"This wasn't just plain terrible. This was fancy terrible. This was terrible with raisins in it."
Dorothy Parker (1893–1967)
I was a child during the Vietnam War, and I remember being confused by the disgraceful way many Americans greeted their returning veterans.
I knew the war had not been popular. That was the reason why one president chose not to seek another term and his successor made so many poor choices to avoid his predecessor's fate that it cost him the job, anyway. They were the policymakers. Their policies failed, and they were held accountable.
But, even as a boy, I knew it wasn't fair to blame the soldiers for the war. They weren't responsible for the policy, only for carrying it out.
Nevertheless, they were treated shoddily when they came home. It was an embarrassing sight to witness on TV, the kind of thing that made one hang one's head in shame. I cannot imagine what it must have been like to be there.
It was more gratifying to see the way America's veterans were greeted after the Gulf War. It is how the veterans should have been treated after Vietnam. It is how they always should be treated because they risked everything to preserve this country. Some came back broken. Some did not come back at all.
Whether they came back broken in places you can see or places you can't see, they deserve the best we can give them, not the worst — which is what they have been getting in terms of their health care.
It is ironic, really, that an administration that has made health care its signature cause should be faced with the emerging scandal concerning the treatment — or, should I say, the lack thereof? — of veterans at V.A. hospitals, particularly the one in Phoenix although the problem appears to be systemic.
I don't know all the details. I want to know them, even if they make me want to hang my head in shame because this really does touch everyone somehow. We all know people who have served this country. Some of us are related to veterans. Some of us are veterans.
One of the most inspiring moments I've seen in a movie was when Spencer Tracy, as one of the three judges in "Judgment at Nuremberg," spoke about survival.
"A decision must be made in the life of every nation at the very moment when the grasp of the enemy is at its throat," Tracy said. "Then, it seems that the only way to survive is to use the means of the enemy, to rest survival upon what is expedient, to look the other way. Well, the answer to that is 'survival as what'? A country isn't a rock. It's not an extension of one's self. It's what it stands for. It's what it stands for when standing for something is the most difficult. Before the people of the world, let it now be noted that here, in our decision, this is what we stand for: Justice, truth and the value of a single human being."
That takes my breath away every time I see it, and I have been thinking about it a lot lately because it sums up — for me, anyway — what our veterans fought for and sacrificed for. They stood for us. This is what we must stand for: Justice, truth and the value of a single human being.
Without truth, there can be no justice, and those human beings have been devalued by a cold, unfeeling and ungrateful system. It has nothing to do with political ideology. The abuses have occurred under presidents from both parties.
With this administration, the incessant drip–drip–drip of scandal is exhausting. Some of it has merit, some does not, but the V.A. scandal is nonpartisan.
I admire what Brent Budowsky has written for TheHill.com.
"[T]he president owes veterans more than another White House staff, spin and stall operation, which he offered on Wednesday with the same cast of characters waiting for yet another report," Budowsky wrote. "Congressional Republicans, who share responsibility for the VA scandal, owe vets more than another attack, deride and exploit operation that plays politics with the health of those who serve."
Barack Obama knew about the abuses when he ran for president the first time and promised to do something about them. In 2007, he spoke — almost a year to the day before he accepted his party's nomination — at the National Convention of the Veterans of Foreign Wars in Kansas City and pledged, "We enter into a sacred trust with our veterans from the moment they put on that uniform. That trust is simple — America will be there for them just as they have been there for America."
We must confront this problem. We must be faithful to our promise. We cannot ignore it.
I fear, though, that is what will happen. Obama will speak the words people want to hear on Memorial Day, and they will feel better. He will say he is on top of the job — and, to use an expression of which he has been fond, he will kick the can farther down the road. Then, whenever he is asked about the matter, he will say the review is proceeding — and the issue will be squelched until after the election.
And nothing will be done.
I don't like to put things in political contexts, but the sad truth is that everything is viewed in a political context these days — by both the right and the left.
That, as Dorothy Parker might say, isn't merely terrible, it is fancy terrible, terrible with raisins in it — and maybe a dollop of whipped cream.