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Commentary: Separating the war from the warriors

By Don Shepperd
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Editor's note: Maj. Gen. Don Shepperd, USAF (Ret.), is a CNN military analyst. His new book Bury Us Upside Downexternal link covers the frustrations, the folly, the family tragedies and the human cost of the Vietnam War, during which he flew 247 combat missions as a fighter pilot.

(CNN) -- Some will be limping, some will be limbless, some will appear totally normal, but all will be affected in some way by their experience in Iraq ... forever, and so will their families. Such is war.

The war that forever changed me was Vietnam. I came home in October 1968 to a different America than the one I left. I had been flying combat missions, hard missions, over North Vietnam.

I had left for war, excited, a young fighter pilot, heading for the jungles of Southeast Asia to stem the sweeping red tide of monolithic communism that was sure to engulf nation after nation in the third world, the domino theory. "Better to fight them over there," we were told, "than on the streets of San Francisco"...and "we are winning...there is light at the end of the tunnel."

Then, came the Tet Offensive, and my world changed. Bombing halts, "truces" designed to encourage the North Vietnamese to the negotiating table were invoked by President Johnson. They made our lives more dangerous as war materials sped south with impunity toward the conflict. The truces continued, even multiplied, while we were sent "down the chute" through thick anti-aircraft fire with our bombs against truck convoys and "up the hills" with our guns blazing for meaningless hilltops in a shooting gallery of paltry, minuscule efforts that ended in defeat. The America I left, proud, optimistic, compassionate, giving, turned against the war we were fighting.

Small protests began, then, became big protests. Marches and demonstrations turned into confrontations, even riots. Soon, police turned on protesters and the nation was engulfed in a huge anti-war movement. Soldiers gave their lives on the battlefields; students gave their lives at Kent State; warriors, kids, returned to be spit upon. It was a different America in different times and it was ugly.

And, alas, there are similarities between then and now. The Q-word -- "quagmire" -- is often invoked. "We are caught in a quagmire with no way out," critics say; yet officials tell us we are making progress while killings and car bombings and tortures and executions abound on our evening screens amidst promises of a duly-elected Iraqi government of national unity coming together. "Vietnamization" was the way of leaving Southeast Asia in dishonor, why is "Iraqi-ization" any different ask the critics?

It is a good question: The North Vietnamese were fighting to reunite their country under a popular leader, Ho Chi Minh. The insurgents in Iraq are fighting to tear it apart, to foist it into civil war, meanwhile killing the very people whose hearts and minds they must conquer. Al-Zarqawi, Saddam's Baathist revanchists, the criminal elements, even the Sunnis fighting for relevance in a new political dynamic, have no Ho Chi Minh. In today's America, the war critics have no "draft."

In America, almost always reluctant to war, dubious of foreign engagements, isolationist by nature, the lack of a draft makes a huge difference. During Vietnam the protesters turned against the war and the warriors. In Iraq, the warriors are "volunteers" from an "all-volunteer" military. They know what they are signing up for even if it means going to Iraq or Afghanistan three, or four times in a five-year period.

Iraq will end not with a bang, but a whimper. Iraq will be slowly turned back to its new security forces and American forces will slowly withdraw, no victory flag, no peace documents, no parades, providing fodder for those for and against the war -- it is now up to them, we gave them a chance, some will say -- it was all a waste, from others.

But the warriors, our kids, will come home silently, having done their duty. They won't talk much, not to you, not to me, but they will talk to each other for years and they will understand the true cost of war to them, their bodies, their families, their psyches -- not necessarily damaged, but changed -- and to a nation that is also changed. A nation that has thankfully learned to distinguish between the war and the warrior. Welcome home, soldiers, and well done.

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Retired Maj. Gen. Don Shepperd


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