BY KATIE BIBER
It was hard to miss the swarm of protestors in Harvard Square this weekend.
“War starts with Dubya!” several posters declared. A stream of supportive honks from passing cars elicited cheers. Near CVS, one woman yelled, “Tell me what democracy looks like!” Scattered voices answered, “This is what democracy looks like!”
The Cambridge protestors were not alone. Across the country, their political brethren have filled city streets over the last several weeks to oppose President Bush. The hodge-podge of liberal interest groups, united in hatred of the president, has landed itself on the pages of nearly every newspaper in America.
With less fanfare and much more dignity, another set of stories has also been appearing steadily on television and in print. The headlines are straightforward. “Local Son Called Up to Serve.” “Baby Receives Heart Transplant While Father in Mideast.” “Area Unit Ready for Deployment.” Protestors, take note. Real Americans with real families are being shipped overseas to defend you. Oppose the war if you must. But show some respect for those who would risk their lives to protect us.
Thirty years ago, Vietnam War protestors had no such deference. Soldiers returned home to be spat upon and ridiculed by former classmates. They were branded tools of oppression or “baby killers.” After risking their lives in the jungles of Southeast Asia, servicemen were discriminated against in employment and graduate school admissions. Most states and the federal government were forced to pass legislation to ease such discrimination. Laws did little to change the opinion of former protestors, and America remained an inhospitable place for the soldiers who did not pull strings or break the law to escape the draft.
The angry sentiment that greeted Vietnam veterans when they returned home from war has faded with time. Nevertheless, treatment of servicemen and women has hardly been commendable. Over the last several decades military personnel have listened as our leaders debated the necessity of funding the armed forces at an operating minimum. In proposing budget cuts, many politicians maligned our defenses as bloated and unnecessary in a time of “peace.” Servicemen and women have often lived on food stamps and collected charity to feed their families. The meager pay assigned to most of them is shameful.
Following September 11, we experienced a renewed sense of patriotism and thankfulness for all who serve America — firefighters, policemen and members of the military. With our pain came renewed appreciation for our nation’s heroes. For a precious few months America understood that the people who defend us deserve recognition and reverence. We vowed always to remember the harm done to us, and we exalted the bravery that rescued us from a national nightmare. But today, America is moving on. The pain of death is disappearing and we are beginning to forget about heroism. Yes, healing is good. But losing respect for those who have volunteered to protect us from further calamity is simply unacceptable.
As more Americans are shipped overseas, I urge even those opposed to war to show appreciation for members of the military. At this very moment, real humans are being put in harm’s way. Their children and spouses anxiously await news and hope the conflict will end swiftly. Oppose our nation’s policies, but do not oppose the brave men and women putting those policies into action. Just a few weeks ago, Maine National Guard officials reported that young children of Guard members about to be deployed were being harassed by teachers and principals opposed to the war in Iraq. Such behavior is shocking and intolerable.
Even the protestors in Harvard Square should be grateful that America’s armed forces are the envy of the world. We all sleep more soundly at night knowing that if anyone dare try to strike America, they will have to face the best military ever known to man. That military is not merely a jumble of money, tanks and the generals who appear on television. It is made of flesh and blood, of humanity. We are a lucky people to have such brave men and women willing to risk their lives for us. When our troops finally return home, they deserve to be welcomed by a grateful nation. All Americans, protestors included, owe servicemen and women immeasurable respect.