Normally the court marshal of Lt. Ehren Watada is not the sort of thing I reflect upon in my various pop culture writings. But if popular culture is, as Wikipedia defines it, the daily interactions, needs and desires and cultural 'moments' that make up the everyday lives of the mainstream, Ehren Watada’s story is undoubtedly a cultural moment which speaks volumes about where we are as a country, and has created some interesting ‘daily interactions’ for Americans, or at least for me.
In some respects, Watada’s story is nothing new. With every war there come people in opposition, and soldiers who decline to fight. As Americans, our hazy collective memory is filled with residue from Vietnam: draft dodgers, conscientious objectors, running to Canada and amnesty. But just as Ford’s pardon of Nixon didn’t salve the anger over Watergate in our national conscience, Ford’s amnesty for draft dodgers didn’t erase the anger on either side of the Vietnam issue.
Vietnam remains an unhealed scar on the American body. There is an enduring image of a culture unable to separate disapproval of the war from the soldiers sent to fight it. The image of a draft dodger being praised while a veteran is jeered is a boogieman in the American memory. Even if it never happened, we still smart somehow at the embarrassment. Just the shame of the whole darn thing. We lost. We treated returning vets poorly.
Our unofficial "Heroes of the World" prize, earned in the trenches of World War II became tarnished with napalm and images of death. Society divided itself into those that felt the patriotic response was to question our government and military, and those that felt that questioning was the very antithesis of patriotism, a division which only seems to have increased over time. Although the war had been over nearly 30 years, in 2004 a decorated and honored Vietnam vet was hounded and pilloried into losing a Presidential race, not because he refused to serve, but because at the end of his service, he publicly criticized the war. It is no wonder Americans flounder with conflicted feelings about Iraq. We still haven’t resolved our issues over Vietnam.
I had two experiences relating to the Watada trail within 24 hours of each other which have led me to this rumination about our country’s struggle over what it means to be a patriot. It happens that just this week, I’ve been serving on jury duty. Despite assurances from many that I’d spend a week watching bad movies and doing crossword puzzles, on my first day I was assigned to a preliminary jury pool, passed the voir dire stage and was empanelled on a jury.
Waiting in the jury room to be called for opening arguments, the group made small talk and brief introductions. One woman said that she has five children, four of whom are serving in Iraq. The fifth one is still in high school. If she weren’t serving on jury duty, she said, she’d be down at that trail of that…that….traitor. A few, though not remotely all, other voices chimed in…terrible…awful…treason…coward.
I knew I had problems with what they were saying, but I had no idea how to articulate it. The best I could come up with, in my mind, was something about how lucky were all are to live in a society where we can speak our opinions without fear of death. Unfortunately, my eloquent sentiments were also mixed with some decidedly uncharitable thoughts. I mean, there’s no draft Mrs. Ryan. Under present circumstances, to have one child in the military may be considered a source of pride, but four seems like carelessness.