Wars' painful legacies, from Pearl Harbor to Afghanistan

A World War II fighter, George McGovern, who suffered a fall last week, went on to run for president as a peace candidate. He's stayed active in large part because he worries about the young people who are still being sent off to war.

Crosscut archive image.

George McGovern in 2009, autographing a book he wrote on Abraham Lincoln.

A World War II fighter, George McGovern, who suffered a fall last week, went on to run for president as a peace candidate. He's stayed active in large part because he worries about the young people who are still being sent off to war.

Wednesday's 70th anniversary of the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor should be well marked at several levels.

For those of us alive at the time — I was 7 in 1941 — Dec. 7 was one of those days about which you can remember each small detail.  It was most memorable, of course, for the millions of Americans whose family members served, died, or were wounded in World War II.

Two news reports last weekend struck me as particularly connected to the anniversary.

First, there was news that former Sen. and Democratic presidential candidate George McGovern, 89, a World War II bomber pilot, had been hospitalized in South Dakota after a fall. Second, there was the heart-rending story of the aptly named Ryan Job, a seriously wounded Navy SEAL from Issqauah, who had died at 28 because of mistakes at an Arizona hospital. Job's ordeal, I thought, was exactly the kind of thing that made McGovern hate war in his bones.

George McGovern had his roots in Depression-era South Dakota's populism and progressivism. As a teenager, he received World War II flight training and ended up flying 35 B-24 combat missions over Italy and eastern Europe. Many of his squadron mates were killed. In later years he expressed frequent regret at the civilian lives his bombs might have taken on the ground.

As with many others of his origins and experiences, he returned home with a deep hatred of war. In the 1948 presidential election, he was a supporter of former Vice President Henry Wallace's Progressive party candidacy for the presidency (against Harry Truman and Thomas Dewey) and a delegate to that party's convention in Philadelphia. He questioned the Cold War.

Later McGovern began a career as a door-to-door Democratic Party organizer in his home state. He served from 1957-'61 as a South Dakota congressman.  In 1960 he and Minnesota Sen. Eugene McCarthy served as co-chairs of the Democratic presidential nominating campaign of Sen. Hubert Humphrey, then carrying the peace/liberal flag in the party against the ultimately successful Sen. John Kennedy, who took a far more hawkish international posture. When JFK became president, Humphrey was instrumental in seeing that McGovern was named director of the Food for Peace program, established by Humphrey's 1961 legislation. The McGovern and Humphrey families were next-door neighbors in suburban Maryland.

McGovern won election as a U.S. senator from South Dakota in 1962, and he became a leading critic of the Vietnam War, while his friend Humphrey wound up trapped in the war policy as Lyndon Johnson's vice president. Eventually, in 1972, they would become finalists for the Democratic presidential nomination, ultimately won by McGovern, in a contest that was personally painful for both men.  (In 1968, when Humphrey was the party's presidential nominee, McGovern was the first to link arms with him at the convention; Humphrey did the same for McGovern in 1972).

After serving as Humphrey's assistant in the vice presidency, I served as policy director of McGovern's 1972 campaign against President Richard Nixon.  McGovern had been animated to seek the presidency by his burning desire to the end the Vietnam War. He considered the war a policy mistake. But he also felt deeply and personally the pain being borne by the victims of the war. The economy was flat in 1972, and Nixon was most vulnerable to attack on his economic policies, but for McGovern the war was the thing — the only thing — and he was uncomfortable raising any other issue. Toward the end of the campaign, Nixon falsely announced that "peace was at hand" in Vietnam and won a landslide victory over McGovern (despite the Watergate scandal just gaining steam).

Ultimately, McGovern would lose his Senate seat, but he continued to devote himself to causes of peace and world hunger. Along the way he and his wife, Eleanor, suffered personal tragedy, losing their daughter Terry to alcoholism. Then, a few years ago, Eleanor — McGovern's practical, stable life partner — died as well. Yet McGovern never ceased writing and speaking. (He is, by the way, one of the few politicians I have known who is a writer and historian in his own right).  I expect him to return from his current hospitalization and to pass, finally, at a podium or even in a lunch-counter dialogue about the evils of mistaken wars.  May he reach 100 before he ends his journey.

Ryan Job's story is exactly the type of war-related loss that kept McGovern going and on his feet. As the press in Arizona reported, Job's family won a lawsuit against Maricopa County, Arizona, last week after his death two years ago because of a Maricopa Medical Center overdose of painkillers just two days after Job's facial-reconstruction surgery there.

As Michele Ye Hee Lee of The Arizona Republic recounted, Ryan Job dreamed as an Issaquah high-school student of becoming a fighter pilot like his grandfather in World War II. He earned his pilot's license at 17. Then he aspired to be a Navy SEAL. He dropped out of the University of Washington after three years, enlisted, and completed the challenging SEAL training. He was deployed to Iraq in April 2006 as his SEAL team's primary automatic-weapons gunner, earning numerous awards. He reportedly survived some 20 firefights in Iraq until, in August 2006, a sniper's round destroyed his right eye and opened the right side of his head. He bled profusely and was not expected to survive.

Job began a series of surgeries to rebuild his face, including his eye socket and part of his skull.  Along the way, he married his childhood sweetheart, Kelly. He lost the sight in his left eye as well, because of nerve damage.

Job and Kelly moved to Phoenix, where she worked as a nurse anesthetist. He got his B.A. in business administration and landed an internship at General Dynamics. Kelly became pregnant. In September 2009, Job checked into Maricopa Medical Center for another in a series of facial-reconstructive surgeries.  A first surgery was followed by a second. He received a cocktail of painkillers.

Two days later he died in his hospital room, the victim of what the hospital called a "sentinel event," a legal term describing an unexpected incident leading to death or serious injury, and as a "never event," a term characterizing an accident that should never occur in a hospital. After all he had undergone, Job died because of a hospital mistake. He would not live to see his daughter, born six months after his death.

After Dec. 7, 1941, the United States fought a global war it had to fight, against tyrannical and brutally totalitarian Nazi and Japanese regimes. But it is hard to justify the fighting of other wars, before and since then, which often have been undertaken on mistaken perceptions of American interest or out of a misplaced sense of mission.

We know now that no American vital interest ever was at stake in Vietnam. We undertook war in Iraq on mistaken intelligence. We remain engaged in Afghanistan, even though we have signaled the Taliban that we will exit within three years. Military action against Iran is now being seriously discussed.

We should never forget Pearl Harbor. But we also should never forget Ryan Job of Issaquah, and those like him dead, wounded, and scarred, who gave everything in conflicts that need never have been fought. Nor should we forget George McGovern, still fighting, still standing, rejected overwhelmingly at the polls but ultimately right on the big issue of life and death, war and peace.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Ted Van Dyk

Ted Van Dyk

Ted Van Dyk has been active in national policy and politics since 1961, serving in the White House and State Department and as policy director of several Democratic presidential campaigns. He is author of Heroes, Hacks and Fools and numerous essays in national publications. You can reach him in care of editor@crosscut.com.