Fifty years ago, I was in a young lieutenant serving in Vietnam. The cost of that war – both personal and nationwide – was high. It nearly tore America apart. It was followed by an all-volunteer military, a series of military interventions, and growing defense expenditures that have drained our financial resources. Recovering from the economic devastation wrought by the coronavirus, however, will require new priorities with bold programs.
The Vietnam War – A Senseless Conflict
Thanks to Daniel Ellsberg who released the Pentagon Papers, we know that even our leaders eventually realized that the Vietnam War was misguided and hopeless. Although recognizing its futility, they allowed the war to continue for years simply for political CYA purposes. Meanwhile the bodies of young Americans came home at a steady rate and our wounded still bled.
It is hard to convey the horror of the Vietnam War to those who were not there. More bombs were dropped in that conflict than in all of WWII. Millions of Vietnamese died and over 58,000 Americans lost their lives. Thousands of our young men, including my brother, suffered wounds that affected them for the remainder of their lives. But hey, we got a beautiful wall in Washington, D.C., our government’s way of saying “Oops, sorry about that.”
I’m peeling the scar tissue off my memories today not to share the reminiscences of an old soldier, but to make a point. What really forced America to the negotiation table during the Vietnam War were the millions of our citizens who filled the streets in protest. The people spoke up and refused to allow beltway politicians to continue a senseless conflict. Eventually, Nixon announced “peace with honor” and American troops were withdrawn. Shortly thereafter, that unfortunate civil war came to a swift end as South Vietnam quickly fell to a North Vietnamese onslaught. The irony is that today Vietnam is a southeast asian ally and trading partner.
It is Time to Reel in the Military-Industrial Complex
We no longer draft young people to serve in the military. Today, only a small percentage of our citizens bare the burden of the endless conflicts which dominate our international strategy. The military no longer has to deal with pesky draftees asking embarrassing questions, and the defense industry churns along unbridled, gobbling up a huge portion of our nation’s budget. The more conflict around the world, the better for their business. For average Americans, the attitude is “out of sight, out of mind.”
But this mindset comes at a cost. Our country has dropped over $6 trillion in fruitless middle east wars, many of which are still going on. The body bags continue to come home. The wounded and scarred vets still fill hospitals and rehabilitation centers.
Even ignoring the human cost, just think of what else we could have done with that money! We could have cured cancer, established colonies on Mars, implemented a national health care system, and perfected technologies to fight global warming. Instead, we flushed it down the toilet in places like Iraq and Afghanistan. That’s why we, the American people, need to get back in the driver’s seat on foreign policy.
Mandatory National Service for Young People is One Way to Get America Involved Again
One way to force Americans to pay attention to what is going on in Washington is to create a mandatory national service requirement for all 18-year-olds. No exceptions, no deferments, no delays. For two years, the government will house, clothe and feed our kids while they perform tasks set by national priorities. This may be military service, but could also involve serving in hospitals, working on nationwide infrastructure, participating in rural programs or performing any duty our nation deems necessary as we strive to recover from the economic devastation of the coronavirus. In return, those who complete their national service would enjoy a free college education, assistance in buying a home and free medical care….basically benefits now accorded under the VA program.
National Service is not a new idea. Several democratic countries have successful programs. And implementing it here merely requires building on programs (like the military and VA services) that are already in place.
The benefits of national service far outweigh any concerns. To collar the military-industrial complex that President Eisenhower warned about, to avoid endless wars and curtail Washington’s inclination to use the military card, we (all of us) must return to a time when everyone has some “skin in the game.”
Do you think Congress or the President would be so eager to use the military option if they knew their own relatives would be put in harms way? Would a possible conflict with Iran, for example, be avoided if they knew their grandkids would be the ones on the front lines?
Economic Recovery Requires Setting Bold New Priorities
The United States does not have unlimited funds. The COVID-19 crisis is forcing us to take a hard look at our national priorities. Revamping the nation’s pot-holed taxation system and curtailing senseless overseas actions are likely changes on the horizon as we struggle to get the economy back on its feet. An economic refocusing with priority given to domestic programs that generate jobs, help the unemployed and puts a roof over a growing number of homeless Americans is necessary to get the country back on its feet. Reflect back to the national programs FDR implemented during the Great Depression. In short, it is time for a major overhaul of national priorities.
Boomers Must Step Up to Make It Happen
Baby Boomers once made our voices heard to end a senseless war in Vietnam. Now, we must speak up again for the benefit of future generations. Our leadership is needed to force a change in America’s direction. Your voices can lead the way in creating a new national consciousness, one focused on creating equitable programs for the benefit of all citizens rather than allowing lobbyists and special interests to control the country’s direction.
It is your choice, my fellow Boomers. There is a window of opportunity here. Please don’t sit on the sidelines. Let’s work together to steer America in down a new path for the sake of our kids, our grandkids and indeed the entire world.