Thursday, April 30, 2009

April 30, 1975

Or as the military formatted it, 30 April 1975.

I fell to my knees and screamed at the little black-and-white TV in our house in Fremont, Nebraska. That last TV news pictures were coming out of South Vietnam as the capital, Saigon, finally fell to the advancing forces of Ho Chi Minh. Huey's were plucking people from the rooftop of the U.S. embassy. Many, piloted by high level officers of the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN), flew family members to safety by landing on the decks of aircraft carriers of the U.S. Navy. These ARVN officers would be shot quickly if they didn't flee. With no room aboard ship for more helicopters enroute, most of these perfectly good, low-hours rotorcraft built in Ft. Worth, Texas were rolled off into the South China sea.

But back at the embassy, things were more dire. People were kicked off the stairs attempting to reach the hovering freedom birds. Some hung onto the landing skids as the craft lifted off, only to fall to their deaths. Others attempted to climb the walls of the embassy, to break down the gates, to haul in family members still stuck outside. Some mutiliated themselves badly trying to cross the razor wire atop the walls. It was dog eat dog. It had all come down to this.

I screamed at the TV, "For this? My generation just went through all of that--for this?" The "that" was the 16 years leading up to 4/30/75. Over 57,000 Americans were already dead, and the toll of war dead would soon climb to over 58K. Among returning vets, the divorce rate would rocket to over 90%. Many had lost limbs, multiple limbs. There would be alcohol and drug abuse, domestic violence, homelessness. And more.

Suicide. Three times as many vets would die by their own hands as died on the battlefields or in hospitals. They would simply choose to bear the pain no more.

It was a far cry from the vaunted fight for freedom, the "if we don't stop them over there, they'll be on the beaches of California before we know it." The Domino Theory it was called. No question that if stacked right, falling dominoes will knock others down. But who the hell ever established beyond a reasonable doubt that if the corrupt and segregated government of South Vietnam fell it would cause the USA to go commie within in a year? Silence. And that's the only answer there can ever be to that question of an analogy that does not hold. Note to country: ask much better questions next time.

The opposite was closer to the truth, however. Attempting to keep the government of South Vietnam in business came closer to toppling our system than its fall ever dreamed of. It cost us dearly. It cost us badly. And the dollars that it cost us are only the pocket change of what it really cost us.

A month and a day ago my great uncle Narvin O. Wittman died. He retired from the Navy as an Admiral, but not before serving in a capacity that supported the maintenance of all the U.S. Navy aircraft in the Pacific Fleet--including the one a young Lt. John McCain ejected from over North Vietnam. Narvin, Sr.'s son Narvin Jr. died as a U.S. Marine in Vietnam in August 1967. And my friend Wes gave his life on April 5, 1968 attempting to save a wounded, perhaps already dead medic he did not know. Wes' death dealt a severe blow to his large family in Nebraska. His mother died in her early sixties. Primarily of a broken heart.

These are only two families out of hundreds of thousands or millions. And there were the deaths of Asians, perhaps as many as 1.5 million. How did they feel on 30 April 1975? Can we ever know their grief and anguish?

For this? We just went through all of that--for this?

Someday U.S. troops will leave Iraq. They will. What happens then is uncertain. About the only thing we can be sure of is that it won't be what we were told several years ago was the aim and the lofty goal requiring the shedding of American blood and treasure. The sectarian and ethnic rifts in the society are centuries, sometimes millennia, old. Experts tell us they are certain to erupt. There are the old sectarian and tribal scores from the Saddam days and before. And there are plenty of new ones from the current Al Maliki days. A recent audit by the U.S. Army finds Iraq very poorly prepared for maintaining, supplying and repairing its military and their equipment once we leave. Baghdad is a segregated, "ethnically cleansed" city living behind 30 miles of blast walls--the squalid version of the vaunted "gated community". Other military and political experts say a civil war there is likely, nearly inevitable. Not hard to imagine.

Pent-up demand, it would be termed, to use market vocabulary. We'll see. I hope not.

One day the reckoning will come. Americans will once again get to say, "We just went through all of that--for this?" Some of us will. Far too many Americans have absolutely no ownership of this war and the way it was waged. That's true on both the left and right sides of our political polarity once known as a spectrum.

I hope with all my heart I am wrong and that things in Iraq turn out and remain much better than the best dreams. But we had also better be prepared for them to be considerably less than we wanted, were promised or had envisioned.

God help the families, and especially the parents, spouses and children of all who have bled on our behalf--not only the red kind but also the invisible kind of the spirit and the heart and the soul.

One thing is for sure. You and your descendants for generations untold will live with the fiscal damage done to our country by what I will go to my grave believing was a reckless, foolish misadventure that did not have to be. There were other ways to respond to 9/11 besides the mythical cut-and-run scenario that we were derisively told so often was the only alterantive to what we were doing. We haven't really had that conversation, have we? Not as a nation and not as Christians. When we really needed it, just as during the war in Vietnam, the church was by and large silent. DOA. Or worse yet, an enabler. A justifier. That's worth a ponder or two as well.

Prove me wrong. Please do so and soon, and I will be only too happy to admit it.

Pray for peace and for all those who know none today: 4/30/09,

Pastor Roger

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