The growing furor over President Bush's Vietnam-era National Guard service - or lack thereof - is fraught with consequence and should be of more than passing concern to all veterans. I'm reminded why by my experience at a veterans reunion two years ago.
I've never been given to participating in, or even the value of accepting, veterans' gatherings. All those guys walking around in camouflage fatigues and berets, bedecked in unit insignias and patches, flaunting ribbons and medals of varying significance, completely turn me off. Such in-your-face ostentation seems to say: "I went to war and put my life on the line for you soft, ungrateful civilians. It was the only significant experience in my life. I won't put it behind me and move on. You owe me recognition and respect."
My reaction has always been: "Get a life."
But my grudging Veterans Day experience two years ago tempered my perspective. There is much to say, I found, for the satisfactions of reuniting with former comrades in arms, from whom I gained much and to whom I owe much. Such an experience puts everything in perspective.
Indeed, I encountered plenty of the the faux warrior has-beens, swarming all over Arlington National Cemetery and the Vietnam and Iwo Jima memorials. There also, though, were plenty of guys like the ones from my unit, Charlie Company, 4th Battalion, 3rd Infantry - sincere, unpretentious, well-meaning individuals who wanted nothing so much as to reconnect with their former comrades, to share again something primal and visceral they had shared before, to pay their respects and show their affection for one another. No flag waving, no stump speeches, no boastful patriot talk; just camaraderie.
What do a bunch of aged and aging, bald and gray, mustachioed and bearded, wrinkly guys with pot bellies, chicken legs, stick arms, and dumpy posteriors who served together in combat do when they get together?
They tell copious war stories, to be sure - occasionally clearly and lucidly as if the events had just happened; more often straining to recall exactly who did what, when, and where. Was the helipad located here or there? Did we go on that mission before or after you joined the platoon? Who was the guy who was walking point when we hit that booby trap?
They laugh, as we laughed when we recalled the doofus GI in our company who shot himself in the foot in the hope of getting evacuated from the field. We couldn't agree on whether he was actually smart enough to do such a thing intentionally. Characteristically, though, he failed - the bullet passing between two of his toes and taking off just enough skin to make walking painful.
They cry, as we cried in recalling the comrades we had lost - all of them good troops doing their jobs well and unselfishly, even though they hadn't asked to be there; some of them old-timers almost ready to return home to their families and friends.
They get angry, as we got angry recounting how our sister company, its well-established reputation for indiscipline and sloppiness intact, got pinned down by heavy enemy fire and got us ambushed in rushing to its rescue. As we got angry with the long repressed realization that we had been pawns in the hands of self-serving politicians.
Such reminiscences reminded me of several things. First, for those who have been to war (and even, I think, for those who have avoided war), the experience is almost universally the watershed event of their lives. Try as they may to repress or sublimate it, they can't.
Second, there is a bond like no other that unites those who served together in combat. When you share misery, fear, sorrow, anger, fatigue, and pain under trying circumstances, you develop a measure of affection, understanding, and concern that transcends the minutiae and routine of ordinary life.
Third, in sanctioning hatred and violence, war feeds the worst in humanity. But, in its requirement for sacrifice, courage, cooperation, and compassion, it also calls forth the best. Such a conundrum.
Finally, most of those who go to war, draftee and volunteer alike, are average folks, of average (or below average) means, from average backgrounds. They make it possible for society's political and social elite to continue being elite. Despite that, I'm proud to have been one of those average guys. By the same token, I don't take kindly - and I would hope other veterans don't take kindly - to those in power who didn't answer the call when it was their turn, but who thereafter have no compunctions or pangs of conscience about sending average sons, daughters, husbands, and wives off to die for ulterior political motives.
• Gregory D. Foster is a civilian professor at the Industrial College of the Armed Forces, National Defense University. A West Point graduate, he was an infantry company commander with the Americal Division in Vietnam. The views expressed here are his own.