Lately, it seems that nostalgia just ain't what it used to be. Perhaps it's the increasing years, and the plethora of memories, or maybe it's my reluctance to seem like an old man dwelling upon the past.
But I've been redacting my store of nostalgia, retaining only those few noteworthy experiences that I want to pass on, and eliminating those that smack more of sentiment, than history. So I'll refrain from waxing poetic on, oh my mother's apple strudel and the sun glinting on the waves at Coney Island. Instead, I'll reflect on the most impactful period of my life: World War II.
I was in the Air Force. There was nothing dramatic about it. We went up in a bomber, dropped bombs, and the enemy shot at us. And then we came back to our barracks. Some of the planes didn't return, and there were empty cots in the barracks, for a while at least.
So either you were either lucky, as I was, or unlucky -- as most of my comrades were. I came home with a chest full of medals, but I never felt heroic. I did a job, and I came home. So you can imagine how surprising it was to me that everyone treated me as a hero.
I'd go into a bar and somebody picked up the tab. I went into a crowded restaurant and got a table while others waited. On the subway, somebody tried to give me a seat. Posters showed pictures of GIs thanking them for their patriotism. This was the war to end wars. Strangers welcomed me home. Uncle Sam paid my college tuition and helped me buy a no-down-payment home for myself and my parents.
I think of that and compare it with the way we treated soldiers who came back from Vietnam. We had no recognizable villain as we did in World War II. And we grew weary of a war that we couldn't win. I think of the 58,000 who died, and the millions who returned home and were not treated as heroes. Because we couldn't make headway, they were not honored the way I was.
Nobody bought drinks for these young men, or helped them buy homes. I think many of us are still ashamed of how we treated our Vietnam returnees. And I think we learned a painful lesson. We're kinder to our Middle Eastern returnees now, and we thank them for their service. But more and more, we're aware of our lack of progress and the enormous human and economic cost that this has imposed on our society. Is it possible that there are no more good wars?