Remembering the Cold Warriors

Will the unsung heroes who guarded against the communist threat ever get their due?

Both the public and policy makers will be debating the wisdom of the nuclear reduction treaty that president Obama recently concluded with Russia for quite some time, as well they should. The stakes don’t get much bigger. Joe Lieberman said that the treaty won’t make it through the Senate unless there are significant modifications to the pact. That seems the probable result, especially if the Senate voting on the treaty includes, as seems likely, more Republican members.

I’m not up to speed enough on the merits and risks of this deal to comment on it. But, whenever nuclear reduction is on the table, I suspect that I’m not the only baby-boomer to recall a time when the ominous specter of nuclear war loomed just over the horizon, not as a somewhat unsettling possibility, but – in our then-young imaginations – a likely probability. For many young people today, the threat of terrorism, if they worry about it at all, is something that involves a couple of wars half a world away, and that threat probably wouldn’t exist at all if George W. Bush weren’t such an arrogant, imperialist cowboy. Could they even imagine a childhood that featured – not terrorism – but actual terror on a daily basis; the terror that a Soviet missile would streak over the horizon at any moment?  You learned to “duck and cover” at elementary school. Everybody knew where the nearest fall-out shelter was. If your dad drove you down the right road, you might get a glimpse of the nearby Nike defensive missile site as he grimly explained its purpose.

The nuclear Armageddon that everyone expected never happened, even after the guy that the Democrats assured us was a crazy cowboy from California, certain to turn the world into a smoldering ruin, was first elected president in 1980. (Democrats using crazed hyperbole to advance their political prospects – who could have seen that coming?) A big part of the reason that we baby-boomers never had to run to the fall-out shelter or cower beneath our desks was the professionalism, vigilance and courage of the cold-warriors who stared down the Soviet Union over the course of five decades. Will the Cold Warriors ever get their due? For it’s certain that, but for their tireless dedication to the defense of this nation we wouldn’t even be in a position to talk to our somewhat subdued, but by no means emasculated, Cold War opponent about further reducing nuclear weapons.

It’s easy to overlook the Cold Warriors. In the forty-four years of the Cold War, the United States was engaged in two major “hot wars” with Soviet proxies – in Korea and Viet Nam – and numerous skirmishes in lesser theaters. We recognize, and justifiably so, the valor of the soldiers, marines, sailors and aviators who put themselves in harm’s way when bullets were flying. Yet, the Cold Warriors charged with keeping the peace were no less important to America than the grim soldiers slogging through rice paddies in Indochina.

The Cold Warriors’ mission demanded two diametrically opposed skills. On the one hand, they had to demonstrate unparalleled proficiency, such that the Soviets always knew that they were facing an opponent who was as least as good as they were, if not a fair bit better, at the art of waging war. On the other hand, while they might flaunt their proficiency, that demonstration could not be allowed to turn into outright confrontation. It was a very fine line and all of the Cold Warriors were expected to know exactly where it was drawn. The Cold War was a game of chicken on a global scale, with the greatest possible stakes on the table, and our troops played the game better than anyone could have ever imagined.

The Cold Warriors paid a price in blood as well. A friend who flew in P-3 Orions chasing Soviet subs during the Cold War ruefully observed that daily losses of life among military personnel during the Cold War often exceeded monthly losses in today’s Iraq War. He wasn’t being disrespectful or ungrateful to the boots on the ground risking their lives in Iraq, rather he was plaintively observing that the nature of the Cold War meant that those killed fighting it were, by necessity, generally invisible to the public’s eye. Cold Warriors killed while doing their job were, the vast majority of the time, officially lost “in training accidents” rather than in combat. It had to be that way. If an Orion pilot dumped his aircraft pursuing a Soviet missile boat as part of a war that did not officially exist, how could the crew be honored for giving their lives in combat? That’s not a criticism of the way the United States government treated such situations, but – twenty one years after the fall of the Berlin Wall – perhaps it is an admission that is’s time to publically acknowledge the bravery, heroism and dedication of the Cold Warriors.

Hollywood heavyweight Tom Hanks has dedicated a great deal of time, money and effort towards telling the personal stories of the men who fought and won World War II. For that, he is to be commended. But, most of us are well aware of the heroism and patriotism of our fathers and grandfathers that fought in that war. The inspiring stories of the Cold Warriors are, for the most part, still sadly untold. How about it Tom? Let’s give this generation of heroes their due, before they are too old to appreciate it. They sure as hell deserve it.