Strix the harbinger
guards the exit gate, quizzing all
Who will pass this night?

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

The Cost of War

While Iraq may be a winnable situation, Afghanistan is a hellhole. Our government tries to paint us as liberators. We're not. The Afghans may not like the Taliban, but they are their Taliban. Not matter how noble our intentions and actions, in the eyes of the Afghans we will always be invaders.

This morning I stood in the street having this discussion with Terry F. He is a few years younger than I, but I've known him all his life. He's a little rough around the edges, unkempt beard and a long ponytail. He has spent his life as a carpenter and general handyman - a good man, skilled and honest - a good man to know.

We were talking about the army and war because earlier he had talked to his son and daughter-in-law. His son has been laid-off from Cargill for some time, there are no jobs in sight, and he needs to provide for his family. He made one of those hard life decisions. He is going back into the army and will soon be moving to Kentucky. Terry is really down. Not only is he worried about his son's safety, he won't be able to see his two grandchildren regularly.

Terry himself was drafted, went to Ft. Leonard Wood for training, then sent to Vietnam. Shortly after he arrived he was in a fierce, close-quarter fight, and in the smoke and the fire and the fear, he bayoneted a young Viet Cong. He got down and cradled the dying bloody boy in his arms. The soldier kept patting his pocket and signal blinking with this eyes. Terry opened the pocket and took out a packet. There were photos of the man's young wife and children. He nodded that he understood. "He didn't want to be there any more than I did." Shortly, the young man bled to death in his arms. When the smoke cleared they had a number of prisoners tied up. He agonized about it for hours and late that night he went to the prisoners one at a time and showed them the pictures. Finally one of them recognized the photos and called their names. A brother? A close friend? Terry said nobody was watching. He cut off the man's ropes and gave him the pictures. "He reached out and squeezed me like this," he said, softly touching my shoulder, "then he was gone". His hand still on my shoulder, Terry said, "I gotta go now before I start crying again". He turned away and got in his pickup. He didn't have to cry. I did it for him, for his family and for a family back in Vietnam.

7 comments:

Justine Nicholas Valinotti said...

Wow! That account is an example of what someone once said: War is always between brothers.

That is the reason why wars can only be fought when fighting men and women are trained to see the enemy as not-quite-human.

We see that now in that the words "Muslim" and "terrorist" have become practically interchangeable.

Interestingly (and thankfully), most people, most of the time, cannot kill another person after looking him or her in the eye. (Even in the most rabidly pro-death penalty jurisdictions, juries are often surprisingly reluctant to vote for killing a convicted criminal.) Part of that is our natures, and part of that stems from the fact that most of us are reared in some moral, religious or philosophical background that tells us, "Thou shalt not kill," or something to that effect.

One of the first goals of military training is to break down that resistance to killing, at least to the point that someone will kill if ordered to do so. I recall how that was done during my basic training: Early on, we shot at standard targets with circles and a "bull's eye." As the training progressed, the shape of that target was gradually changed so that it more closely resembled a human. By the end of our training, we were shooting at targets that looked like people. And our instructors gave those targets names: Igor, Ivan, Dmitri and other Russian names, as we were training during the Cold War.

How else can you get some kid just out of high school (or most older people, for that matter) to kill someone who's never done anything to him or his family?

Old Toad said...

As a good pal of mine (an old human guy) recently commented on his blog:

The most powerful words of wisdom I've ever heard about war were delivered by Chris Hedges, author of the 2002 book, "War Is A Force That Gives Life Meaning," in a speech he gave:

"War in the end is always about betrayal: betrayal of the young by the old, soldiers by politicians, and idealists by cynics."

I would add "betrayal of presidents by military leaders (and retired generals)" -- as it appeared to me during the Vietnam War and certainly does now in Afghanistan.

Doug said...

A very powerful story.

Speaking of betrayal. Is it possible we are still engaged in war in two countries because of the cost to our nation to bring them home? A sitting President can't end two wars in the middle of a huge recession. There are no jobs for the soldiers to come home to. And there would be more jobs lost in the military industry. It would further deepen the recession. It would devastate our economy. Is this the real reason The President hasn't kept his promise to bring them home.

Gunnar Berg said...

The whole story is even more absorbing, but I felt I had to edited it for privacy.

I hadn't considered the wars economic cost that way. An interesting thought. While it may be a factor, I doubt it is the driving reason.

Debb S said...

Very insightful and powerful words that move me to a heart wrenching place. There is a lot to learn from Vietnam, may all the death and mayhem have not be done in vain.
Terry's expereience shows that the human spirit, even in the midst of ultimate violence, can allow love to shine through..

Gunnar, when are your memoirs being published? I'll be first in line to purchase...

Gunnar Berg said...

Debb S., Huh? That would imply skill. Which would also imply editing and effort over time. You know me better.

Anonymous said...

I taught and devised an entire unit on "Why Men Love War?" It was the best stuff I've ever taught (poetry, prose, novels), and the title was based on an old Esquire article which said it all and more. The event of the young V.C. with the photos in his pocket is reminiscent of the famous scene in All Quiet on the Western Front where the protagonist is in a fox hole and finds the dead soldier's photos, too. There is a drive in Man to go to war and prove his heroics. And when the spiritual side of a person realizes these are sons, fathers, husbands (and now sisters, wives, mothers), you no longer have the stomach for it.
I never understood Viet Nam until I saw the movie, "Platoon." It crushed me. I was naive. Maria