My Uncle Gordon was buried last month with full military honors at Arlington National Cemetery. A retired Air Force major, Uncle Gordie spent 25 years in the military. His passing somehow adds greater meaning for me to Veterans Day this year.
I am enormously proud of my uncle and of my father, both of whom are veterans of foreign wars. The military was Gordie’s career and a large part of his identity. My father wears his service in the Merchant Marine during World War II and the Navy during the Korean War more lightly. He has never dwelled on it or been defined by it.
My favorite picture of the Beem brothers was taken in Korea in 1952. They look young, casual and confident as they stand in the door of a canvas-covered barracks, two young men from Portland, Maine, halfway around the world and with a lot of life left to live. They look as though they don’t have a care in the world
My father, 28, looks jaunty in his Navy dress khakis, deck jacket and garrison cap, lieutenant’s bars on his collar, cigar in his hand. Gordie, 25 and an athlete at Deering and Bowdoin, looks more rugged in his airman’s fatigues and field jacket. The picture was taken at Kimpo Air Field northwest of Seoul. Dad, who was serving as chief engineer aboard a seaplane tender, though he was trained as a deck officer, had come on leave to visit Gordie. The two brothers remained close even as they lived distant lives. For many years they exchanged letters weekly.
My father wasn’t able to attend Gordie’s memorial service due to age and illness. Gordie would have understood. Three years ago he called from North Carolina to tell me that, should my father pass first, he didn’t think he’d be able to get home to Maine. He was no longer able to travel. Gordie was 82. Dad is 85. They are the Greatest Generation.
My grandfather and namesake served with the Army’s 130th Engineers in France in 1918. My Uncle Bill, my mother’s brother, is also a veteran, retired from the Air Force like Uncle Gordie. No one of my generation, however, not my brothers nor any of my cousins, served in the military. The older I get, the more I suspect we missed out on an important human experience by never having been in uniform.
On the one hand, I would have made a lousy soldier, questioning everything and resenting authority. On the other, I might have become a different man had I gone to war. But World War II might very well have been our last winnable war.
The Korean War ended in a stalemate that defines the geopolitics of the region to this day. Since then, all of the major conflicts – Vietnam in my day, Iraq and Afghanistan today – have been ambiguous and controversial affairs. It’s hard to know what victory in any of those wars would be like. Harder still to imagine conquering Iraq and Afghanistan and having them become stalwart U.S. allies the way Germany and Japan did following World War II.
It’s a different world, a far more complex world, one in which the use of military force seems far less decisive than it once did. You’d like to believe that capturing Osama Bin Laden and defeating al-Qaida would somehow bring peace to the Middle East, but the war on terror has no defined fronts. It is not a war against a nation, but against ideological extremism. Unless you change the conditions that produce terrorism – poverty, powerlessness, hopelessness, disenfranchisement, economic oppression – there seems little chance that a war that has already gone on twice as long as World War II can be brought to an end any time soon. We all wish it were otherwise.
This Veterans Day, as we give thanks for the service and sacrifices of the men and women of the military past and present, veterans like my father, my grandfather, my uncles, it strikes me that it is just not enough to salute the flag, place wreaths on monuments and sport bumper stickers that read “Support Our Troops” and “Freedom Is Not Free.”
The best way to support our troops and to honor our veterans is to insist that the United States have clearly defined and achievable objectives before any more Americans are put in harm’s way. It takes a great deal of courage for young Americans to volunteer to fight an endless war, but it is not fair to ask them to do so.