Wednesday, August 28, 2013

The Vietnam Vet

We sat across the picnic table a few evenings ago. I’d heard him mention that he’d been a Marine in Vietnam, so I asked him to tell me his story. The two things that he said most emotionally were, “We couldn’t trust any of them,” and “When we got home, they spat on us in airports and called us baby killers.”
In a rare show of restraint, I didn’t remind him that Vietnamese babies did indeed die as a result of US military action, nor did I suggest that if the Mexicans or Chinese or Afghans were to invade the US, they wouldn’t be able to trust us either. Nor did I get a chance to ask whether he had been drafted or had enlisted. All I knew was that he was a human being who had done what he thought was an honorable thing and had been hated by those on both sides of the ocean whose welfare he thought he was fighting to protect.
And I really want to give him credit for thinking: I can’t imagine anyone going someplace he could get killed without thinking about it first. I’m guessing, but he had probably been told that the welfare of the nation depended on victory in Vietnam, that the American way of life was in jeopardy unless that war were won. And being a man of good will, he went there to do his part.
He had no way of knowing that ten years after he returned from Vietnam, the US army would beat a full-scale retreat and—nothing bad came of it, at least not within our borders, and not done by those my interlocutor went to fight. The war had been forgotten before it ended. I remember reading the newspaper headline about the retreat from Saigon, but it didn’t move me enough to make me buy the paper, and I suspect my reaction was not uncommon.
Countless human beings were killed or maimed in a war that turned out to have been for nothing. Who knew?
The Central Intelligence Agency was at that time arguably the most sophisticated information-gathering agency in the world, rivaled only by the KGB. The US military was arguably the best funded in the world, and gathering information is a big part of their job. I have a hard time believing that between the two of them they didn’t know that the US would be secure even if Vietnam fell. Yet somehow they didn’t tell the man in the street, let alone the soldiers it sent to become casualties.
Daniel Ellsburg and the Berrigan brothers did try to tell the man in the street. And it was the scruffs—the hippies and queers—who believed them and told the government to go to hell—beginning with those whose faith in the government led them to don uniforms. Good Christians remembered Romans 13 and submitted to authority—and got snookered.
What possible good could any government do that would make the damage it did to the man across the table—to say nothing of the sixty thousand dead and countless maimed US soldiers and the hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese casualties—worth it? Does building schools or dams, or providing parks or unemployment insurance, make up for it? Or is there reason to believe that the state—the entity that supposedly justifies some people lording it over others—is entirely the wrong tool for the job of protecting people and their property from violence and deceit?
What possible good can such a state do to further the cause of Christ? How can Christians who have supported such an evil entity be credible when they claim that they have living inside them an omniscient God who guides them away from sin and toward righteousness? How is this letting our light so shine before men that they will see our good deeds and glorify our father in heaven?
Christians are called to tell the world about Jesus. Throwing our lot in with the state—in our case, a government that through either incompetence or malice told us untruths in the 1960s and 1970s and continues to do so today—is not the way to fulfill the Great Commission.

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