The gulf war welcome wagon

Myron Beckenstein

April 09, 1991|By Myron Beckenstein

OF COURSE much of it is the joy we feel in almost all of them getting home safely and the pride we feel in the job they did, but there seems to be more to it than that in the way we have responded to welcoming our gulf troops home.

Letter writers to The Evening Sun have compared the greeting not only to that given Vietnam War returnees, but also to those given those after World War II. One man wrote that he had fought for years, in battle after battle, moving from one hardship to another. On his return he received no city hall celebrations, no big welcomes, just 35 cents to see him the final step home.

The writers say they feel the gulf war troops did a fine job and are deserving of a pat on the back, but aren't we going overboard, they wonder. They have a point.

People who were away from home a matter of weeks or possibly a few months, people who never saw a day of combat, are being welcomed as conquering heroes. While they may have been ready to act bravely for their country, most never actually did. If heroism were based merely on intentions, we'd all qualify.

Much of our reaction can be traced to finally having a real victory. It has been a long time. Korea. Vietnam. The ill-fated Mayaquez rescue attempt in 1975. The ill-fated Desert One rescue attempt in 1980. The pretentions that Grenada and Panama were finely executed battles and wonderful victories.

But Iraq was different. Iraq supposedly had a formidable army. It supposedly was prepared to play both hard-to-get and dirty. The relief when this didn't happen, the euphoria at the well conceived and executed battle plan and the relief over the quickness of the ground battle took on an added dimension against this background. Didn't we look wonderful? Let's hear it for us! Finally.

But there seems to be more.

One difference between the gulf war and the Vietnam war is that the gulf war had a distinct ending date. Vietnam just sort of ground on and ground down. There was no date when victory was declared so we could synchronize our celebrations.

Also, unlike World War II, Vietnam troops did not sign on for the duration. They served a couple of years and then returned to civilian life. But the war was still on, still seeking that light at the end of the never-ending tunnel, and there was no real reason for celebration.

By the time the war finally whimpered into history most of the troops already were home. There was no reason to celebrate the last few who were pulled out. The American involvement was over but the war still was going on.

World War II did have a definite closing date, two in fact, one in Europe, one in the Pacific. The first troops home after those dates probably got the red-carpet treatment, as did a few select others, the first back in Baltimore, the first in Frederick, the first in Hagerstown. But after that I suspect the celebrations dwindled and the troops who were not among the lucky first few, those who came home months later, mostly got the 35-cent treatment.

In this regard the gulf veterans are likely to be no exception. We are seeing the first ones back getting the big hello. The others will be received less spectacularly. Even joyous celebrating of the same event becomes boring after a while. It's not like a baseball team that can provide a fresh reason for celebrating each day.

Since they are arriving back by plane at a multitude of places, they probably won't even have the pleasure of a permanent welcoming band that was able to greet the arrivals when they all flowed through a few ports when sea travel was the mode.

Another factor could be the conduct of the troops themselves. The reputation of those from Vietnam was tainted by reports of drugs and fragging. We like our heroes less sullied.

Revisionists a few decades down the road may come to the conclusion that the gulf war actually was very unpopular. Witness the way two recent movies fared in the Academy Award process, a sure indicator of popular feeling. One of the most decorated films was one that pictured the army as a collection of mostly fools or villains. Totally overlooked was one that pictured the military as valiant and brave.

The first film was "Dances with Wolves." Most of the soldiers, and the military itself, are portrayed as lasciviously brutal and so close-minded that they couldn't tell wrong from right. The only good soldier for most of the movie was the one who went against the system. If this isn't anti-military, what is?

The other film was "Memphis Belle," the story of a bomber crew in World War II. So moving was this film that, at least in the showing that I saw, the audience did not make its usual rush to the exit as the The End sign popped on, but stayed seated to see who played each of the main characters. That is a rare tribute to a film. But it received no Academy Award nominations. Another indication of the bias against the military -- at least to people who try to figure out what things were like from the disadvantage point of the future.

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