Monday, May 26, 2008

In Memoriam

I'm of rather two minds on Memorial Day. For instance, I have a hard time uttering the phrase "Happy Memorial Day," as this really isn't an occasion for celebration, but for remembrance. And I'm all for remembering and honoring American veterans. But the person I most remember on this occasion is my uncle Gary. He was only five years older than me, and in 1972, right around the time of what would have been his 21st birthday, he was killed under somewhat mysterious circumstances in Vietnam. Gary was about the smartest, most talented guy I ever knew. He played a number of musical instruments (clarinet, guitar, piano, organ), all of them quite well, and he was very adept at picking up languages. He learned Latin at an early age, spoke Spanish, French, German, Greek and Russian. Language skills proved to be his downfall, however, as he opted to become a translator in the Army. He ended up first in his class, learning Vietnamese and a couple of Chinese dialects. For his skill, he was sent not to the relative safety of Saigon -- which is what he thought would happen to the best translators -- but to where the fighting was, the inaptly-named demilitarized zone, or DMZ. During that time, he endured a number of firefights and close calls. and after nine months in country, was sent home for a brief bout of R&R. That was the last time I saw him, as after his two weeks stateside, he returned to Vietnam to finish his tour of duty, even though he was not a supporter of the war effort. He told me while he was here that he spent much of his time there intercepting radio transmissions from the Viet Cong and listening to communications from the U.S. and South Vietnamese Army. He said that, because of what he knew about illegal tactics (think Laos and Cambodia), he was more afraid of the CIA than he was of the Viet Cong. Not long after he returned to Vietnam, on Easter Sunday, in fact, a sergeant came to our door (Gary's wife and adopted baby daughter were living with my mother and me at the time). He told us that Gary was missing in action, and presumed killed. It was months before we got any more information than that, and even then, it was all rather confused and confusing. The story that eventually came out was that Gary's unit had been involved in a particularly intense firefight, and that an attempt had been made to evacuate the bunker they were in. Gary was the last one to have gotten out, but before he could, a rocket allegedly blasted into the bunker and exploded inside it. I've been told that the odds of this happening are extremely high, but we've never received another explanation, and there was never a body or any remains to confirm his death.

What bothers me now -- what has always bothered me, and always will bother me -- is that he died in a war that was based on a lie, a war that didn't have to be and never should have been started. He died not defending his country -- Vietnam was no threat to the U.S., revisionist right-wing history aside -- but in the service of the corporate lies of the military-industrial complex. So forgive me if I don't swell with pride and patriotism on this day of remembrance, because it's not that I don't have pride in my late uncle and patriotism for the American ideal, but when I think of how so many U.S. military personnel have been killed -- and continue to get killed and hurt in a war based on lies even today -- so that Bechtel and Standard Oil and Halliburton and KBR can fill their coffers, well, it hurts. It makes me sad and upset and increasingly frustrated that we obviously haven't learned from our mistakes and continue to make them with alarming -- and fatal -- regularity.

Happy Memorial Day indeed.
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