The price of war

I was raised by a Vietnam Veteran and a WW2 Veteran. It didn’t take me long to learn that their experiences impacted them profoundly and that most vets didn’t talk about it. I once worked for a guy that would wake some nights finding himself on top of his wife attempting to strangle her. I asked my Dad about it and he said flatly “he saw and did some shit.”

Just take a moment to let the fact that 22 Veteran’s a DAY commit suicide in this country sink in.

Last week I was watching Forrest Gump with my mother’s BF. We were hanging out, drinking a beer and chatting back and forth. All of a sudden we came to the scene where Gump and his platoon came under heavy fire in the Vietnam sequence. Dave suddenly raised his voice and said loudly “turn it off, turn it off! I hate this shit!.” I quickly changed the station and I asked no questions. I knew that the scene had touched a nerve with him. We never spoke of it.

In the current news there is a lot of talk about Syria. There is controversy about pulling out. Many think we should stay, many think like our President, that enough is enough with foreign wars.

I agree. To be honest, we’re not over Vietnam yet. If you don’t believe me, please watch Ken Burns’ documentary.

Then you see kids, good kids from good families, kids that back home would help little old ladies across the street and go to Bible study, do these horrible things. They’re in country for a little bit and it’s like the veneer of civilization peels right off of them

The above quote was from a Vietnam Veteran as interviewed for the 10 part documentary The Vietnam War by Ken Burns. He was talking about “acts of war”. In particular, the acts of savagery committed by some American soldiers while serving in Vietnam.

At an average of 90 minutes per episode, completing the series was challenging. But I did and I have a lot of takeaways. Hours of battle footage, commentary, and interviews with all the players; politicians, soldiers from South and North (the enemy) Vietnam and all of the geopolitics involved in Cold War Southeast Asia. Per usual Burns provides an honest, balanced and unflinching look at one of the darkest chapters in recent history.

The veterans interviewed did the unusual. They talked openly about their experience. They ranged from the reluctant draftee; to the wide-eyed eager recruit seeking the honor and glory his father achieved; to the everyday guy from Anytown, USA that felt the call of Patriotism. They all went to the same place but all came back very different. It wasn’t like the last war, their Dad’s war. And glory was not in the cards.

A lot of men did and saw things that would haunt them. When villages were razed, livestock slaughtered, suspected enemies gunned down and food supplies destroyed were part of “following orders” a lot of soldiers found their moral compass in danger. Some made “deals with the devil” to rationalize their acts. One soldier said “I will never kill another human, but there’s no limit to how many Vietcong I will waste.” His compromise was to not see the VIetcong as people. If they are no longer people then it becomes easier. They are the enemy they do not matter.

Then there were those who stretched the thin red line even further. Rapes, mass killings of civilians and excess brutality sometimes occurred. As it says above, it was if the veneer of civilization had worn off of them.”

At home, the war had changed people as well. The escalating campaign was enormously controversial. Young people broke rank with their parents’ beliefs. Students took to the street and challenged authority figures. Peaceful protest morphed into violence as frustration with a growing conflict grew. Pictures of bombing campaigns and burned children were finding their way into American living rooms and people were outraged. Some activists decided that violence was justified and riots and bombings occurred. It culminated when the National Guard opened fire on a crowd at Kent State and killed four. One veteran lamented “It has gotten so bad we are killing our own at home”. By the time of the Saigon airlift of ’73 this country was divided and forever damaged.

When the soldiers returned, there was no ticker tape parade. The hostility towards the war had been directed towards those who had been charged with fighting it. The brave men and women who fought the unpopular war emerged from planes and boats to be called “baby killers” and were spit upon. These people are still owed the Welcome Home they deserved. But as I have said. Everyone changed.

What are the rules of civilization? Are they inherent? Are we born to act rational and be decent to each other? Is it the job of parents to instill the concept of society in us? Is the veneer of civilization so thin that it can be easily worn down to the point that we are easily capable of barbarism and savagery?

If you don’t know what it was like to see the political climate of the late 60’s and early 70’s it isn’t too late to see it. Just turn on your TV. Riots, Nazi flags, death threats, mass shootings, people just being ugly to each other.

So I have to ask…how thin is your veneer?

11 thoughts on “The price of war”

  1. I’ve always felt bad for soldiers. There are those, like you said, who serve for patriotic reasons and some for conscription, and some just because they have no other perceived avenue to a better future. The last one was me, when I signed up in 1986. Or, I should say, all but signed up. I took the tests, did the tours, was ready, until I wasn’t. The day I was headed down I called my recruit and said “I’ve decided to pass. I was in a bad place. I’m in a better one now, thank you.”

    Those who serve, for whatever reasons, are tragic. It is not their war. It is the war of rich, old men, every time, seeking some new gain. We kill the young to feed the old, John Mellencamp said, and man that ain’t no good. Folks always say, “honor the veterans,” and I get that, it ain’t their fault they fell into that trap of lies; I won’t dishonor them. I just feel bad for them. War is hell.

    The United States, with all its power, ought to stay out of all but the most necessary of wars. The United States, with all its power, ought to stand vigilant as the policeman in the world, stand on foreign borders and in foreign waters and let our presence and might force others to avoid atrocity and war. But that isn’t how a war machine works. It doesn’t find ways not to fight wars, it finds ways to start them. The need for war calls for the expansion of the war machine which enriches the businesses of already rich men and lines the pockets of the politician. It’s a nasty cycle, the business of war. And in that cycle the soldier is a pawn to be played and lost on the battlefield with impunity. They are useful to the powerful as symbols brought home in caskets wrapped in flags, as martyrs for the machine.

    Fear the military-industrial complex, Eisenhower told us. “…we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought” by that powerful force. We did not listen. The MIC rules the world, and you can check the records of any president – Pub or Dem – to be assured of that. No president wants to stop war now, it’s good business for America. One might want to show the desire to avoid war publicly because it makes him look good to his liberal base, and another might want to move some pieces around to build a new hotel, but they dare not stop the war. The United States has known 17 years of peace in its 243 years of existence. So, yeah, maybe that’s our default way. The veneer of civilization is so remarkably thin.

    This is why I believe the progressive ideal. We are savage by nature, and it is only the constant vigilance against savagery, a constant pursuit of a better and more egalitarian society, an undying support for the buildup of the veneer, that we can be our best selves. We must not give in to the patriotic soldier’s viewpoint. We must all be the one who wants to put the flower in the barrel of the gun and not the finger on the trigger. We must fight to be our best selves. Because it’s easy to be our worst. We see it everyday, and everyday the conflagration grows.

    Change the mindset of the soldier. Change the mindset of the politician. Change the world. We are not good men, but we can be. To do so, though, requires a break from the patriotic, nationalistic, capitalistic, expansionist mentality that has dominated our thinking from the start.

    Good post, Bill. You got me thinking, obviously!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. What an amazing response, Tom. Almost a post in and of itself.
      You are a very smart man, Tom. The only man who can use the term”Progressive” without making me cringe. Your values are solid and you are genuine and knowledgeable of what you speak of. You know what you believe in and I applaud it.
      Thank you

      Liked by 2 people

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s