Who Should Decide Who Our Heroes Are?
Well, Bill McClellan of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, not satisfied with the uproar over his first article advocating the removal of most military funerals, has now written a follow-up story defending his original position of not wanting the government to pay for "non-hero" military funerals.
Specifically, he now says:
On the other side of the equation, I had a friend who was about to get drafted. He did not want to end up in the rice paddies, so he joined the Air Force. That meant a four-year commitment instead of two years, but he figured it was worth it. Joining the Air Force was honorable, but not heroic.
He ended up in Vietnam. He was a little cog in the big wheel. He sorted mail. Honorable, but not heroic. He had an apartment in Saigon. The bar girls were attractive and friendly; the dope was plentiful and cheap. It was the best year of his life...
I am not demeaning my friend's service. I come from a long line of non-heroes. My dad was at Guadalcanal.
He ran the largest still on the island. When he died, I did not choose to have a military funeral. I bought a bottle of very good whiskey
After I got out of the service, I went to college on the GI bill. As far as I'm concerned, Uncle Sam and I are square. I do not feel like the country owes me anything. Truth is, I got more from the military than the military got from me. I do not expect the taxpayers to pony up for a military funeral.
This all sounds reasonable to those who know little of this history and no other veterans. I daresay that includes many low-information St. Louis Post-Dispatch readers.
First, troops carried weapons in Saigon and were sometimes the victims of Viet Cong drive by-shootings. It took me under one minute to find the story of two Air Force men who armed F-100s having been wounded by a grenade tossed at them near Saigon. During the 1968 Tet Offensive, the first Battle of Saigon was described as follows: "Attacking from all sides of the capital Saigon, the North Vietnamese Army (NVA), and VC launched 35 battalions at Saigon. Sapper Bns and the local forces attacked the Presidential Palace, the National Radio Station, the US Embassy, and other principal targets."
Apparently McClellan wants us all to think that the real Saigon was like the road company of the musical Miss Saigon, only with cheaper sets and stage lighting. Granted, there were those who had it relatively easy in the Service in Saigon or elsewhere -- but they all handled guns and were near grenades and high explosives. A grenade accident is how Max Cleland lost the use of two legs and one arm.
Ironically, McClellan's "logic" is exactly the opposite of those who advocate for women in combat when they say that merely being in a war-torn country exposes one to gunfire or roadside bombs and that women riding in a supply convoy in a place like Iraq puts them in a de facto combat situation. Now these women and men not at the front line have magically been transported by McClellan to a place of no risk, unworthy of being honored in a military funeral? Is that why journalists in war zones wear armored vests and helmets and ride in armored SUVs and armored personnel carriers -- because there is no risk or heroism involved in being there?
What is also most interesting are McClellan's remarks about the wartime experiences of both his father and himself. He states that his father ran a still on Guadalcanal in World War II, as if this were the same as being stationed in the Ozarks. Guadalcanal was within the range of Japanese naval and air bombardment, and his father could have been blown up along with his still.
Because McClellan gives us no more particulars about his dad, I don't know if he was on Guadalcanal during the Battle of Bloody Ridge, when the Marines fought off a fierce counterattack by the Japanese Army. He writes with ill-developed arguments, like someone who flunked out of college -- which is exactly what he admits to in this follow-up article, he then having been drafted into the Marines, being sent to Vietnam, and doing "nothing heroic." (He later states that he finished college on the G.I. Bill.) So because McClellan did "nothing heroic," that is supposed to mean every other service member who didn't see combat but could have been exposed to mortar fire and roadside bombs -- or served on a ship with high explosives and other dangers, doesn't deserve a funeral with honors because he -- McClellan -- believes that their service was without risk?
Now we come to a question this so-called journalist doesn't want to think through -- or else he is incapable of it. How do we set up a bureaucracy to determine whose time in the Service was "heroic" and whose time was not?
At a certain point, McClellan loses interest in the topic and starts to talk about the money we pay for security for former presidents, a figure in the millions for a few individuals who could probably afford to pay their own way -- or make up any shortfall in the costs by giving some public speeches. He has a point here, but it is unrelated to the former service men and women who will not be paid one dime for any speeches they make. McClellan then goes on to mention that George W. Bush has the highest expenses of those currently alive for protection by the government. What he fails to mention is that a book and movie were written about killing G.W. Bush, and the liberal media vilified him every day, thus emboldening potential murderers and upping the costs for protecting the forty-third president. Also, after presiding over two wars, there are foreign individuals -- and organizations like al-Qaeda -- who want to kill this former president, also upping the cost of protecting him.
There is an effect here of reconsidering who deserves military honors at a funeral that McClellan wishes to avoid in his de facto advocacy. If one can redefine who is (not) worthy of a military funeral and highlight a few examples of people who allegedly didn't do much in the military, then one is setting up a slippery slope of propaganda to build an argument over time in both the media and the classroom for future generations to advocate the elimination of all funerals with military honors. This is analogous to Dianne Feinstein's assault weapons ban -- and her public statements going back to 1995 that she wanted to ban all guns. McClellan clearly wants to cheapen the respect for anyone who served the United States just because of his self-admitted shortcomings. That is not a license to drag all other service men and women to his level.
Attempting to downgrade the service of others won't change anything -- but I will say this in defense of Bill McClellan's service, and not in defense of his articles. What he did as a Marine, whether the result of being drafted or whatever, does not lessen the risks unknown to him that he took.
I wrote an article with an account of a Navy corpsman who removed a live rocket from the chest of dead Marine in Vietnam -- at great personal risk -- so that his body could be placed on a helicopter (the pilot had previously refused to take the body) and returned to the States. He did this so that the Marines would not have to detonate the rocket with a grenade and cause his body to literally fly into pieces, requiring a closed-coffin funeral. This corpsman believed for years that he had "defaced" the body by cutting through a few ribs and finally relieved himself of this emotion via a therapy known as EMDR -- and a years-late phone call to the grateful family of the dead Marine.
That type of sentiment is common among veterans -- i.e., they did nothing compared to their buddies who died or were severely injured. It goes by a number of names -- survivor guilt and post-traumatic stress being the most well-known.
Bill McClellan would be best served trying to figure out what he really did risk in Vietnam rather than rationalizing that 99 percent of other veterans didn't risk anything and are therefore unworthy of a military funeral with honors, if they and their families want it. They -- and even Bill McClellan -- deserve more from themselves and the nation.