Memorial Day, 2021
Most men of my generation pause each Memorial Day to remember our Vietnam-era friends and colleagues who lost their lives in war. My memory today is of my friend Jim Masters, an intelligence officer in the Navy who died when his plane was shot down near De Nang.
Jim and I reported for duty at the Atsugi Naval Air Station in Japan on the same day in December, 1967. He was married, but his wife Becky would come later, and we were assigned adjoining rooms at the bachelor officers’ quarters. Jim and I became friends as we explored the surrounding community together, a friendship that continued after Becky arrived and he moved into married quarters. Jim’s squadron alternated between the war zone and Japan, while I was safely ensconced as a member of the air station’s command. Jim died in March, 1970, shortly after I left the Navy.
In those days I was a militarist, believing that America’s war-making power was the only guarantor of peace. While I now believe that there are no winners in war, I continue to hold a deep respect for the military men and women who put their lives on the line each day. I understand the necessity of maintaining a strong military, even while deploring the necessity of its use.
The following is a series of quotations from Franklin Roosevelt’s speech at Arlington Cemetery in November of 1941 to commemorate those who died in World War I. His words, which were delivered two years before my birth, speak to me today.
“We are able today as we were not always able in the past to measure our indebtedness to those who died. A few years ago, even a few months, we questioned, some of us, the sacrifice they had made…. We know now why these men fought to keep our freedom— and why wars that save a people’s liberties are wars worth fighting and winning…
“They did not fight and die to make the world safe for decency and self-respect for five years or ten or maybe twenty. They died to make it safe. And if, by some fault of ours who lived beyond the war, its safety has again been threatened, then the obligation and duty are ours…
“It is our charge now to see to it that the dead shall not have died in vain…This duty we owe, not to ourselves alone, but to the many dead who died to gain our freedom for us and to make the world a place where freedom can live and grow into the ages.”
I eventually came to see the Vietnam war as wrongheaded, and I opposed the war in Iraq. It is my belief that war is almost never a solution––but, in the face of violent threats and inherent evil, it is sometimes necessary. And, while I question the legitimacy and necessity of the wars we have fought since the end of World War II, I have no doubt that when our men and women in uniform are on the battlefield it is because they believe they are fighting for the cause of freedom. I will always honor their bravery, commitment and service, even when I disagree with the politicians who send them there.
So today, in memory of Jim Masters, I say a prayer for all those who have served and died for what they believed. And, to paraphrase President Roosevelt, it is our charge now to see to it that they didn’t die in vain. Violence and hatred will not go away because we wish it to, just as it won’t go away because we confront it with violence.
Instead of spending our anti-war energy and passion marching and writing blogs, let’s focus on those ingredients that lead to war: poverty, lack of education, hopelessness. Then let’s fight the political fight to ensure that all people in the world have access to adequate food and shelter, decent medical care, a high quality education, and opportunities to earn a living wage. Only then will we adequately honor the lives of those who have served the cause of freedom.
VIETNAM VETERANS MEMORIAL
JAMES M MASTERS Jr