Equal opportunity in the hell of war


November 12, 1992|By WILEY A. HALL

I have not been to war, but I know people who have. And their experiences were not pleasant.

xTC When I was a teen-ager, an older guy on my block named Ronny went to Vietnam. Ronny came back in a wheelchair, paralyzed from the hips down, and he had the hollow-eyed, gaunt look that I now associate with the dying -- with victims of Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome or terminal cancer. Seated in his wheelchair, looking hunched and miserable like a haunted man, Ronny wore a leather bomber jacket bearing his unit's colors. And on the back of that jacket was the legend, "When I die I'll go to Heaven because I've served my time in Hell."

Also, a girl I was dating at the time had an older brother who committed suicide shortly after he returned from Vietnam. And a neighbor's son, who had planned to go to medical school, became a drug addict after his stint in Vietnam.

So, I have learned from these three men that real war is not much like it is depicted on television.

Veterans may say that the experience of war does not leave everyone handicapped, mentally or physically. Nevertheless, my impression is that war is a crippling, soul-destroying, horrifying hell and that no one escapes unscathed. I hope and pray that we never have to go to war again. I hope and pray that my sons are never called.

Fighting in a war may sometimes be a duty and may sometimes be a grim necessity, but it is never a privilege. That is why I am aghast at the attitudes of the military establishment. In protecting the right to serve and fight, the establishment has shown the jealous zeal of bigots trying to preserve the sanctity of a country club.

Last week, a presidential commission studying the role of women in the military advised against allowing them in ground and air combat roles. As one member of the commission put it, women soldiers or pilots might be subjected to "depravity, violence and death" if allowed to fight.

And Tuesday, a federal judge in Los Angeles forced the Navy to reinstate a sailor who had been discharged because he was a homosexual. However, the Justice Department said it will continue to fight for a ban on homosexuals in the military, on grounds that the rule is good for discipline and morale.

I could better understand the military's chauvinism if these were ancient times when war was supposed to be an adventure: bright uniforms, blaring trumpets and strutting warriors drunk on power and glory. Or, if we lived in times like the British Raj, when a young soldier could get rich looting the castles and temples of ancient civilizations. Then, it would be a case of the men wanting to keep all of the fun and profit to themselves.

But the only glory to be found in war these days goes to the fat old men who send the young ones off to fight. The only people who get rich are the munitions makers. What in the world does the military establishment think it is protecting?

Homosexuals should serve just like everyone else. Women should be sent into combat.

The debate, to date, has focused on their civil rights as citizens, just as in the 1940s when black Americans lobbied for the right to defend their country against the Germans and Japanese. Women officers, for instance, complain that their inability to participate in combat inhibits their career advancement.

But I also am thinking of the rights of my sons who might be drafted into the service as cannon fodder the next time some tired old man safe in Washington wants to feel tough. Why should young men be exposed to the full brutality of war while young women are shielded?

"The idea that we would position women so that they could be subjected to depravity, violence and death as prisoners is one that I will not sign up with," thundered a retired Army general, a member of the presidential commission that studied the role of women in the military. The general helped lead the 1989 military adventure in Panama.

And he's right. But the thought of exposing young men to such horrors should be equally abhorrent to him. It is to me.

So, no more military adventures. Let's take war more seriously than we apparently have in the past. And either we all go or nobody goes.

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