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Young Faces, Old Story



Over this past weekend, a childhood friend of mine wed for the second time. Among those at his reception were four young U.S. Marines recently returned from Afghanistan, members of the unit that secured the U.S. Embassy in Kabul. Among those men decked in dress blues and ribbons—I hesitate to call them boys, but they most certainly were—was Christopher Kendrick, son of the groom, my good friend Jan Kendrick.

I’d guess Christopher to be about 21 years old, given that he enlisted right out of high school. In just three years, he’s pretty much seen the world. If events play out in Iraq and the Middle East the way the Bush administration apparently seeks, he’s perhaps bound to see even more of it. That’s beguiling to me as I remember Christopher as the little baby in my arms, the rambunctious wall-climber in my backyard, and as the big kid kicking butt in Little League football. Looking at those duty-bound Marines, I felt a mixture of pride and loss knowing that these young men are just four more in that great lineage of American war history. That is, they are ambitious, malleable young men prepared to fight for the rigid ambitions of old men.

At 48, I confess to being one of those old men, my turn to serve in the military come and gone like every other ghost of my youth. Armed with a fairly low draft number (81) in 1972, I was neither drafted nor particularly interested in enlistment. Not many of us were. Few were untouched by what the Vietnam War was doing to our own generation of young men and women. For over a decade, the dead kept dying young and the old kept getting older. Now our own kids are off to war. Such irony.

It’s barely a historical footnote that only 130 or so Americans died in the Gulf War—roughly half the number of Americans killed in three days at Vietnam’s Ia Drang Valley in November 1965. No less than the Ia Drang set the tone for our involvement in Vietnam (we can kill them faster than they can kill us), the Gulf War did the same for our current saber-rattling with Iraq (we can kill them much faster than they can kill us). Domino Theory, containment, Cold War, “Axis of Evil,” weapons of mass destruction—we again accept the vague phraseology, hardly pausing to wonder why we didn’t get Saddam Hussein the first time around, nor what may be the consequence—good or bad—of unilateral American military action against him.

Christopher and his young friends are good Marines. I hope their commander in chief is half as good at his job as they are at theirs, but I don’t think he is. I think Iraq is a tar baby, no less so than Laos was as a precursor of worse things to come in Vietnam. In these times, no American need accept that jets may fly into buildings. Neither, though, should we accept that events must turn the way the Bush administration wants them to.

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