Truth is the first casualty of war, they say, but war has many casualties. There are, of course, the casualties of combat. Those so fallen we rightly remember each Memorial Day. But war creates so many others.

Some are scarred for life by their combat experiences. They may not have been killed, but in many cases, they lost their lives – or at least their way. I think about them every time I pass the Vet Center down the street, and see the support group through the storefront window. They continue to fight a war within.

In addition, there are those who lost limbs but not life. Their numbers increased significantly thanks to our Iraq and Afghanistan incursions. Many young vets now face a lifetime with disability.

And what about the students at Kent State and Jackson State who died 40 years ago this month, shot by the National Guard for protesting our involvement in Vietnam? They, too, were casualties of war.

In the last 50 years, our government has subjected young men and women to two wars (at least) that never should have been fought – Vietnam and Iraq. Has the country learned its lesson from these wars? If not, did those soldiers die in vain? That’s a painful thought, one we should think long and hard about this Monday.

The Vietnam debacle directly affected my generation. We grew up in the wake of possibly the only “just” war this country ever fought on foreign soil: World War II. Our national sense of moral righteousness likely led us blindly into Southeast Asia in the 1960s.

As a result, some 58,000 members of my generation had their young lives snuffed before they could live them. To date, not as many young adults have died in Iraq, but if you include those who have been maimed – physically and/or psychologically – the numbers may be comparable.

No one who claims to “support our troops” should support sending them into wars we have no business fighting. If and when we make such mistakes, the bar for “honoring” those sacrifices goes way up. We owe Vietnam and Iraq vets a lot.

We should start with a national apology – to all the Gold Star families, but it shouldn’t stop there. I’ve long thought the survivors deserve an exemption from paying taxes, along with free education and free health insurance for the rest of their lives (and not just at V.A. hospitals). That would be expensive, but maybe it would change the calculus whenever our government gets the itch to invade another country for no compelling reason.

And it’s not just the government. Those who now claim to be so adamantly “anti-government” were just fine with invading Iraq on the flimsiest of pretexts and supported the previous administration’s irresponsible, incompetent conduct of that war. They attached decals of support to their cars, but failed to demand adequate armor to defend our troops from roadside bombs, which caused tens of thousands to be maimed.

That’s not supporting our troops, and it certainly doesn’t “honor” the dead. Their calls for more responsible government are many years late and many dollars short. Their credibility has been compromised.

When Memorial Day rolls around and I hear pious patriots vow they’ll “never forget those who died to make us free,” it rings hollow.

I’d rather hear about the lessons they’ve learned from our past mistakes. The only way to truly honor those who died in Vietnam and Iraq is to recognize and acknowledge our past follies and resolve to avoid similar foolhardiness in the future.

When that happens, every soldier who died in those two wars will have died for a reason – a good reason – and their sacrifices warrant a special level of honor on our part.

Some are old men now. Some are just beginning their adult odysseys. But every one of them, those who died and those who survived, deserve our thanks and praise – and an overdue apology.

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