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Memorial Day: A Veteran’s Reflections on Duty and Honor

By Glenn Petersen

Is honor an all or nothing proposition? As I ponder the many exhortations on this Memorial Day to honor those who died defending our country, I find myself confronting the question—as a soldier, is doing one’s duty always honorable?

This question, which persistently nags at me, fully seized my mind as I read a couple of lines in a New York Times Memorial Day article about the controversy brewing among West Point faculty over the counter-insurgency strategies the U.S. military has employed in Iraq and Afghanistan. Some of the Military Academy’s soldier-scholars are ambivalent about the ultimate value of these programs, and by extension, it seems, about the wars themselves.

Col. Gian P. Gentile, director of West Point’s military history program and commander of a combat battalion in Baghdad in 2006, has been raising questions about whether the two wars were worth their terrible costs. “I take comfort and pride that we as a military organization, myself as a commander of those soldiers who died, the others who were wounded and I think the American Army writ large, that we did our duty.” He believes “there is honor in itself of doing your duty. I mean you could probably push back on me and say you’re still saying the war’s not worth it. But I’m a soldier, and I go where I’m told to go, and I do my duty as best I can.”

Those of us who grew up in the shadow of World War II, the Holocaust, and the Nazi war-crimes trials learned to scoff at what has come to be called the Nuremburg defense: “I was only following orders.” I doubt there are many in the baby-boomer generation who can encounter these words without hearing them uttered in a mock-German accent. The victorious Allies’ insistence at Nuremburg that this defense was a cop-out and not an acceptable justification for the German military’s actions has stood the test of time.

Nevertheless, in Col. Gentile’s musings we can see society once again memorializing our compatriots’ deaths with wholesale rationalizations about duty and honor. Whatever the costs, we’re told, the sacrifices were worth it because when duty called, honor ensured that they were made. Somehow, it seems, these lives were sacralized simply by being lost, not by the cause that resulted in their loss. But in a democratic society, where the people rightly claim to bear responsibility for their government’s decisions, a soldier’s duty is not always easily defined. 

Not long after I returned from Vietnam, I concluded that not only were the sacrifices my comrades and I made there in vain, but that we had been mistaken in being willing to make them in the first place. By the time President Johnson and Defense Secretary McNamara ordered me into combat in 1966, both men knew full well that the U.S. was not going to prevail. Our sacrifices were made largely for domestic political purposes—so that Lyndon Johnson could get re-elected. We were raining death down on Vietnam’s people for reasons that did not have a whole lot to do with them. Where’s the honor in that? I have struggled with this conundrum for nearly all of my adult life.

I did my duty at the time, and I think there’s honor in that. But I can see no way to believe that the war itself was an honorable thing. If the war itself fell short, if it was being pursued for reasons and purposes that were dubious, was it entirely, unquestionably honorable to have fought in it? All the lessons my generation learned from Nuremberg say no. And I’ll be damned if I can figure out how to spin it any other way. How can I find much honor in having served a cause that plagues me so? I have no really clear answer to this riddle, of course, and that is why I expect I’ll continue to struggle with it all the rest of my days.

Will the troops who’ve fought in Iraq and Afghanistan fare any better? Will they be burdened with fewer doubts or less moral conflict? I doubt it. Memorial Day is about honor, about honoring those who acted honorably. But for me it is about something more as well. It’s about asking, “Where’s the honor?” That’s no rhetorical question. If it were, I wouldn't find myself asking it every day of year.

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Glenn Petersen is Chair of the Department of Sociology and Anthropology at Weissman School of Arts and Sciences at Baruch College. He is also a combat veteran of the Vietnam War.

(Photo courtesy of US Army Africa)

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