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Herb Rothschild Jr.: A Veterans Day meditation

In “The Final Days,” Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein’s account of what occurred in the White House as Nixon’s presidency lurched toward its end, they reported that Secretary of State Henry Kissinger told Chief of Staff General Alexander Haig, “Military men are just dumb, stupid animals to be used as pawns in foreign policy.” The remark has been widely quoted, although it isn’t certain that Kissinger actually said it or, if he did, whether he was just dissing Haig, with whom he was vying for control.

There are at least two reasons why many people accept the quote at face value. One is that it seems in character. Under Nixon and Ford, Kissinger conducted U.S. foreign policy in a cynical and murderous way. Had even procedural justice been done later, he would have appeared in both Spanish and Chilean courts to answer for his role in Agosto Pinochet’s crimes against humanity. That he still enjoys public respect is a moral indictment of our media and our public policy establishment, for whom the deaths of his myriad victims in Vietnam, Cambodia, Chile, East Timor and elsewhere seem to count for nothing. The other reason people repeat the quote is for the truth it contains.

The way that truth is expressed is grossly ungenerous and inaccurate. It’s hard for me to imagine my telling, say, Tulsi Gabbard or Pete Buttigieg that they’re just dumb, stupid animals, because they are as intelligent and morally concerned as I. Yet, I might be up to asking them what they were thinking when they allowed themselves to be sent to Iraq and Afghanistan. And I’ve often been tempted to ask someone who wears a baseball cap advertising himself a Vietnam vet how that experience really worked out for him and why he’s proud that he inflicted such awful suffering on a people who never offended against him or his.

Most of those who volunteer for military service are young. Their motives for signing up are understandable — e.g., a path out of poverty, imparting structure and purpose to their lives, following in family footsteps — even admirable — desiring to serve their country. And nothing in their cultural experience counterbalances the glorification of our nation’s militarism to which they’ve been continually exposed. There’s been no youth-led anti-war movement for 45 years, because affluent, college-going kids like those who led resistance to the Vietnam war now disregard our overseas predations.

Since the draft ended, we’ve had an army of mercenaries who don’t realize that’s what they are. If they did, at least they would demand compensation more equivalent to that of the private contractors we now use in abundance. (For example, an “Integration and Training Instructor” in Iraq gets paid $550 per diem + benefits — see silentprofessionals.org for a current listing of such jobs).

At my suggestion, last Veterans Day the Ashland Culture of Peace Commission and Rogue Valley Veterans for Peace Chapter 156 honored Returned Peace Corps Volunteers living in our area. The event at the Thalden Pavilion was as uplifting as it was unique. It strengthened my conviction that we should require of every American two years of national service, with the military as merely one option. Every benefit of military service would accrue to the individual participants and to the country, and they could avoid all its dreadful drawbacks.

In the meantime, let’s respect our veterans. But please, let’s stop thanking them for “safeguarding our freedom.” They’ll never wise up if we do.

Herb Rothschild’s column appears in the Ashland Tidings every Saturday.