Dennis Marek: The worst year for America, 2018 or 1968?

January 13, 2019

I was reading many millennials believe 2018 was the worst year ever for our country.

They cite the government shutdown as a result of the president’s ego and his promised wall as a meaningless standoff. Meanwhile, he is under investigation for lying, sex scandals and dealing with the Russians even after he announced his run for the presidency.

Also cited were the wars overseas that seem to never end, the mass shootings in schools and assemblies, and the historic weather disasters. Not to be left out are the massive numbers of deaths due to opioids and inner city murders.

While I agree our government is in shambles with our leaders from both sides engaged to meaningless debates where the real issues seem to be their egos, we have seen far worse times.

While these young people might be right for their lifespans, those of us much older only need to remember 1968. About 51 years ago today, I was walking in the front gates of Lackland Air Force Base to begin 90 days of Officer Training School. The year of 1968 was just beginning. While military training never is fun, we also were subjected to some interesting times. In January, the USS Pueblo was seized by the North Koreans. The crew was held captive almost the entire year, yet our government did nothing. Why? Because we were up to our armpits in Vietnam.

That very month, the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong celebrated Tet with a massive offensive in the South. Thousands were killed and the Americans were first starting to believe this war just might not be winnable. The “hawks” and “doves” already were in great debate, tearing the soul of the country apart. Anti-war protests had been occurring across the nation the fall before. Soldiers were being spit on, as these men and women became the focal point of the nation’s frustration.

Then, upon becoming commissioned a second lieutenant, I was assigned April 1, 1968, to Westover Air Force Base in western Massachusetts. I got to enjoy two days at home in Illinois before my drive east. I had left my job in Washington, D.C., in December and decided to drive through there on my way and visit friends before the drive north.

As I drove through West Virginia that night, I heard on my radio Martin Luther King Jr. had been shot in Memphis. I arrived to a most incredible scene. There in the peaceful Georgetown area west of the White House were armed U.S. troops on famed Wisconsin Avenue with bayonets attached. The city was on fire. People were burning their own neighborhoods.

I arrived later that week at my first base and went to work with photographic film from the very first satellites taking pictures of the denied areas of the world. The product was unbelievable for the times. While I was fascinated with my job, the national unrest continued.

The war continued to go wrong. Although we were not informed of the massacre at My Lai for several months, Lt. William Calley and his men perpetrated the worst atrocity of the war when they murdered this entire South Vietnamese village of its women, children and old men March 16, 1968. Only Calley ever would stand trial for this horrendous act, perhaps as a scapegoat for those truly in charge of his troops.

That summer, Robert Kennedy was assassinated. He died along with the hope of so many to end the war in Vietnam. Later, the Democratic Convention in Chicago turned into chaos with brutality and further division between the anti-war protesters and the conservative side.

While the millennials mention the toll of casualties and deaths in the Middle East, and while it is always too many, about 17,000 American troops were lost in Vietnam in 1968.

What followed that fall was the nomination and election of Richard Nixon. Here was a man with a plan to end the war. Yet, it soon became evident he had no plan. The USSR was at its worst, crushing the satellite nations in any attempt to obtain independence. My own country of origin, Czechoslovakia, was torn apart by a Soviet invasion to put down the unrest. No one from outside that country did anything or even complained very loudly. We, as a country, sat by and watched. The Cold War and the hot one continued on.

So, when we think of this past year with all its debates, name-calling, and ineffectiveness, it seems pretty mild to that year 50 years before. Thankfully, we have had no political assassinations. The threat of nuclear attack is limited to one fat man in North Korea who, as of yet, does not have the full capability. The people have spoken in the latest elections that the Republican Party does not have all the answers, but it’s clear the Democratic Party doesn’t either. The stock market is crashing as I write, but it always comes back, even after 1929. Sadly, the rich get richer, and the poor stay poor, but that is our economic system, and the rich are always in the power positions.

In thinking about writing the above, I did give pause to those of our grandparents and great-great-grandparents. Living through 1929 was no piece of cake either. And how about living through our own Civil War? Every generation has its own black cloud. So, hang in there, baby; the ride might not be over, but we still live in the best country in the world. I just hope our millennials will have seen the worst year in their lifespans.

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