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(This commentary piece also appears in THE VETERAN, Spring 2012 (Volume 42, Number 1).)

What We Know and When We Know It

By Meg Miner

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"They should have known better," said the Vietnam War vet to the Gulf War vet. "I feel bad for what they're going through, but after this long they should have known what they were getting into."

I was calling to request support for IVAW's Operation Recovery. I hate phone banking, but here I was cold-calling a list of VVAW members halfway across the country on behalf of the latest generation reeling from the effects of "defending" American ideology.

"They should have known better." It knocked the wind out of me. He meant that they had volunteered, not been drafted like his generation. Or maybe he meant that after years of anti-war work, this generation should not have been fooled. They must have understood the stakes.

With very little further discussion he did agree to a few ways he would help the group but his words stayed with me. In my mind, the accusation became "I should have known better." My career spanned over a decade before our first war in the Gulf region and only a handful of years afterwards. I voluntarily enlisted in 1979 at age 18. Why hadn't I learned from Vietnam? After enlistment, why hadn't bearing witness to the routine violence of military culture been enough to turn me against it? I was sheltered from the struggle VVAW was going through by the culture you readers of The Veteran were working to change. It took becoming a student, in college and through self-education, not actual combat, for me to start seeing our militarized country clearly.

But that's not the thought that came to mind on phone banking day. Quickly the thought came, "He's right." I've been a VVAW member for a little under a decade. I stood on street corners with like-minded peace advocates in my community even before that, starting out right after the suicide bombers ignited America's fuse in 2001. First daily, then weekly, then monthly, we braced against the insults hurled by other citizens, adults and teens alike, for taking a stand against the prevailing winds of war words. Odds are good that some of these same smart-mouthed teens marched off to our recent wars.

It seems to take a deep sense of self and personal courage to stand up in the face our country's thirst for vengeance. Or maybe it takes the kind of wisdom that comes with hindsight...with the pile of debris that remains when our personal ideological towers fall.

Ribbons tied, care packages sent, tours rotated. How many now-grieving families of the dead and suffering ever thought one thing that countered the flag-waving masses? How many of today's young veterans were like the mocking teens in my community? And how many have come back and started protesting? And now, many are part of IVAW's efforts to secure needed services for their generation of vets. Isn't that what VVAW members did before them?

It's been awhile since the concept of an economic draft was raised, but even when it was being talked about it wasn't a new idea. That's the trick that got me to enlist. A steady paycheck is all it took to buy my loyalty. Oh how times have changed! An indebted college senior I work with recently told me he'd talked to a recruiter. When he graduates he'll be a nurse and he was offered an Air Force commission AND $40,000 to sign on for a four year hitch. What obscene temptations we taxpayers support. Their effectiveness should not be surprising!

I talked to this young man for a long time about what the military might want in return for that 40K, but I don't know him well enough to know what he'll decide. Should he know better? What 20-something doesn't think mortality is the thing that happens to other people? What young American hasn't been brought up with a sense of a birth right to invincibility?

With the blood spilled, treasure gone, minds and lives strewn in the wreckage of this never-ending War on Terror, I wish I would have told my phone call recipient, "We should ALL have known better." DOD receives astronomical budgets and devotes more resources than seem believable on slick multi-media enticements. On the other hand, American communities hold diminishing economic opportunities for our youth who too often come from school systems that languish on thin budgets—that must teach to tests and not to enhance the power of thought. Movies, music, games, news, religion, politics...all support the glories of war and the infallibility of American actions. What person stands a chance against the economical and psychological forces that assault us all daily?

Yes, we should know better, but we never do. The question to face is, can we swallow our own disappointment long enough to help make sure this generation of vets will be there for the inevitable generations to come? I didn't find VVAW right away, but the steady voices of VVAW members in my community during the run up to our invasion of Iraq helped me find confidence in my veteran's voice.

Growing up in America doesn't equip the majority of us to reason through alternatives to the party line. I support IVAW because I'm willing to work with anyone who figures out the Big Lie of our peace-loving nation no matter when or how they get there.

Meg Miner retired from the Air Force in 1995 and became a librarian in 2001.

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