Unlike typical Historical Society press releases, this one hazards
to venture beyond the statement of bland pedestrian fact to offer
a personal view of history, politics and their human meaning. It
is not the official position of the Society, but only the sentiments
of Ron Feigenblatt, Publicity Chair of the Society, who feels these
extraordinary times call for all of us to examine assumptions lest we
take false steps that imperil the future well-being of all.
During the past year, the Haralson County Historical Society has
sponsored events honoring the service and sacrifices of its people
in the prosecution of war. All human enterprises are liable to
folly and evil. If war was exceptional in this regard, it would
be unique, rather than the usual old friend and enemy of humanity
War involves the mobilization of masses of people who surrender
their will and suspend their judgment for the sake of acting in
unison, that they might prevail against a similar aggregation of
human effort - or at least a perception of such. War is particularly
alien to communities which otherwise treasure the exercise of freedom
and judgment on an individual and voluntary basis - or at least say
For long centuries in Western history, war was fought by small numbers
of highly skilled professionals financed by a crown, and generally
on a small and local scale - the Crusades being something of an anomaly.
With the advent of firearms, fighting war became sufficiently "dumbed down"
that the average man might usefully participate as a soldier. This was morally
and psychologically reinforced by the modern emergence of popular sovereignty.
The great breakpoint was the mass conscriptions of Napoleon, who told his
enslaved troops that since it was now their country, it was now their
responsibility to fight wars in its behalf. The political advantages of
this arrangement sooner or later led all developed nations to follow suit.
The United States started drafting soldiers during its Civil War, shortly
after the Confederacy did likewise. At first, it was violently opposed with
rioting. Conscription persisted for over a century - even expanding to
include peacetime - until the unpopular war in Southeast Asia or "Indochina"
a third century ago led to its demise in this country.
Earlier this year, some friends and helpers of the Historical Society bade it
to see what light the modern miracle of the Internet might shed on the 1968
death of an 18-year-old soldier in Vietnam, raised in Haralson
County. It was simple to discover documentation on the premature demise of Lance
Corporal Mark James, USMC. The results of this investigation form an online
Paper documents and two Compact Discs ("CDs") bearing video and slide shows
providing additional material will be entered as a single document into the
Special Collection of the Buchanan-Haralson Public Library pertaining to local
history. Mark James was one of at least four Haralson men to die in Vietnam,
and one of very many more to die in all the wars we can remember.
When contacted about James, Marine battalion volunteer archivist Ray Felle wrote:
If I understand you correctly, we are working for a common goal- the
preservation of history of a war that almost tore this nation apart.
Subsequent communications with Felle, a field medic during the battle
which took the life of Mark James, revealed that the experience of the
war often proved extremely alienating to many of its participants, and
that they struggled or even avoided expressing to family the memories
which they shared with their brothers-in-arms.
The "Vietnam War," as it was first dubbed, was not the first US conflict that
elicited criticism or even opposition at home. New England leaders pondered
seceding from the United States during the War of 1812. The Whigs took great
exception to the Mexican War. Anti-imperialists like Mark Twain and Andrew
Carnegie made their moral outage at the Spanish-American war obvious.
But Vietnam was a watershed with lasting consequences. Psychologically,
it was "the first war America lost" - even if American land
or domestic civilian life was never at risk. As mentioned, it ended
the military draft - if not the machinery of dragooning soldiers.
It also led to the lowering of the voting age to 18 - "Old enough to die;
old enough to vote" was the rallying cry of this movement. Finally, it
motivated the Congress to pass the War Powers Act, which aimed at curbing the
power of the "Imperial Presidency." But the impact of these latter two results
have proved minimal. Young adults continue to vote in notoriously few numbers
and Congress has proven obsequious in surrendering to the President the
war-making powers it has, even long after the active threat of Soviet ICBMs
"only minutes away" has abated.
The Vietnam Era remains an active memory. Recently, the leader of a large
veteran's association which opposed the war during its active prosecution
ran for President and earned nearly half the national vote. Moreover, the
culture in which it is tolerable to criticize an ongoing war has proved durable,
even in the face of innumerable recent efforts to gut the Bill of Rights in
the name of an effectively permanent "emergency": The political party led by
the man, who as a potential presidential candidate broke the deafening silence
on the current military conflict in Iraq, has just won control of both houses
of Congress. That man was not dragged off to jail as was Eugene Debs was for
the latter's criticism of World War I - albeit the persecution of many lesser
persons by the national government proceeds shamefully.
These days, the United States has temporary normal trade relations with Vietnam,
something which might be made permanent during the next week. The mercurial
character of international relations is a caution to those who would take part
in war, however worthy the cause for which blood is shed.
makes this point in an extreme way, among other virtues.
The American defeat in Vietnam elicited Chinese alarm that the Soviet threat
of "Social Imperialism" would no longer be checked by the United States.
Within a very few years of US withdrawal from Indochina, China traded actual
fire with Soviet client Vietnam, and actively supported anti-Soviet factions
in African civil wars. At that time, neither the Chinese economy nor military
could thwart Soviet power, but its open opposition undermined anti-Western
sentiments among Free World leftists, and helped conclude the Cold War in the
manner obtained. In the early 1980's, the US President called China a "quasi-ally."
Those who predicted US withdrawal from Indochina would lead to a Communist
bloodbath were vindicated by the ghoulish deeds of Cambodia's Khmer Rouge. But
ironically, Soviet client Vietnam would fight Cambodia - and so China, our new
quasi-ally, would back the bloody Khmer Rouge - just as the US backed bloody
Stalinist Russia during the Second World War.
In light of the manifest expedience which so often guides international relations,
one should be on guard when highly moralistic language is used by political leaders
seeking to justify war - whether one is a potential soldier or just a voter. Before
his belated demonization in recent years, Saddam Hussein was a partner of the United
States and a recipient of its largesse during his war with Iran - in the form of truck
sales, satellite intelligence and half a billion dollars in agricultural credits.
Surely his mass elimination of Iraqi Communists led to his favorable US consideration.
Most people are surprised by how few people wars kill - perhaps only 1% in recent
centuries. (More people died in the 1918 influenza pandemic than in all World War I.)
But in that it kills many young adults and does massive property damage in a punctuated
manner, war has much greater economic impact than a mere body-count would reveal. And
of course, there are extreme variations from the mean 1% life loss. Perhaps a third of
all German-speakers perished in the Reformation wars. And during World War II one in
five Poles perished - a proportional loss equivalent to 60 million Americans today.
America and the other English-seeded colonial nations are basically unique among the
developed nations in how their people and lands have escaped the scourge of modern
warfare. They should be grateful, not smug, and not imagine they remain immune forever
unless the popularity of war can be checked.
It is natural to honor the generosity of those who sacrifice so much to spare others
- even people they will never meet - injustice, physical injury and premature death.
That is why we honor soldiers, especially those losing their lives, who battle in just
wars using sensible means. But we should never forget that our notion of justice is
informed by our limited knowledge of history and our limited understanding of the
possibilities of human life and its motivations - and that other people can labor
under different sincere apprehensions. Finally, we should never allow militarists
and cynics to use, post-facto, the loss of military or other life, no matter how great,
to justify, much less sanctify, any foolish or even malevolent decisions which resulted
in such grief. To do so is to dishonor those who at least thought they were working
- and dying - for justice in the world.
END OF RELEASE
(typo corrected 19 November 2006)