I have the privilege of working with and among veterans. One colleague and Vietnam veteran friend shared a few of his frustrations with our current battle with COVID-19 around the day casualties from the virus exceeded those of the Vietnam War. He reminded me that so-called friendly fire caused over a quarter of American deaths during the war, which lasted nearly 20 years. That number seemed high to me, but even a quick Wikipedia check showed 30-35 percent of Vietnam’s American deaths came from friendly fire.
From the way my friend gritted his teeth, pulled his gray hair and stared off into the distance, I knew he was upset. It’s sad COVID-19 numbers can parallel those in Vietnam. But I had no idea just how connected friendly fire and COVID-19 casualties are.
“This is a lousy time of year for me,” he said. “Saigon fell on April 30, 1975. 58,000 of our names on the wall. That doesn’t include most of the deaths caused by Agent Orange,” he lamented.
Agent Orange: the potent herbicide whose destructive effects last for decades. I’ll stop there. I don’t want someone in the administration wondering if it might work against COVID-19. After all, it hasn’t been tried. It just might work.
My veteran friend shook his head. “The US has the most COVID-related deaths in the world—more than Third World countries. There’s no telling how many will eventually die because of today’s Agent Orange.”
“Today’s Agent Orange?” I blurted out.
“The damn President!” he grumbled.
“Ol’ 45?” I said.
My friend looked at me as if I had two heads and the brains dropped out of both of them.
“Excuse me,” I corrected. “Ol’ Impeached 45.”
I’m no fan of Ol’ 45, but I refer to him as Ol’ 45 out of respect for the office he temporarily holds, and because I have compassion for anyone in positions of power. COVID-19 is not Ol’ Impeached 45’s fault. Nor is he completely to blame for taking a job he can’t handle. America hired him.
My veteran friend is not nearly as forgiving to people in power. He unleashed a rant laced with creative, military-grade profanity. He trashed the ego-driven, data-denying US politicians that prolonged the Vietnam War. The rant was as close to beautiful as a rant can be: fact-based and not anchored to partisan interests (in previous conversations, my friend confessed he would love to still be a Republican, if reality would only let him).
He lambasted President Johnson, a Democrat. Johnson escalated what he knew to be an unwinnable war because he didn’t want to let anyone beat him. You know, “winning.” He skewered President Nixon, a Republican. Nixon lied for years about the war, warned Americans the press was evil and out to get him, and promised victory was always just around the corner.
“It’s not party, it’s power,” my friend said. “Most politicians are wheeling and dealing to protect their own power.”
“Maybe,” I shrugged. “Applying the principles of ‘The Art of the Deal’ to the presidency or to COVID-19 is definitely not going well.”
“Negotiating with a virus works out about as well as negotiating with a B-40 rocket!” grunted the former grunt.
A B-40 is shoulder-fired rocket used by the North Vietnamese. Once fired, its effects are non-negotiable.
My friend is generally well-balanced and smart, but he’s not a stable genius. I suspect he suffers residual heel spur resentment.
He continued: “A lot of the killing and most of the friendly fire deaths in Vietnam were preventable. Not just looking back on it now. Even then we knew better.”
He drew his rant to sad conclusion.
“I hope in our rush to win, to reopen America, we don’t write some people off as ‘collateral damage’ or create more victims of ‘friendly fire.’ I hope the effects of today’s Agent Orange don’t last for decades.”
I concur. I hope wisdom guides our next few steps in coping with COVID-19, and we don’t unintentionally cause unnecessary deaths by “friendly fire.”