As I write, it is Veterans Day. Coincidentally last night, November tenth, the annual Marine Corps birthday party took place at the Tratoria, a local Italian restaurant. I hadn´t gone before, not being much of a joiner, but went this time with Vi and Natalia. The assembled were nice people, well along in years, as am I. There were good food, patriotic speeches, and a birthday cake. We sang the Marine Corps Hymn, though “from the halls of Montezuma” was perhaps not a high point of diplomatic appropriateness in Mexico.
A camaraderie exists among Marines, into which I fit oddly. It starts with boot camp at Parris Island or, for the Hollywood Marines, at the recruit depot in San Diego. Men remember it because it was hard, demanding, a rite of passage to manhood. I understand that boot has been watered down as the country moves toward the goal of a non-violent Marine Corps, but in the Sixties it hadn´t been. If you got through it, you had done something, and you knew it. Those who hadn´t were an inferior species. We remember it with fondness, and a bond.
And then for Marines there are the wars, which we always have. I don´t know why. For most at the Tratoria, it was I suppose Southeast Asia. We had talk of sacrifice and duty. There is a romance to war that has called to men since well before the days of Marcus Aurelius wintering on the Rhine-Danube line, when Rome, not America, was Rome. War is another bond.
For me it was lying in the tropical night of Danang on top of a sand-bagged amtrac, LVT P5, big engine growling at the idle, star shells flickering high and trailing white smoke that looked almost solid, rifle in hand, occasional spent bullets from the valley below zzzzzzzzzzzzzz! overhead. It was a time for men, of big events, away from the sorry life we would mostly retune to of offices and soft pogues for bosses.
So I understand when veterans get together and give patriotic speeches at a thousand Legion halls around the world. Yet, listening to the speeches, I wondered at the near total disconnect from reality. We Marines, I heard over and over, had made sacrifices “to protect our freedom.” Made sacrifices or been sacrificed? How exactly, I wondered, had remote wars against primitive societies on the other side of the world protected our freedom? As so often, I marveled at the automatic assumption that America is somehow more free than other places. How more free than Switzerland, Australia, Japan, Germany, or Holland? I feel freer in Mexico than in the growing police state to the north.
Most veterans in the Legion halls have had little contact with people in other countries, especially with the people of the countries where they have fought. I did. I covered the last year of the debacle in Vietnam, 1974-75, as a stringer for Army Times. A very green reporter cutting my teeth on a big story, I lived in $20-a-month rooms in back alleys, close to the bone.
There I found the Viets, the Cambodians, the Chinese to be likable sorts, damned interesting, caught up in a godawful tragedy not of their making and beyond their understanding. They didn´t understand about our freedom. They didn´t understand why half a million foreigners were in their country, bombing, shelling, napalming, burning, killing. Which is exactly what we were doing.
A decade of so back, I was visiting friends in Bangkok and decided to catch the train north to Nong Khai on the Thai-Lao border and spend a week in Laos. I took a room in a hotel on the Mekong, not much more than a large creek at that point. At a local pizzeria I met a young Lao woman who spoke English and, with her husband, ran a jackleg tour service. He had a car.
Laos was then, as it was during the war, a slow, hot, pleasant Asian backwater posing no threat to anyone at all. We drove through endless quiet, quiet, quiet, hot, hot, hot countryside to see what was there. At one point we stopped in Vientiane to talk to some of the young woman´s friends (I forget her name). They spoke English. She mentioned something about before her father died. What happened to him, I asked?
“He died fighting the Americans.”
How many Laos did we butcher for nothing, how many Vietnamese, how many Cambodians? Millions, literally. For nothing. Nothing. How many Iraqis? Afghans? Pakistanis? If any of it preserved my freedom, I am unaware of it.
How many in the Legion halls, the Marine Corps birthdays—they are friendly, decent, likeable men—have any idea of this?
Cambodia: Another sleepy land of jungle and silence and horrendous death, thanks to protecting our freedom. During the siege, I lived on a rooftop apartment at 98 Jawaharlal Nehru Street, shared with Steve Hedder, a young stringer for Time or Newsweek, I forget which. Half of it was patio, open to the sky.
Here was more of the poisoned romance of war. Often we lay under the night, floating in a Nembutal haze, the smell of flower trees thick in the air and charcoal smells and low murmer of Khmer voices from neighboring roofs. There was the occasional whistling twitter of Chicom 107s sailing in from the swamps, kerboom, but we knew we were out of range. Oh yes.
There were living with us two young Khmer girls, perhaps sixteen, sisters I think of Steve’s Cambodian wife Devi. They were pretty, slender, sweet kids. I could talk to them because they had learned French at the Alliance Francaise and mine, while it would have caused the entire nation of France to retch in three-part harmony, was adequate for communication.
The end came. Steve got Devi out in the evacuation, but not the girls. Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge, a direct result of the destabilization of Southeast Asia by the US, took Phnom Penh. The KR proceeded to kill, by torture, beating, starvation or overwork, anyone with soft hands—students, intellectuals, the middle class. The girls didn´t have a chance. Rifle-butted to death? Raped and bayoneted? Fell from exhaustion on the forced exodus from the city? I don´t know.
But please God, not Tuol Sleng, the torture operation set up by the KR in a former girls´ school. I went there many years later and wished I hadn´t. Far better to be raped and bayoneted.
God knows how many of these poor innocents were tortured to death in Tuol Sleng, a place the CIA would love. After the war a friend found a picture of a former girlfriend in the death records. We are, however, still free.
The rest of the planet pays a high price for our freedom. This is no doubt justified because we are the city of the hill, a light to the nations, bringing democracy and human rights to a globe thirsty for improvement by us. I have just never seen it. I like the people at the Legion halls, at birthdays for the Marine Corps, but I may be a little less proud of what we did.