Private First Class Dennis Lynn Cook, of A Company, 1st Tank Battalion, 1st Marine Division, III Marine Amphibious Force, United States Marine Corps, was killed on the sixth of May, 1968 in Thua Thien, Vietnam. He was 20 years old. We’re told he was sitting on his tank, eating when an attack broke out and he was struck by gunfire.
Years ago, a man who was there when Denny died got in contact with my grandfather. He’d been trying to find him for decades, only to tell him that Denny didn’t suffer. That was all.
I’ve come to know a lot about my uncle. He was my Mom’s oldest brother; a tall, lanky, gregarious kid with a famously hot temper, a penchant for practical jokes, and a sense of humor that got him in trouble on more than one occasion. One of the family stories is that he got off the bus at Boot Camp and immediately said something smart to one of the drill instructors, who was about a foot shorter than him. The result was that he sported a black eye for his official boot camp photo. I’m told that I take after him in more ways than one.
I obviously never met my uncle Denny, but I’ve always felt a strong emotional bond to him, enough that I very seriously considered joining the Marines when it came time for me to enlist. He is a big part of my family’s generations-long military tradition. I become inexplicably emotional when thinking of his loss, and what it did to my Mom and her family. For this and for my own military experience, I love war movies far more than the next guy. But they’re not easy for me to watch, and are commonly accompanied by no small amount of scotch.
In recent decades, you, the American public, have tried hard to make amends for the shameful way you behaved toward our military members during its least popular conflict. Veterans today are regarded with a level of respect that approaches what is proper, even as the gap of understanding between those who have served and those who have not grows wider. It’s become popular to describe our military members as heroes. And profitable, for those companies despicable enough to exploit it.
As welcome as that shift toward respect has been, it isn’t enough. It’s not enough to erect memorials and monuments, have a couple parades, and hang a flag outside your house a few times a year. As much as we appreciate it, it’s not enough to say “thank you for your service” to a veteran, and then go on about your business. What’s needed, for those still living, is dreadfully apparent: better healthcare, more support for their transition to civilian life, more than, well, lip service. Those who have served are owed these things, for what you have asked us to do. It was supposed to be part of the deal all along.
But what of our dead? What can be done for the 1.3 million Americans who have given their lives, mostly on foreign soil, trying to preserve the liberty of their own countrymen, repel invaders of friendly nations, topple ruthless despots, end genocides, protect innocent lives, and eradicate terrorists from the ugliest, most inhospitable corners of the world?
You can honor their memory. And I don’t mean an occasional doffing of the cap and a moment of silence, I mean concrete actions. You honor their memory by working to ensure their blood was not spilled cheaply, by finishing what they started, and by conducting the business of our country in a way befitting their sacrifice.
These are things that you have abysmally failed to do since the 1950s, and continue to fail at doing today. You commit your sons and daughters to bloody conflicts around the world without the necessary resolve and determination to see through that which we began. You order us to fight under rules of engagement that routinely allow evil men to escape, and cost the lives of our troops, our allies, and friendly civilians. You insist that we have the most technologically advanced equipment the world has ever seen, and then bemoan the cost to support it, and take the difference from our salaries, pensions, training, and equipment maintenance. You insist that we are, at all times and in all places, the sharpest tip of the strongest spear, and then bury us under mountains of bureaucracy, fill our commands with useless politicians, and interfere in our every affair. You elect politicians whose stated goals are to cut our funding to unconscionable levels, and others whose only interests are lining their own pockets with dollars from industry lobbyists. You train us up to be the most efficient and effective machine of death and destruction mankind has ever known, and then scold us for our alleged brutality and callousness.
If there is sincerity in your heart when you claim to honor our fallen, stop doing these things. Reverse these trends. Do it for my uncle Denny, my friend Christina, my classmate Jesse, and all the others who have laid down their life at your behest, and in your stead.
On the third of May, 1915, the day after presiding over the burial service for a close friend, Canadian Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae sat in the back of an ambulance and penned his famous poem, In Flanders Fields. The last verse is a challenge to future generations, and one I issue to you now, almost a century after it was written: