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?

it’s not politics, it’s people

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Politics is the study of how governments and countries interact and function. But the word itself, perhaps lazily, has evolved into the study and discussion of current events as they pertain to society in general. I pride myself on my knowledge of Politics. I enjoy being a news junkie and a history buff. I like being up on current events, ready to whip out of my holster some nugget at a cocktail party. Given the choice between being informed or not, I like to know what’s going on despite the terrible toll it sometimes takes. But at the end of the day, I don’t know shit.

As an American, I enjoy a sense of security that a citizen of only a few countries ever have. We have never had our shores breached by an enemy, we have a strong military and a representative government in place to see that we (hopefully) never fall victim to civil war again. With the exception of the Great Depression, we have never known widespread hunger and poverty. Our standard of living, even at “poverty” levels consists of not just food, shelter and clothing but multiple televisions, a car, a cellphone, and internet connectivity. While we could do better, we could be worse off. Even in our darkest days, we seem to look to the future with optimism. The American Dream. And when we look at other countries, it is my opinion that we see things the same way.

Yet, there are people who have seen real civil war, experienced abject poverty, experienced true desperation and watched their once beloved country crumble before them. Only our immigrants from war-torn countries could relate to such an experience, I certainly can’t. Yet today I read a post by one of my favorite bloggers, Bojana of Bojana’s Coffee and Confessions to go that details the day to day struggles of the Bosnian Conflict. It is the third installment of a series and I have been anxiously awaiting its posting. https://wordpress.com/read/blogs/133032654/posts/506  It is a must read for all.

In 1984, I was a year out of High School. I was pretty big into politics even then and I was intrigued by the Winter Olympic games being held in Sarajevo. A communist European country with a pro-western leader, tarnished by the persistent memory of an assassination that led to a world war had earned the opportunity to put on a great show for the world.

Less than 10 years later that beautiful country was ravaged by a civil war. The sight of the games now looks like this:

The world, for the most part, sat and watched it happen.

I remember sitting in my living room, like many, thinking to myself “ugh…ethnic cleansing, mass graves, concentration camps, old hatreds…it’s a civil war let them work it out”. And that’s just what most of the world did. The US, in particular, was still licking its wounds over the last civil conflict that we had no “National Interest” in but, in the name of humanity, got involved in. Americans  still had this image from Mogadishu etched in our brains.
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We stayed out of it. But people were suffering. We did get involved eventually as a UN mission. We ineffectively bombed where we could. It was a band-aid at best and we acted like we helped. But millions were robbed of their lives, many of them young people who lost their youth and possibly their belief in a just world. Besides mountains of bodies, lost youth is the second biggest casualty of war.

 

In America, we loosely throw names at our leaders such as Nazi, or Fascist, or Dictator but we have never experienced such a thing. We have never had in power a despot, a dictator, a Shah or Cleric, a General or Generalissimo, or a Fascist.
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We had a King once and kicked his ass to the curb. We cannot pretend to know what it is like to be killed or imprisoned for our beliefs, religion or ethnicity. We have never walked down streets with bullets ringing by as we step over bodies. And we have never been without the support of one, centralized government that is always supporting us.

Yet with foreign policy, we act out against leaders at the expense of the people. Extreme sanctions, bombing campaigns and other harsh means of punishing the bad leaders of bad countries don’t hurt the leaders, only the people they lead. In many of those cases, the people don’t even support the beliefs of their leaders. They just want what we want. To eat a warm meal, sleep in a warm bed, to walk the streets without fear, and a future for their children.

Behind the great big wall that we call politics, there are just people. Strong, brave, resilient people who refuse to give up their lives despite what is going on around them. As evidenced by this iconic photograph of a Bosnian woman walking down the street. According to the photographer, bullets were flying close nearby, yet she walked upright and proud. Going about her day.
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