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Can soldiers be good in ‘rotten’ wars?

Observer Viewpoint | Friday, November 11, 2005

It is most befitting that the midshipmen from the United States Naval Academy clash with Notre Dame on the gridiron during this Veteran’s Day weekend. Since it is a time of international conflict, the football festivities that salute this nation’s warriors will be more poignant on campus. Nothing we civilians do can mean as much to the men and women serving in the military than to guarantee that our political leaders are fair in their administration and deployment of those who protect us. That thought should be with us during our celebrations.

Throughout the week the cable television stations have presented several classic war movies in honor of our veterans. In one of those black and white films, a single spoken line uttered by a World War II soldier has distinguished itself above the others and seems to ring true for every war. After men in his platoon commit an atrocity, a sergeant asks his captain, “How can you be a good soldier in a rotten war?”

All wars are “rotten” in every conceivable aspect. Mortal beings are asked to perform immortal tasks beyond human limits, endure unimaginable conditions that under normal societal standards would not be acceptable for our pets and witness immoral brutality that most refuse to discuss when they return home. One cannot comprehend the affects of war on its military personnel and the affected civilian population until one has walked in a warrior’s boots.

The personal nightmares of those who fight in every war come from differing conditions but are similar in their debilitating grip on our veterans. In the recent television miniseries, “Band of Brothers,” the platoon leader faced his nightmare when he crossed the height of a Holland dike and quickly encountered an unarmed German soldier, alone and no older than sixteen. The American instinctively raised his rifle and shot the youth dead. Throughout the movie the American relived his nightmare, each time looking deeper into the eyes of the German youth.

Any modern day war veteran will tell you that the three smells of war are rotting flesh, fuel and burning rubber. Most veterans cannot free themselves from various reminders of war when they return home. As hard as it is to block their horrors from memory, the World War II veteran will remember the unprecedented number of dead comrades and civilians that mounted daily in that great struggle. Korean War veterans will recall the massive armies supplied by the Chinese that overwhelmingly advanced as though their numbers would never diminish. The Vietnam War veteran will remember the cruel mutilations enacted upon his American brothers’ bodies as a personal message of hate from the enemy.

This writer first wore an Air Force uniform as a Notre Dame freshman during the height of the Vietnam War’s unpopularity. My family has a long line of veterans who have fought both at the front line and behind the lines as well as been captured by the enemy. Nobody knows better the need to prevent war than one who has been in uniform.

Today, too many who have never worn a uniform try to advance positions that foster conflict rather than prevent it. It is the duty of every American to question why we are engaged in conflict, to question where we are fighting and to question when the war will end. It is not harmful to those in uniform to ask the hard questions that will remove them from harm’s way.

We owe it to those serving today to protect them by holding those in charge of our government to fair and truthful standards of deployment. Too many of the National Guard – those who are supposed to be part time, local servants – are serving full time on the front lines. As a result, some of these part-timers have acted “rotten” with prisoners or war.

We owe it to those serving today to keep them acting as good soldiers by upholding the highest standards of freedom as their model. We cannot stand as the beacon of hope if we torture prisoners. We cannot be the model of democracy if we refuse to state our opposition to torture in legislative initiatives or give prisoners their day in court. We cannot continue to be the envy of the world if we have no moral authority to pass on to our troops.

Finally, we owe it to those serving today to honor the reasons why they have volunteered to serve. They enlisted to protect and be a symbol of our nation’s greatest attributes. It is heartbreaking after their deaths to watch them honored as fallen heroes without knowing that the purpose of their missions are as lofty as their sacrifices. For if their missions have little purpose, if they have little sense and no exit strategies, the war in which they fight will be the most “rotten” of all.

Gary Caruso, Notre Dame ’73, is a political strategist who served as a legislative and public affairs director in President Clinton’s administration. His column appears every other Friday. He can be contacted at [email protected]

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.