Op/Ed: On Memorial Day, A Beer For Billy

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By Walt Herbert, Special to The Times

When Memorial Day comes I think about Billy Rountree, the star center fielder on my high school baseball team who was destroyed in Vietnam. Two of my teammates were killed in Vietnam; Billy had worse luck coming home. When the team got together in later years, we would raise a ceremonial glass and say “A Beer for Billy.”

The Rountrees were a decent and devout Methodist family, the father an expert carpenter, and their firstborn Billy was everybody’s favorite kid. He was big and strong and handsome and hard-working, with abounding good cheer.

The Billy who went to Vietnam was an Eagle Scout who had completed the requirements for the God and Country Award. The Billy who came home was insane.

He was hateful to the preacher, hateful to his parents, hateful to his old buddies. No way he could keep a job. His parents were horribly ashamed. They believed that going off to war was a test Billy had failed, and that they had failed as parents.

Billy was venomous, really scary. “Bullshit” he would hiss at people who tried to talk to him; sometimes he shouted “bullshit” at nobody in particular. People stayed out of his way. He became a drunk and a derelict and eventually disappeared into a slum in Tampa, Florida.

Still, his old buddies claimed him. “A Beer for Billy” we would say. We felt a kinship, craziness and all.

I grew up to become a professor and a student of American history, and now believe that Billy went mad because he was betrayed by the America on which he staked his life.

The best book on Vietnam is Neil Sheehan’s A Bright Shining Lie, which spells out the official falsehoods put forward as truth in that misbegotten adventure. In later years I wrote a book called Faith-Based War: from 9/11 to Catastrophic Success in Iraq.

A widespread public faith holds that America has the strongest military in the history of the world, so we can fulfill our God-given mission of spreading democracy and defending free societies against their adversaries. Freedom and democracy are to thrive worldwide, so we believe, at gunpoint. We believe that American weapons can force people into embracing freedom.

This orthodoxy has been crashing against the rocks of reality for better than half a century now. Our military forces failed to install  democratic regimes in Vietnam, in Iraq, and now in Afghanistan.

No politician wants to get trapped between cherished public delusions and the realities that expose those delusions. Fear of entering this dangerous zone is a major reason why Congress has ceded to the President its Constitutional authority to decide on going to war.

Wars become “forever wars” because politicians dread being branded as losers. We sacrifice additional soldiers not for the sake of victory, but for the sake of protecting high officials from the political consequences of admitting defeat.

Strategic thinking has become politically dangerous. We see ourselves as virtuous winners, and don’t know how to figure out how we got to be losers, or how to change course.

Nor do we reckon with the real-world political cost of abandoning allies who put faith in us — from the South Vietnamese to the Kurds, and now the Afghans. You don’t have the strongest military in the world if your allies can’t trust you.

It’s far worse to betray your own people, as the fate of Billy Rountree shows. How many of the crazed hooligans who attacked the Congress on Jan 6 were enraged on behalf of working-class buddies who ended up in military service for what?  It’s not hard to hear Billy’s cry of “bullshit! bullshit!” echoing through that mob.

The Congress must stop dodging their responsibility for sending sending young men and women off to war. I’ve written to Representative Chrissy Houlahan, Senator Bob Casey, and Senator Pat Toomey asking them to abolish the the Authorization for the Use of Military Force adopted in 2002, which wrongfully transferred that Congressional power to the President.

As you celebrate Memorial Day — please write to your elected representatives. Honor those who have lost their lives, and the Billy Rountrees who came home wrecked.

Walt Herbert is a resident of Kennett Township.

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