My friend Steve Ostroff (on the left) just before his untimely death
“Life doesn’t cease to be funny when people die any more than it ceases to be serious when people laugh.” — G.B. Shaw
I have written previously that I am not a journalist and this post is clear evidence of that. My original intent was to publish this on either the Sunday before, or on the Monday of, Memorial Day. However, the subject was a bit emotional for me and I found it difficult to finish until now. I, therefore, offer it as a remembrance. It need not be tied to any particular holiday.
Memorial Day – much like Veteran’s Day, Pearl Harbor Day, and many other holidays or special days that commemorate the military or significant days in our nation’s history – almost invariably brings me a storm of mixed emotions. I have enormous respect for those who serve our nation. At the same time, I believe they are most often sacrificed not in defense of our freedom, but in the defense of others – who never serve – and in defense of their fortunes and their “right” to make money incessantly.
This Autumn it will have been 45 years since I had the dubious distinction of being a pallbearer at the funeral of one of my best friends, Steven Larry Ostroff, who was killed in the battle of Ong Thanh on October 17, 1967. He was the first of five classmates of mine who would perish in that unjust, stupid conflict and I was highly conflicted about it.
“I want to be an Airborne Ranger. I want to go to Vietnam. I want to live a life of danger. I want to kill the Viet Cong.”
Steve was by no means an innocent, angelic hero. I remember my brother recounting running into him shortly after he finished either Boot Camp or Advanced Infantry Training. What stuck out for him was Steve’s enthusiasm for battle and his desire to kill. I was a bit put off by hearing that at the time, but not entirely surprised. It was, after all, the mindset the Army wanted in their Infantrymen. It was what they trained them for.
I was just beginning to understand what the war in Vietnam was all about; an understanding that would soon blossom into full-blown resistance and activism in an effort to bring it to a halt. Steve, born 15 days before me, was barely twenty years old when he was killed. During the funeral his casket remained closed. As I remember it, we were under the impression his body was not recovered for a couple of days and his family did not want anyone viewing his remains.
I’m not sure at this point that was the reason, though. Based on the accounts of his death I’ve read recently, it seems more likely to me there wasn’t a whole lot of him left to identify and having what was left on display in an open casket would have been too horrific for his family and friends. The web sites I have found with his information state he was killed by “Multiple fragmentation wounds“.
I clearly remember the grief on his parents’ faces as we went through the acts of remembrance, consecration, and burial. I have always been moved most by the loss experienced by those who have been left behind and it’s especially painful to see parents having to endure the loss of a child. In this case, it was made even more difficult because – if memory serves – Steve was an only child.
Twice-Baked Rye Bread
He and his family lived right across the street from John H. Francis Polytechnic High School, where we both attended, and he and I used to hop the fence to eat lunch at his home. His mother, I believe her name was Sarah, always had hard salami in the house and, if I played my cards right, I could count on enjoying one of my favorite sandwiches, served on Jewish Rye . . . with real garlicky kosher pickles on the side.
We belonged to the same temple, Valley Beth Israel, and became Bar Mitzvah at around the same time. We went to the same Jr. High as well and, as crazy kids and adolescents, we had some good times together, the memories of which have receded well into the background after all these years. This is especially so because we never had the opportunity to reinforce our memories by reliving them and, probably, embellishing them.
When I was in Washington, D.C. years ago, I made a trip to the Wall to see Steve’s name and to reflect on his life and death. I did the same in Sacramento, where there is a memorial to the Californians who perished in Vietnam. Both of these trips were some time ago and both were quite emotional.
What Is Really Going On
I have remained dead-set against every engagement we have indulged in since, but I am hardly anti-military – and here is where the conflict, the cognitive dissonance, comes alive and dances crazily in my head. Steve was a friend of mine and the men and women who continue to serve include friends and family. I know and love many of them, yet I don’t believe they are keeping our country safe; at least not for the most part.
For the most part, I believe they are being used as pawns – as “cannon fodder” – in our ongoing efforts to make the world safe for lucrative investments in natural resources and trading opportunities including, and maybe especially including, the sale of arms and ammunition to just about anyone who has the money to pay for it.
I will continue to honor Steve’s memory, despite his apparent thirst for killing and despite my belief he was not fighting for our way of life or to keep us safe, just as I will continue to honor the men and women who serve today. However, I do so only because I also believe most of those who serve honestly believe they are fighting to defend their country. They believe this because they’ve been told it’s true and I’m not going to hold their naivete and ignorance against them.
Some would argue I should condemn them, based on the principles that ignorance is no excuse and the existence of the duty to refuse to obey unlawful commands. However, I think the situation is far more complex than that and I cannot turn my back on people who have been taken advantage of for so long they have no way of knowing how terribly they’ve been duped.
I feel for them – especially for those who have made the ultimate sacrifice – and I feel for their families. So much of the suffering that takes place due to war and conflict is completely unnecessary and truly counter-productive for all but a very few . . . and those are the ones who also profit the most handsomely from war. They’re the ones who should be shot.
24 August 2015
In preparation for my High School class’s 50th reunion in about six weeks, a classmate was putting together a Vietnam veteran’s collage. As part of the effort he is also creating a memorial to our fallen classmates. In doing research for this tribute, he came across this post and asked me, since I mentioned we had lost six classmates, who the sixth was. He was familiar with only five. I had long thought there were six members of our class who perished in that conflict, but I believe I was wrong. I have made the correction, above.