps the Mexican War or the Spanish-American War, but there was not widespread contempt for the men who participated in them. Teddy Roosevelt came out of the Spanish American War a hero, like John McCain came out a hero of the Vietnam War, unlike most of his fellow servicemen. Similarly, there were some heroes of the Mexican-American War, like Zachery Taylor. About the only heroes Vietnam produced were POWs. General Westmoreland is usually considered a failure. It was a case where the common soldiers won almost every battle, but the generals and the politicians lost the war. So, in order to honor the common soldiers who died, the nation created a Vietnam Memorial to offset to some extent the general disrepute in which the soldiers were held.
For previous wars there was no need to build a memorial, because those who fought were generally held in high regard. There were many local memorials in small cities and towns, because everyone knew someone who had served. Soldiers came from ordinary people’s homes, their relatives, their neighbors. They often came from good families, and those who returned often went on to take leadership roles in their communities. The reverse was true for Vietnam, people from good families refused to fight, and veterans who returned often found themselves treated like outcasts. Homeless Vietnam veterans became a common sight in most cities.
Now, people who grew up in the shadow of the Vietnam era have little idea what national service is like. There was a burst of patriotism after 9/11, but it was squandered in a pointless war in Iraq that had nothing to do with 9/11. After an initial rush to join the military after 9/11, veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan began to be ignored or disrespected like their Vietnam predecessors. Nevertheless, people who don’t want to fight themselves want someone to fight for them. So, they tell the veterans how much they love and respect them, when their actual attitude is, “I’m glad they went so that I didn’t have to.” They tend to see veterans as people who can’t get a real job and have no choice but to join the military. We have an all-volunteer military, but one that does not include many of the country’s best people.
It’s the people who don’t remember when serving in the military was a well-respected calling who now want to build memorials. The men who fought in World War I and II did not think that they needed memorials. They thought that their service was their memorial, and that their sacrifices lived in the hearts and minds of their friends and relatives. But that remembrance has died out, and average people today think World War I and II veterans were as worthless as the veterans of Vietnam, Iraq or Afghanistan. Today many people think they have to build memorials so that poor, stupid people like me will still go off to war when the country wants to fight a war. It’s all about themselves, not about the veterans. At least superficially, it is a better welcome home now than during Vietnam. But is it reasonable that people today care more about the veterans who fought in World War I than America did 100 years ago? And is it reasonable that people today care more about World War II veterans than their loved ones did fifty years ago? No, if anything, the memorials are a penance for not caring.