Hearts and Minds

We've gone out of our way to redress the terrible treatment many veterans received after returning from the debacle in Vietnam.

And after having the most egregious epithets hurled at them, having to live with the fallout from what was until then the most dishonorable modern military engagement resulting in the loss of 50,000 Americans, we now beg to bestow upon them the honor which sadly eluded them.

So now we applaud them in airports, choke up at videos on YouTube as Iraq and Afghanistan soldiers home on leave surprise their children at spelling bees. Praise is generous and unashamed; derision a thing of the past.

The "kill 'em all, let God sort 'em out" ethos has been replaced with lump-in-the-throat evocations of The Soldier Who Fights for Our Freedom, who sacrifices life and limb so we won't have to. There is the thanks of a grateful nation, the solemn acknowledgement of their service.

But the reality of those who have seen combat and invariably return with deep psychological or physical wounds is that they are given the shortest of shrift. Their very existence, let alone vaunted war experience, is downplayed.

We have as a nation been duped by those who use our guilt about how we treated the innocent pawns in the Vietnam War game -- the soldiers -- into missing the point once again about the utter senselessness that is war. Because by sugar-coating the reality of sending young men and women into battle, especially for reasons that don't quite jibe with the jingoistic justifications supplied by war's proponents, we are doing even more of a disservice to our soldiers than when we shouted "Baby killer!" at them.

By associating The Soldier with treacle-drenched spectacle guaranteed to induce an emotional response, we are actively disassociating ourselves from the reality of their experiences and the real reasons for the wars being waged. The patriotism, hope and commitment demonstrated by our soldiers is being cheapened by forces which have no respect for that very patriotism, hope and commitment.

Like so many things in our country today, traditions and institutions have been co-opted by profiteers who would use them for ulterior motives. Epitomized by the Iraq War, the actual reasons for its prosecution were never sufficient to justify the horrific casualties incurred by Americans and Iraqis alike. So it was with pulse-pounding, heart-swelling fiction that the war was waged and once again, as the stated reasons began to peel away one by one to reveal the callous greed which lay beneath, the soldier was left to take the blows, to feel the pain, to mitigate the guilt.

And yet:

* Approximately 150,000 of our nation's veterans are homeless.

* There are approximately 1,000 suicide attempts per month among veterans seen in VA medical facilities.

* The suicide rate among individuals in the VA's care may be as high as 7.5 times the national average.

* Approximately 300,000 veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars - nearly 20% of the
returning forces - are likely to suffer from either PTSD or major depression.

* An additional 320,000 of the returning veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan may have
experienced traumatic brain injuries during deployment.

* 116,000+ civilian deaths have been reported in Iraq.

* Military contractors outnumbered American soldiers in Afghanistan.

* KBR, Halliburton and many other companies made billions and billions and billions of dollars in profits from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

These facts should be enough to dissuade the American people from the efficacy of any war waged on behalf of corporate interests, which after World War 2 pretty much describes all wars America has engaged in. But instead, we are now distracted by our assuaged guilt over our treatment of the veterans returning from Vietnam.

We now feel genuine affection for the soldier, we now grieve as one for our wounded warriors' deaths and their family's losses; we wipe away tears for the commitment and courage of our young men and women in uniform. We have made up for the ill treatment of our returning soldiers from that ignoble episode. Our hearts, finally, are open.

Now we must open our minds.