Charlie Harper: Veterans Have Earned Our Respect Of Their Sacrifice

Charlie Harper

Thursday, November 11th, 2021

Max Cleland passed away last week at the age of 79, just two days before Veterans Day.  He served Georgia in the State Senate, as Secretary of State, and as a U.S. Senator.  Other public service includes running the U.S. Veterans Administration for President Jimmy Carter.  

All of his public service was marked and shaped by his service in Vietnam, where as a Captain in 1968, a grenade robbed him of both legs and an arm.  Like so many others before him and after him, the young man that went to Vietnam with a bachelor’s degree in History from Stetson University and a Master’s degree from Emory was looking forward to a bright future.  War didn’t rob Cleland of future success, but if forever changed both the path and the plan.

Two days after his death, I’m writing this column in the early hours of Veterans Day.  This isn’t the column I had planned on writing, but my mind keeps coming back to Cleland and other fellow veterans.  Some, like Cleland, achieved titles and stature while continuing to serve their country in new ways.  Others did their best to battle wounds received during their military careers, both physical and mental.

When I began writing about politics almost two decades ago, the senior veterans retiring from public service and appearing in obituary pieces were mostly from the World War Two era.  While we’re blessed to have many of them still around, increasingly it is now the Vietnam era vets that are reaching their twilight years.

With the draft having ended with the Vietnam war, politicians with military service haven’t exactly become rare, but are increasingly the exception.  Our military and foreign policy are no longer shaped primarily by leaders that have experienced military sacrifice first hand, nor are those leaders chosen by an electorate that have made the same sacrifices.  

As such, deference to those who have served should be given in key policy discussion and decisions.  At a minimum, respect to those who have worn the uniforms of any of our branches of the military should be a minimum expectation of those participating in public debate.

Respect does not require capitulation or acquiescence.   It merely demonstrates an understanding that the experience and wisdom of those who served came at a price.  For many, the price was high and lifelong.  

We now have an entire generation of men and women who have served in Iraq, Afghanistan, and in other spots around the world in the global war on terror.  The combat fatality rate during this twenty-year campaign didn’t reach that of Vietnam, but our battlefield medical technologies are much better now.  The result is that many more, like Cleland, have come home with their permanent injuries.  

Others have PTSD and other mental health issues that are not immediately visible but are very real injuries just the same.  Our debts to them remain as lifelong as their scars.

We are blessed to have many in public service and private life who have served our country honorably.  Those in public office know that political battles, often compared to war, are the complete opposite.  

We participate in diplomacy and governing for the express purpose to avoid actual fighting.  It’s those of us who haven’t served that too often conflate the two.

On the battlefield, there are clear rules of engagement, though they sometimes blur in the fog of war.  In politics, most of the rules are unwritten.  As incivility in campaigning is now too often celebrated, most of those rules are ignored.

It’s fine to disagree with any candidate or elected official’s stand on an issue.  It’s fine to call them out if they’re not living up to campaign promises made or ethical lapses in office.

We don’t ridicule POW’s for getting caught.  We don’t send out statements on the death of a decorated General noting he made plenty of mistakes and wasn’t a loyal party guy.

Or at least we once did not.  Now….I guess we can blame the fog of peace.  Whatever excuse must be used, it’s an embarrassment to our country and all who served.  Especially, to those who served and continue to pay the price, every day.