THIS IS NOT EASILY READ, but it says "James R. Keiger | PVT.1CL. | AMB.CO.7 | U.S.A." On the back, "1169740."
It's the dog tag carried by my grandfather in the First World War. My father's father served in the American Expeditionary Force that landed in Europe in 1917 to bolster the British and French in the war against Germany. He served with distinction, fighting in numerous battles and earning the Silver Star for gallantry.
I don't know much about his service because I barely knew him. I recall being around him only once before he died when I was a grade-school kid. But from my father I know that he was gassed in combat. He could feel his lungs filling with fluid and was saved by a combat medic who handed him a bandage soaked in something and told him to breathe through it. My grandfather did as he was told and survived. My father recalled him once describing times when he saw corpses on the battlefield so infested with maggots they appeared to be breathing.
When my father and uncle came of enlistment age during the Second World War, my grandfather told them whatever you do, do not go into the infantry. They heeded his warning and entered the Army Air Corps; my dad served on a bomber base in England near the Irish Sea, and his brother flew reconnaissance missions in a de Havilland Mosquito and was awarded a Distinguished Flying Cross for heroism.
There is a strong military heritage in my family. In addition to my dad, his dad, and my uncle, I had two uncles on my mother's side who were combat veterans, one of whom fought for Patton at the Battle of the Bulge. My cousin Bobby enlisted during the Vietnam War, and lost his life at Chu Lai. But when my name and birthday entered the last Vietnam War draft lottery and I came up 1A and #25, my parents were not happy. (I entered Air Force ROTC at Ohio University to get a deferment and ended up being disqualified from service due to a nearly complete lack of depth perception in my left eye.) Many years later, I spoke to my father about that time, and I asked him if that situation arose again, what would he tell me to do? What would be his version of his father's advice? To my great surprise, he replied, "I would tell you to go to Canada."
I am conflicted when I think about modern soldiers. I respect their toughness, courage, and skill. They deserve far better medical care than they receive, and far better political leadership than they have, than we all endure. But when I hear them hailed as heroes defending American freedom, I reflexively flinch and pull back. The U.S. military was not deployed to Afghanistan and Iraq to protect our freedom. They were deployed by cynical, amoral, and foolish opportunists who governed the country, most of whom had dodged their own military service and had no answer to terrorism outside of compromising our civil rights and blowing something up halfway around the world. They had a superb professional army at their disposal and they wielded it just because they could. The waste of lives and money has been appalling, and I fear we have learned nothing from the increasingly dismal outcomes.
I respect and honor the combat veterans in my lineage as I respect the combat veterans of our most recent wars. They deserve the salutes they will receive on this Independence Day. But I despise the witless patriotism that seems to render people incapable of asking why so many thousands of lives have been thrown away in wars that should never have been fought. I would give a lot to know what my grandfather would say.