Unfortunately, I would say based on what we see, read, and hear every year at this time is that November 11th has become a day of honoring the military and glorifying war instead of remembering our veterans and rededicating ourselves to peace. I want to address this glorification of war and the warrior.
This is something of a confessional—an atonement, if you will. There are things I must answer for. It is my hope that what I have to say will make clear where I am coming from and will lend credibility to my conclusions.
As I enter my 9th decade I’m of a mind that my perspective, nourished by observation and experience is deserving of consideration. I am convinced that the America I thought I was growing up in, if it ever was, is no longer. No longer the beacon on the hill, the shining city on the mount, the hopes and dreams of mankind. Through my travels and experiences and study I have come to the conclusion that the U.S. is the scourge of the planet—not just because of our militarism, but largely because of it. Today we have foolishly embraced a bi-lateral perspective. It is us against them. You’re either with us or against us and if you’re not with us, if you will not bend to our will, you are our enemy.
I see militarism and the climate crisis as specters that go hand-in-hand. Our militarism, and our associated conduct around the planet, is the largest single contributor to the climate crisis that threatens all of mankind as well as our fellow creatures. We fail to respond to this truth at our peril—“our” meaning all of the inhabitants of this planet.
I want to dispel what I consider to be a myth: The preposterous notion that the U.S. military is a sacred cow. Rather, I will be asserting that it is the scourge of the planet. If that has any validity then we would have to question whether or not I should be thanked for service in support of it.
I’m a Naval Academy graduate who transferred into the Air Force on graduation. I volunteered to go to Vietnam after my best friend had been shot down and killed in the winter of 1965-66. Here’s the abridged version of my decision. Primarily, I volunteered in anguish and in grief over the loss of my dear friend. But my deliberations also included some curiosity. The war at that time was just beginning to be an issue on our country’s collective mind and an embryonic anti-war movement was developing. It had little currency for me as I was totally a product of the culture within which I’d lived. I thought I ought to go to learn for myself whether or not we should be there. Contributing to that decision to go to Vietnam, was the pervasive, machismo notion in my chosen field, Explosive Ordnance Disposal, bomb squad work, that Vietnam was a small war, but the only place real E.O.D. work was being done. I felt this was a way to prove I was a real man.
Today, and really now, for the past several decades, I have concluded with certainty, that my rationale altogether, was shallow and totally indefensible. I had concluded for those reasons that I was willing to go to a distant country, a country about which I knew next to nothing –not their history, their culture, or why we were there, I was willing to contribute to the effort to lay waste to their country-side, to take the lives of others for those reasons and for the official story line, that, if we were not to stop the communist threat in southeast Asia the communists would soon be on our west coast. Over the ensuing decades—thanks to much reflection inspired by a number of authors and to several subsequent return visits to Vietnam, where I became personally and intimately acquainted with the other’s humanity, I have arrived at an outliers’, at least within the military, an outlier’s perspective: that our war-making in Vietnam was one of the most criminal acts in modern history.
Today, the opinions of those who give much thought to the Vietnam War are likely to have been influenced by the Ken Burns/Lynn Novick documentary which so cavalierly let our leaders off the hook with a slap on the wrist. The film gave American policy-makers a pass saying the war was waged “in good faith by decent people.” Looking at the record it’s much more accurate to say it was waged in bad faith by callous racists.
Consider this description by author John Marciano in his The American War in Vietnam:
“The American forces came blazing in with fighter jets and helicopter gunships. They shook the earth with howitzers and mortars and they rolled over the landscape in heavy tanks, light tanks, and flame-throwers….They had armored personnel cars for the roads and fields, swift boats for rivers, and battleships and aircraft carriers off the shore. The Americans unleashed millions of gallons of chemical defoliants, millions of pounds of chemical gases and endless canisters of napalm; cluster bombs, high-explosive shells, and daisy-cutter bombs, anti-personnel rockets, high-explosive rockets, incendiary rockets, grenades by the mills, and myriad different kinds of mines…The United States had at its disposal more killing power, destructive force, and advanced technology than any military in the history of the world.”
And consider the following statistics, a toll of the war as tabulated by author-activist Brian Willson, in his “Don’t Thank Me for My Service”:
- Over 6 million Southeast Asians, that is Vietnamese, Cambodian, and Laotians, killed—not to mention the 58,272 soldiers whose names are inscribed on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial wall in D.C.
- Of the nearly 21,000 communities that existed in all of Vietnam prior to the war some 13,000 or 62% were severely damaged or destroyed.
- In North Vietnam all six of the industrial cities were either destroyed or drastically damaged.
- Hydroelectric works—816 destroyed
- Factories—400 destroyed
- Bridges—15,100 destroyed
- High schools and universities—2,923 destroyed
- Hospitals—350 destroyed
- Churches—484 destroyed
Willson documents that 13 million tons of bombs were dropped during the war, six times the total the US dropped in WWII. 26 million craters were created. I flew over the Vietnamese countryside many times. I saw with my own eyes—the countryside was absolutely pockmarked.
Perhaps the most disturbing aspect of it all was the chemical warfare. Over 20 million gallons of herbicides, at least 13 million of which was Agent Orange were sprayed over the South Vietnam countryside. On a return to Vietnam in 2012, I met with the representatives of the Vietnam Association for Victims of Agent Orange. I was told that 1-2 million victims of Agent Orange were institutionalized then unable to take care of themselves. My visits with many of those victims and their families remain seared in my mind’s eye today.
What a complete and utter apocalypse we visited upon that country! Yet, in 1977, Jimmy Carter, refused to pay $3.3 billion in reparations as dictated by the Paris Agreement of 1973, saying “the destruction was mutual.”
When I consider this history and my participation in it, trust me, I do not want to be thanked for my service. I went with a clear but uneducated conscience and I returned disturbed. Disturbed by the horrific waste of lives and treasure and that our country has never really come to terms with what was done.
I am absolutely convinced that the extraordinary incidence of suicide by military personnel, veterans of all our wars, is, to a much greater degree than the military might acknowledge, attributable to moral wound or injury—that is an awareness that one participated in acts that no moral code can accept as justifiable.
And I am just as convinced that the continuation of our commitment to war is to a considerable degree a function of our failure to ever accept what was perpetrated upon the people of southeast Asia. I believe that as long as we cling to the mythology of the nobility of our killing we enable our political leaders, at the behest of the movers and shakers of the military-industrial-Congressional complex, to support militarism and to abandon diplomacy.
I can’t find solace in some notion that my country needed and called me and that I answered the call. To embrace that notion would only make me a collaborator in inducing young men and women to go off to one of our wars of today. It would lend credence to the notion these wars benefit anyone other than the war profiteers. By allowing to stand the assertion that these young people have fought for our freedom and democracy is to enable today’s children to become fodder for the war machine tomorrow.
Please understand I am not condemning the young people that are making the same decision I made as a 17 year-old. I am asking that we not perpetuate the myth that military service is glorious. And, I am not condemning service to country, in fact I applaud it. But I am saying that war-making doesn’t serve our country, does not serve our planet, and does not serve mankind.
When we take a close look at the outlines/dimensions of our militarism we come to the unavoidable realization that the American embrace of our “go to” tool is exceptional among nations. War has become normalized in our country. We hardly give these wars any thought unless we happen to have skin in the game. “Since WWII, U.S. presidents have ordered military action on an estimated 125 occasions!” (from James McCartney in “America’s War Machine.”) Our three most recent presidents, George W. Bush, Obama, and Trump, launched 41 operations in 19 countries—with minimal congressional oversight and often in violation of international law. None of these operations have resulted in democratic governments respectful of human rights. Rather they have resulted in gross disruptions of civil society and human disasters.
We know of the more or less direct consequences of our war-making. In terms of death and suffering alone we might characterize it as a scourge. But, more and more, today we are becoming well aware of what we might call the secondary costs of militarism.
To illuminate, allow me to share other personal experiences, my own very abbreviated chronology of the U.S. military footprint on our planet:
- While on my first cruise during my Naval Academy years I became aware of the enormous amount of trash, all kinds of debris, being dumped over our ship’s stern on a daily basis. It occurred to me then that multiplying that volume by the 300-400 ships in the U.S. fleet (now equal in size to the next 13 largest fleets!) represented a consequential assault on the seas. We should know what the practice is today.
- In 1964, I was stationed at Thule AB in Greenland. I learned then that the indigenous people of the area had been displaced to make way for construction of the base. That year I was the survey officer given responsibility for investigating a 30,000 gallon oil spill into what had been pristine North Star Bay. (Exxon Valdez—11 million gallons) Our conclusion, that human error was the cause, was rejected by the base commander and no clean-up action was ever taken.
- During my year in Vietnam my team was called to help with the clean-up of a sabotaged ammunition supply depot. For two solid weeks, we loaded damaged, but unexploded ordnance onto enormous barges and each day we went five miles out to sea where we dumped thousands upon thousands of bombs, artillery shells, rocket grenades, and other munitions into the sea. They’ve been leaching into the waters ever since.
- During my years of E.O.D. work in the states I participated in bomb range clearances in California and Utah deserts, on Matagorda Island in the Gulf of Mexico, and on Vieques, an island off Puerto Rico. In each case there remain today thousands of acres left contaminated by the ordnance.
- In 2008, I returned to Greenland to investigate further the consequences of the dislocation of the native people there. Ever since these people have sought and been refused the right to return. While there I learned of the B-52 that had crashed near Thule in 1968. It had been carrying four nuclear weapons., one of which had broken apart and had never been recovered. I met and interviewed an Inughuit hunter who had been involved in the clean-up operation. He told me of the grotesquely disfigured wildlife he and others continue to find in the region caused by the irradiated environment.
- In 2007, I organized a speaking tour for the leader of the Chagos people who were removed from the island of Diego Garcia in the middle of the Indian Ocean to enable the construction of a huge American airbase from which our aircraft are launched to drop bombs in the Middle East and Afghanistan. These people, too, have never been permitted to return.
- In 2009, I visited Arkansas, where I met and interviewed several of the over 12,000 refugees from the Marshall Islands in the Pacific who live there. Their ancestral islands have been left uninhabitable by our atomic bomb testing. Most of these people now work in the chicken processing industry in Springdale. Despair is pervasive as many would wish to return to their once idyllic home. Through my study I learned of the Ronald Reagan Missile Defense Site on Kwajalein Island in the Marshalls. Many islanders work there but are not permitted to live there. They commute 4 miles across the sea to Ebeye, one of the most densely populated areas on earth, an island known as the “slum of the Pacific.” Here over 15,000 people live on 80 acres subject to all the health issues one would expect in such circumstances.
- In 2013 and again in 2015, I traveled to Jeju Island, Korea and to Okinawa with Veterans for Peace delegations. We had gone to protest U.S. military bases in both places that are responsible for gross environmental degradation and are unwelcome by the local populations.
So, my experiences, across a sweeping landscape have provided me with a first-person window on the more or less secondary, though still, very much direct, consequences of militarism. The complicity of our military endeavors with respect to the climate crisis is becoming a focus of international attention.
Nearly 10 years ago, the watch-dog media newsletter, FAIR, reported that the U.S. military then was responsible for the most egregious and widespread pollution of the planet, yet that information was going largely unreported. Today, we learn that the U.S. military has the largest carbon footprint of any entity on the planet, it being the largest producer of greenhouse gases. If the Pentagon were a country, its fuel use alone would make it the 47th largest greenhouse gas emitter in the world. US military emissions come mainly from fueling weapons and equipment, as well as lighting, heating and cooling more than 560,000 buildings around the world –on the over 800 bases we have on foreign lands.
When I have on occasion spoken publicly of our militarism I have closed with what I consider a rhetorical question, “Is there no place on earth so remote, so pristine, so sacred as to be inviolate by the U.S. military? To me, there seems not to be.
I have written here that the U.S. military might be characterized as a scourge on the planet. I am convinced that to be, inarguably, the case.
Dud Hendrick is an Air Force veteran of the US war in Vietnam (Explosive Ordnance Disposal) and a member of Veterans For Peace.