11/28/2012 02:11 pm ET Updated Jan 28, 2013

Wrestling With the Issue of Military Combat

Over Thanksgiving weekend Moyers and Company rebroadcast "What It's Like to Go to War," the compelling interview by Bill Moyers with Karl Marlantes.

As soon Marlantes said hello, I bonded with him, as he is very much of my generation, with a quiet, thoughtful warmth that reminds me of my brother. And the comments of this brilliant, highly decorated Vietnam veteran, as elicited so wonderfully by Bill Moyers, were moving, eloquent and frequently insightful.

Still, when Marlantes reflected on the nature of war, I kept asking myself: How much of his experience does indeed apply to war in general, and how much is specific to the War that haunts our generation -- even those, like my brother and I, who did not serve?

When Marlantes shares with us the painful code of silence endured by all combat veterans, that certainly rings true, for when we are talking with someone who experienced combat, regardless of the particular war, we often have a sense that many of their most intense memories are locked away. And yet I can't help wondering if the number and the intensity of such secrets vary depending on the nature of a given war.

Like most of us, Marlantes seems not to be a total pacifist, but does he subscribe to the Just War theory? Does this moral yardstick -- e.g., war as the very last resort and as proportionate to the perceived danger -- affect soldiers' view of war? Or do only non-combatants have the luxury of thinking about such things?

Marlantes talks movingly about the alienation soldiers feel from us civilians, and I vividly recall World War II vets in the Moyers show From D-Day to the Rhine indicating that their relatives did not understand the magnitude of what they themselves had experienced. But then I think of the footage of the GIs being cheered rapturously in Paris, and I compare that to the 1968 protests in Paris, and in Washington, D.C.

And when Marlantes says, "If you were a proud soldier or Marine, you felt good about it," I ask myself, "But didn't a lot of soldiers and Marines come home bitter over experiences particular to Vietnam, such as taking and retaking a hill? Didn't a lot of them feel that they were put in horrible situations where they never knew if a villager was innocent or dangerous?"

Didn't Vietnam veterans feel especially alienated because, ironically, both hawks and doves at home assumed the vets were hawks, when in fact some came to see the war as a mistake? And haven't we avoided talking about the meaning of Vietnam veterans' combat service because we remain divided as to the lessons of that War?

Or maybe Marlantes is only generalizing about the wars in his adulthood, wars all marked by unconventional warfare and murky military objectives. These wars may very well all fail the Just War test.

At the same time, we need to guard against facile historical analogies. For one thing, the general public today seems much more agreed on the idea of de-escalation than was the case in the Vietnam era. For another, the Pentagon virtually eliminated the draft, with its controversies.

On this score, Marlantes seems to embody the idea that signing up was more virtuous than avoiding the draft. As James Fallows' influential 1975 article "What Did You Do in the Class War, Daddy?" noted early on, white-collar guys pulled strings to dodge the draft -- including, yes, "chickenhawks" who supported the war -- even as working class men disproportionately fought and died (especially minorities, notably Latinos).

Fallows takes from this the idea that either serving, or resisting the draft outright, was preferable to using connections to avoid it, but I can't help noting that those risking jail by resisting the draft, while brave, left their own combat vacancies. And to say that it was morally preferable to enlist, rather than avoid the draft, is to me particularly questionable.

I realize this goes against the conventional wisdom, but still, if I were a draftee, and I thought the Vietnam War was immoral, how could I ever participate in killing anybody on its behalf? Yes, someone else would have to serve in my stead -- and, yes, some avoiding the draft were indeed those disreputable "chickenhawks" -- but still, how can any of this trump the obligation to refrain from killing people on behalf of a war that one considers wrong?

Fallows added that those who dodged the draft prolonged the war. Does he really think that if they had instead dutifully signed up, that this would have foreshortened the war?

These anguishing issues were raised by yet another broadcast this Thanksgiving weekend: the annual radio airing of Arlo Guthrie's "Alice's Restaurant." You may recall that this hilarious Thanksgiving shaggy dog tale culminates with a confrontation between draftee Arlo and an army psychiatrist, and with the song suggesting that each draftee simply sing a line from "Alice's Restaurant," and walk out.

"Alice's Restaurant Anti-massacree [sic] Movement," he calls it, one aimed at "ending war," so it seems Arlo Guthrie espouses a pacifist, rather than a Just War stance. But then, his famous father, Woody Guthrie, eulogized "the hard fighting men" on The Reuben James in World War II.

Maybe Arlo Guthrie, the famed anti-draft guy, and Karl Marlantes, the thoughtful decorated veteran, both go along with Just War criteria and find them violated by all our wars from Vietnam onward. In any case, at a time when the fraught situation of our combat troops is so often ignored, let us remember with gratitude that on this particular Thanksgiving weekend at least two men made us face the hard, human questions posed by military combat.