I am not a patriotic person by nature. I don’t understand artificial national lines of demarcation. I figure you farm where food grows, and you manufacture where factories make sense. Anything less makes no logical sense.
War never ends war, never has, and never will. Within every war are the seeds of the next one, and the next, and on and on.
It has been said that these interminable wars we now are engaged in, are real only to the actual soldiers and their families. The rest of us remain largely untouched. That is probably true. But it probably always has been like that. We fail always to see the deeper and more subtle costs that effect us all.
I read many years ago Normal Mailer’s The Naked and the Dead. He won the Pulitzer for it, and well he should. I never felt the same way about war after that. I learned there is no glory, no adventure, no honorable patriotic pride. There is only blood, sweat, insects, rot, disease, discomfort, pain, mental distress and death. Nothing heroic or noble, just putting one foot interminably in front of the other, marching into the jaws of death.
I think it speaks volumes that most veterans don’t talk about their war. It is too horrific, too vile, too inhuman. The fear they have is, I suspect, the revulsion they might find. My father never spoke of WWII, except to point a time or two, as he gazed at his company yearbook, “This guy got shot in the gut right next to me. He died.” On some beach, somewhere in Italy. Somewhere in some far off land.
I’ve been reading Tim O’Brien’s extraordinary book, The Things They Carried. I found it on a great books list, and thought my husband might need to read it. He cannot stop reading it, re-reading passages again and again. My husband wasn’t a grunt, he flew on helicopters, yet O’Brien’s poignant vignettes of life in the bush of Vietnam ring so true that he finds common ground aplenty.
I’ve read about half, and there are times I want to set it down and not continue. So raw and so frightening are the feelings. Time and again, I cannot relate to the behavior of young men living in such hell. I try, but I fail to understand. I would guess they would act one way, and they don’t. My husband understands, but I do not.
The book is so aptly titled. For he speaks of what they carried common to them all, water canteens, rations, M-16’s, ammo. But he then goes on to speak of the more personal things, the letters, the rabbit’s foot, the pair of pantyhose of a girlfriend, a deck of cards, a bible. And then deeper still, the fears, hopes, dreams, terrors that each carried in varying degrees.
One line I shall never forget.
“They died so as not to die of embarrassment.”
Vietnam was a war of the draft. Boys were called up. Damn few chose to go. Most did about everything they could to avoid it. College was a safe place to be, but grad school was not. The state army reserves was excellent, but the waiting lists were huge. Conscientious objector status was good, but you really had to show a history of such beliefs before being drafted. Boys sometimes pretended insanity, or homosexuality to escape. And then there was Canada.
O’Brien almost ran. He drove to the border, he fought his internal battle for a couple of weeks. In the end, he says, he was not courageous, he was a coward, he went back home, to report for boot camp.
You see, it was the embarrassment. Better to die in a war you did not believe in, wanted no part of, than to face the embarrassment of family, friends, town. Embarrassment that one couldn’t stand up and do the manly thing.
Ironic, that the draft captures the young. The eighteen through twenty-something. Exactly before young men have found themselves, their self-ness. Still so locked into peer pressure, and wanting to life up to expectations of what others desire them to be. It’s an ingenious system that works, most go like lambs to the slaughter because they cannot bear to be different. Thought cowardly.
So they go. And they die. Or they are grievously wounded. Or they see and participate in horrors the likes of which we who have not drunk from this cup, cannot imagine. We would recoil, we would move away. We would relegate such as these to leper colonies, these no longer quite humans.
So they don’t mostly speak. They live among us, with their terrible memories. With guilts and tears unshed, with fears of cowardly acts, of monstrous visions. Of death, of more blood than any animal slaughter house would conceive.
Of the smells, awful rotting human flesh, the charred remains of villages, of once sweet smells now gone rancid because of associations. The sounds, that make fireworks at home on humid July nights intolerable. The same for backfiring cars. The sounds of helicopters rotate through the mind and recall the sinking feeling as one is propelled downward into a free fall crash.
These are lifetime memories. Never to be escaped. And they forever color and mutilate lives, shrinking the scope of opportunity. Forever icing over the heart. Always the need to protect the raw pain that is ever present, though often softened by drugs and alcohol or any other addictive and repetitive behavior that numbs the senses.
And since we, the unchurched in such affairs, don’t understand, we all too readily are willing to defer to the crazy minds who still think that war is an answer. And so we don’t rise up in anger and indignation and demand that this hell stop. We tell ourselves it is unfortunate, but necessary.
And it is not necessary. It is simply humanity stuck in a rut of pain giving and receiving, back and forth like some crazy swing set. And I weep for all, for all who are ground up in this endless meat grinder.
The lyrics to Edwin Starr’s War, can be found here.
For a poem about life at Landing Zone Betty in Vietnam, read Gary Jacobson.