The everlasting toll


As a veteran of the Vietnam War, I hold a special place in my heart for Memorial Day.

Certainly, we all honor those who have given their lives in American wars in pursuit of freedom for mankind at home and abroad, for they well deserve to be remembered for making the ultimate sacrifice.

But this Memorial Day, we who served in the Vietnam War are still being told that our service was in vain, because that war was unjust - and we have to wonder: Will the same be said of those who are fighting, and dying, in the current war in Iraq? These conflicts were not necessary to preserve our own freedoms or even to ensure the freedoms of citizens in allied lands.

When my generation was called to serve in the armed forces, the great majority of those called answered the call unwillingly. But the president and the Congress said the Vietnam War was necessary to stop the spread of communism, and we believed them.

We went where we were told to go and did what we were told to do in the manner and duties of soldiers, and more than 58,000 men and women lost their lives. It was a rich man's war and a poor boy's fight, and no one bothered to tell us that there were questions as to the necessity or justness of the Vietnam War.

Some of our national leaders of today ducked the Vietnam War by all methods available to them - and have since sent other men and women off to war in Iraq.

The first time I ever considered the necessity or justness of the Vietnam War was upon my return to the United States from Southeast Asia. While walking down the streets of San Francisco in my Army uniform, I was approached by a young anti-war protester who berated me and called me a killer for having participated in the war.

I was surprised, shocked and stung by her comments. I was born and raised on a farm in the most southern part of Mississippi. There, I grew up in a culture that placed a high value on the military, the church and God - sometimes in that order. Today, I wonder, where are the young war protesters? Where are the voices of outrage about our country's prosecution of a war of choice in Iraq that has changed our national character as much as 9/11 did?

What do we, the living, say to the ghosts of our honored dead who gave their lives in Vietnam and Iraq? Do we tell them that we are sorry that they may well have died in vain? I think not; even the thought of having been asked by your country to go to war without just cause hurts to the core of the spirit.

There is no doubt in my mind that the leaders of our country who sent our young men and women to Iraq do not understand the pains and ravages of war, and that the toll on the soul is everlasting.

Immediately after 9/11, virtually all Americans would have marched off to war without fear or pause to avenge the cowardly attack on our country. The only question that Americans had after 9/11 was the identity and location of the attackers so that they could be caught and punished. On this question, our national leaders failed and misled us.

Now we are engaged in an unending war in Iraq with a mounting death toll. Will we honor, mourn and remember the dead on future Memorial Days as having died in vain in a war not of necessity but of choice? What does it say of our national character if we choose only to honor, mourn and remember the dead and not take the necessary action to prevent their deaths?

On this Memorial Day, I mourn for my country as well as for the dead.

Kenneth Lavon Johnson is a retired judge of the Baltimore City Circuit Court.

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