A Veterans’ Day Message by my husband, Carl T. Solberg (Vietnam ’69). It was also delivered as a sermon (with photos and slides) at the historic Madison Avenue Baptist Church in NYC on November 12, 2023.
I was honored when Susan asked if I would like to offer a message for this Veteran’s Day. As I am a veteran, you might expect my message to be straightforward – a gung-ho voice celebrating our military, evoking the patriotic feelings we experience when the Veteran’s Day parade goes by.
My view is a bit more complex. As a Christian and a veteran, I have found the issues of war and service and faith complicated. I have two themes for this Veteran’s Day message: as Americans, we should support our vets, and our military; and as people of faith, we should think long and hard about wars, particularly the voluntary kind.
First, I believe whole heartedly that we should support our vets, current and future. During the Gulf War, I was on a domestic plane flight, and before leaving the gate the pilot announced that we had to wait a few more minutes, for some special passengers. Shortly the hostesses ushered into the cabin a group of young men and women, wearing the fatigue uniforms of our nation’s military, as the pilot announced that they were headed for service in Iraq. The passengers broke into applause. The pilot – obviously himself a veteran – poked his head into the passenger cabin to watch, with a smile. We were all proud of them, our young folks heading overseas to serve and do battle, for us.
My experience was a bit different.
My service came in the Vietnam War, the most unpopular war in American history. When I traveled around the U.S. in my uniform, no one cheered, no one clapped; people looked anywhere but at me. The rare kind word or smile came only from veterans. When I came home in 1970 from my tour as a combat engineer in Vietnam we got off a transport plane at an air force base outside Seattle and walked under a big sign that read, Welcome home, soldier! America is proud of you! 24 hours later, I was dropped off at the Seattle airport by an army bus, and I stood on the sidewalk, wearing a new uniform for my trip home and clutching my new orders, discharging me from the Army.
I wasn’t quite ready to go home. My head was spinning from the abrupt transition from the jungle, thousands of miles away, to a cool April evening in the Pacific Northwest. I found a pay phone and called a college friend, who was then a graduate student in Seattle. Before long Bob was pulling up in his car at the curb. He did a wonderful thing for me – he took me skiing in the nearby Cascade Mountains for a couple of days. It was a great transition – everywhere I looked people were smiling, no one was shooting, and it couldn’t have been farther from the jungle.
But before we went skiing, we stopped at the house Bob was sharing with several other graduate students. Bob introduced me – this is my friend Toby – he just got home from Vietnam! None of them would shake my hand.
The sign I’d walked under – welcome home, soldier, America is proud of you – was a lie. America was not proud of me – America was ashamed of me. Definitely a Veteran’s Day contradiction.
I started law school that fall; I didn’t tell anyone I was a veteran. I pushed Vietnam into the back of my mind, and buckled down to building a life for myself. Some 15 years later, another vet stuck his head into my office and called my attention to the Veteran’s Day parade outside; he said there were Vietnam veterans marching, and they were being cheered. Time had passed, attitudes had changed.
Indeed today, veterans are mainstream: marketing-driven organizations – look at the NFL – are highlighting thank-you-veterans messages in their advertising and merchandise. But I will never be able to shake the memory that I once put everything I had on the line for my country, and my country was not grateful.
Vietnam – and Korea – were departures for Americans. The wars that had gone before were easy to understand: the Revolution to make us free, the Civil War to keep our country together and to abolish slavery – and above all World War II: the worldwide struggle against tyranny, totalitarianism, hatred, cruelty, the Holocaust. And all Americans dug deep for that one. I think of my grandmother, who lived in Eau Claire, WI her entire life. She had 3 children all 3 went to war – one son to England to train with the 101st Airborne Division for the invasion of France, her other son to a destroyer in the Pacific, and a daughter, my mother, to the Red Cross on the distant Pacific island of New Caledonia. And one day an Army car pulled up outside my grandparents’ home back in Eau Claire and an Army officer got out, along with the pastor from Grandma’s church. They gave her the bad news – her son John had been killed in action in Normandy. He’s buried in the American Cemetery at Omaha Beach. I’ve been there. On his cross, with his name, rank, unit and dates, it says Wisconsin. When you look around at the other crosses, some of them Stars of David, you see Texas, and California, and New York, and North Carolina. A long way from Eau Claire, WI.
My mother’s family was not unusual. It was a war that touched all Americans, and that was easy to understand. Not like Korea or Vietnam, wars, according to our leaders, intended to stop the spread of Communism. Today Communism is pretty much history, and not because we went to war in Korea and Vietnam.
And more recently the Gulf Wars: much as our political leaders tried to stir us up against the dictator Saddam Hussein, depicting him as a reincarnation of WWII bad guys Hitler and Stalin, the invasion of Iraq was about the global supply of oil. We sent our kids into harm’s way for oil. Afghanistan is even harder to understand. It began as our pursuit of terrorists – our modern enemy. Terrorists are particularly difficult for conventional militaries, because they don’t wear uniforms and can easily just shoot you and then disappear into the civilian population. We had a taste of that with the Viet Cong. And look at Gaza today.
Don’t get me wrong about the Vietnam War: I’m proud to have served, whatever the merits of the war. I hold with Stephen Decatur, the soldier and statesman who made his reputation by flushing pirate bands out of Tripoli in the War of 1812. Decatur once gave a toast: to my country: may she always be right, but right or wrong, my country. I’m proud to have served my country. Support the vets; it’s the right thing to do.
That said, back the vets, but question the wars.
The truth is – wars are a little too easy for us to wage these days. They’re fought on the other side of the world, far from our daily view, by volunteers. I always felt that we’re very lucky to live in America, and that we citizens have an obligation to give something back, be it military service, alternative service, Peace Corps, Teacher Corps, whatever.
Our lives today are pretty cushy, compared to most of the world. We have only to look at the numbers of refugees and immigrants trying to share what we and European Union countries have. Apart from 9/11 we’re far removed from the military conflict spots of the world. We have to read history to remind ourselves that a lot of blood was spilled here in the United States by our forefathers to get us to the liberties and luxuries we enjoy today. New York City was occupied by the enemy during the Revolution. There were battles on Long Island, in Brooklyn, in White Plains; George Washington moved his army across the Hudson River right where the GW Bridge is today. We haven’t had a military war on American soil since the Civil War. In today’s global society, we send our troops far away.
And the troops we send are volunteers. The bulk of service in the Vietnam war, at the level of the ordinary soldier, was borne by draftees, like me. We didn’t volunteer. We went under compulsion. Imagine if you can that today every male – as he turns 18 – he gets a letter saying, you’re 1A – you’re ready to go; you can be called at any moment. And you will be called.
One thing ties all wars together: they tend to be declared by old people, our politicians – and fought by young people. A former business colleague of mine, a venture capital banker then in his 60s, had a brilliant idea. Bill pointed out that wars have always been fought by young men because they think they’ll never die; they think war will be an adventure. Bill suggested we send our old people off to fight instead. They’ve already had a life – and older people are less likely to cooperate. Picture the World War I scene of the troops in the trenches; an officer shouts, over the top, boys! Charge! The troops in the trenches, average age say 65, respond: my back’s a little stiff today, my arthritic knees are acting up, it’s really not a good day for a charge. Maybe tomorrow. They’re also more likely to argue: why should we charge? They’ve got machine guns! It’s dangerous, not to mention pointless. This idea – sending our old folks to fight the wars they declare – could be the end of warfare at long last.
Support the vets. But the best thing we could do for our vets is to save their lives; decide NOT to wage a voluntary war on the other side of the world. Question the wars our politicians propose.
And support those who are in uniform now. Our military, as part of our constitutional checks and balances, are pledged to serve and protect the American people and the Constitution – not our politicians, not even the president. Recently a sitting president is reported to have ordered the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff to mobilize troops in support of domestic partisan political actions. The chairman rightly refused, earning himself the enmity of that president and his followers. We need to support our bipartisan military, for our political survival.
These are important moral issues. Maybe we could find some guidance in our faith.
Well – if there are any two features of this world more intertwined than religion and war, I don’t know what they are. In the 2000 years since the birth of Christ, try to find a war that wasn’t fought over religion; that didn’t invoke religion on one or both sides; that didn’t represent people trying to pull God into their human disputes.
Before my service, I very nearly witnessed a war that didn’t involve Christians, but which presaged today’s conflict in Gaza. In the summer of 1967 I was part of a singing group on tour, with a concert scheduled in Jerusalem. It was the summer of the Six Days War, and we didn’t know until just before the scheduled date whether we would be allowed into Israel. But the war ended in time, we sang in Jerusalem, and incidentally we were allowed a look at the legendary Wailing Wall, which before the war had been concealed by the Arabs behind another wall preventing Jews from visiting their holy site. The rubble was still smoking when we visited.
Arabs and Jews have been at each other’s throats for a long time, but they haven’t outdone Christians. There’s hardly been a period in Christian history without a Christian war going on somewhere: Christians against Muslims, Catholics against Protestants, Protestants against Protestants. Everybody against indigenous faiths, considered non-believers, like Aztecs and Incas in central and south America whom Spanish troops attacked with troops led by Jesuit priests, and Native Americans here in the U.S. Wars without declaring war, like the Inquisition, in which the only Christian church of the time virtually declared war on its own people over minor matters of church dogma, all in the name of Christ.
And if the war wasn’t directly over religion, religion was invoked, often by both sides. Think of the Civil War, with famously pious generals – mostly Protestants – on both sides praying to God for strength to kill each other. And thanking God afterwards for giving them the victory.
All this involves some basic human presumptions, none of them consistent with the teachings of Christ: the presumption that God would approve of war; the presumption that God would take sides in a war; the presumption that God would want to get involved in such human stupidity at all.
There’s always been comfort for Christian warmongers in the Old Testament, in the concept of an eye for an eye as in our scripture today, and in the many accounts of ancient wars: the righteous extinction by God Himself of the Pharaoh’s army at the Red Sea. The reduction of Jericho. David and Goliath.
Yet the Old Testament also has Moses on the mountaintop receiving the Ten Commandments in Exodus 20, one of the most memorable: thou shalt not kill. Not, thou shalt not kill Christians. No exceptions. Thou shalt not kill, plain and simple.
And then there’s the New Testament: the life of Christ, the ultimate pacifist. Can anyone reading the Beatitudes think that Christ would think it was OK to kill Southerners? Or Northerners? Or members of another faith, or people of no faith?
The teachings of Christ – the very essence of Christianity – tell us that killing is a sin. Despite 2000 years of human effort to the contrary, there is no justification in the story of Christ for killing each other. Quite the contrary.
Of course, Jesus wasn’t in the Central Highlands of Vietnam back in 1969 – 1970 when we were attacked. Or maybe He was there, and we just didn’t have time to consult. There wasn’t an opportunity at Pearl Harbor for our soldiers and sailors to ask what to do. Is it wrong to defend yourself? To defend your country?
Like most American veterans, I consider myself a religious man (there’s a famous saying in the military: there are no atheists in foxholes) – and so I am conflicted about Veteran’s Day. I’m conflicted about the Vietnam War, torn between pride in my service, shame at my country’s reaction, regret that my country saw fit to spend my service in so poor a cause, guilt at surviving the war when 60,000 did not. I’m conflicted about the use of Christianity throughout its history by my fellow humans as an excuse for systematically violating the most fundamental precept of our faith.
That’s a lot of conflict, for a holiday. There’s a parade, with bands, waving flags, cheering children, brass bands and a lot of old men marching in uniforms that are a bit too tight. The Shriners show up at a lot of these parades, and buzz around Fifth Avenue in their fezzes and their little cars. Maybe I ought not to take myself so seriously; maybe I ought to forget about contradictions and conflicts, so natural to our human condition. Maybe I just ought to bask in the cheers and thanks of my countrymen, however flawed, and not worry about my equally flawed self. After all, we’re only human. And maybe that’s the answer: even God doesn’t expect us to match Jesus’s idealistic teachings – just to do our best. And that’s what our veterans did, all of them, in every war: we did our best.
So let’s do our best for them. Be active in our democracy. Vote. Encourage others to register and vote. Inform yourself. Voice your convictions. Listen respectfully to others as they do the same. Be proud of our veterans, and work to make our country a place they will be proud to come home to.
And remember it’s never too late to say “welcome home.” Around the year 2000, at a ceremony of some sort in Washington, I was introduced to Al Gore, who was then the Vice President. I knew his history – he’d been a couple of years behind me at Harvard, and he’d served in Vietnam a couple of years after I did. I told him my name and added, “Harvard ‘67, Vietnam ‘69.” He looked me in the eye, held my hand for a few moments, and said, “welcome home.”
Those two words mean something. For all of us – but especially us veterans. So, question the wars but take care of our veterans, and maybe at long last, we can all believe in that sign: welcome home, soldier! America is proud of you.