I grew up in a military family, and vividly recall the negative public perception of Vietnam veterans from the 1970s. Many have heard the anecdotes of Vietnam veterans being asked, "How many babies did you kill?" or being spit on at airports in uniform returning home from war.
Those things unfortunately happened. I can personally remember the cold shoulder of many civilians toward those in uniform in the years after Vietnam. I also remember movies like “Deer Hunter” and “First Blood” portraying Vietnam war veterans as unstable and dangerous to society. Robert Koehler's Nov. 23 column was a flashback to that era and demands response to prevent ever going back.
According to Koehler: "When life itself isn’t sacrosanct — when the taking of it is allowed to serve tactical and strategic purposes — values can quickly crumble. Killing people, at the very least, becomes no big deal. Sometimes it’s even, you know, necessary. … I fear the influence of militarism expands well beyond the strategy and tactics that are under its control. The essential value it maintains, with a budget almost beyond comprehension, is that safety, freedom and morality itself require belief in — and willingness to kill — a designated enemy. It’s the simplest possible solution to life’s paradoxical complexity: Kill the bad guy."
Koehler quotes sociologist Peter Turchin: “On the battlefield, you are supposed to try to kill a person whom you’ve never met before. You are not trying to kill this particular person, you are shooting because he is wearing the enemy uniform. … Enemy soldiers are socially substitutable.” Koehler concludes: "I fear this principle has spread through our gun-saturated society like carbon dioxide in the atmosphere."
The facts about mass shootings and combat veterans show Koehler's thesis to be a throwback to disdain for the military not seen since the 1970s. The shooting at the Borderline Bar and Grill was literally a "first" in having a combat veteran mass shooter. With the exception of the Borderline tragedy, all the many mass shootings in recent years, including the worst mass shooting in American history in Las Vegas, were committed by civilians who had not served in combat.
Additionally, the hero during the Borderline shooting was a veteran, as were many of the heroes during the mass shooting in Las Vegas. Men who shielded others with their bodies to prevent loss of life.
Koehler implies combat veterans are more likely to devalue life and seek violence. However, as Gen. Douglas MacArthur so eloquently put it: "The solder above all others prays for peace, for it is the soldier who must suffer and bear the deepest wounds and scars of war."
History proves MacArthur's wisdom. World War II veterans saw far greater levels of death, both enemy and friendly, than Afghanistan and Iraq veterans. Yet WWII veterans came back from war to lead the nation in peace and build the modern the United States. The proportion of combat veterans to civilians was exponentially higher, and yet no mass shootings were committed for decades after WWII.
Contrary to Koehler's allegations, the military value system is predicated upon moral and disciplined behavior in the face of violence. The killing is limited to armed combatants who are trying to kill, not civilians posing no threat. Throughout our history men have come back from war able to fit back into civilian life as better and "safer" men.
The only real statistical connection to the steep upsurge in mass shootings is the Roe vs. Wade decision of 1973 making abortion a constitutional right. The rise of mass shootings since 1973 and the over 50 million abortions during that time show a clear devaluation of human life.
From my perception, by the early 1980s, the American public began to noticeably come around in respect for the military and veterans. When I was commissioned in the Infantry around the time of Desert Shield/Desert Storm, American society had clearly repented of the sin of horrendous treatment of Vietnam vets. The public showed overwhelming gratitude toward those of us serving in 1990-91.
As George H.W. Bush proclaimed about the victory and American support for the troops after Desert Shield: "By God, we have kicked the Vietnam syndrome once and for all." That support continued throughout the 1990s, and through the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Koehler's article attempts to resurrect the ghosts associated with the Vietnam syndrome in writing about the Borderline Bar shooting. This just cannot stand without the condemnation of all those who refuse to go back to that terrible time in our nation's past.
In general, combat veterans are better fathers, spouses and citizens, trained to stop those who would target the innocent. It has not made us dangerous, as Koehler asserts, but better. America kicked the Vietnam syndrome once, and men like Koehler must never take us there again.