Remembering Vietnam, Honoring Senator Hagel

Ploughshares Fund board member Senator Chuck Hagel (R-NE) honored America’s veterans with President Barack Obama at the Vietnam War Memorial on May 28. I was in the audience as his guest when the Senator reminded us, “There is no glory in war, only suffering.”

Senator Hagel and the President spoke with other dignitaries at a Memorial Day ceremony commemorating the 50th anniversary of the start of the Vietnam War. Addressing several thousand guests in the steamy Washington heat, Senator Hagel and the President struck just the right balance, uniting, as the President said, “those who fought in the war and those who fought against it.” Senator Hagel said:

This uniquely American day, Memorial Day, was born over 140 years ago out of America’s Civil War, our most costly and terrible war – a war that tore at the heart and fabric of our republic. The next American war to divide America produced this simple and elegant Memorial that watches over us today. It reflects the images of the future as it records the names of the past. Memorials are built for the living and…instruct us of the powerful responsibility of our nation’s stewards to make policy worthy of the sacrifices of those who served and died.

When Senator Hagel spoke of the war, he spoke from personal experience. He served in Vietnam, in the same squad as his brother, Tom, who was also at the ceremony.

War is not an abstraction. It is brutal and is always accompanied by the haunting portends of dangerous unintended consequences, uncontrollable and unpredictable. And even though this is so, America’s men and women have always found higher purpose to their lives in service to their country. I often think about those quiet heroes that my brother, Tom, and I served with in Vietnam in 1968….

They never asked for, nor expected, anything in return for their service other than respect and dignity. Tragically, what they received upon return from a confused and angry nation was neither. In fact, they were blamed for the folly that consumed America for so many years.

I was honored to listen to Senator Hagel, as his guest, in this select audience. I did not serve in Vietnam as he did. But I could have. In 1971, the draft ended one number short of the number I had drawn in the lottery. I spent those years organizing to stop a war I considered unnecessary and unjust. Decades later, I was in Washington, not to protest the war but to mark it, surrounded by the families of men and women who had died in the war, and hundreds serving their nation in uniform today. Senator Hagel spoke to me and to millions of others when he said, in closing and just before he introduced President Obama:

As we have painfully learned from the tragic lessons of Vietnam, society must always separate the war from the warrior. We do not celebrate the Vietnam War. We commemorate and historically recognize it. As I said at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial ground breaking on a cold windy March day in 1982, ‘There is no glory in war, only suffering.’

We are very fortunate to have Senator Hagel on Ploughshares Fund’s board of directors. And to have him serving our nation in so many ways today.