Lately, I have just finished a book titled “What It Is Like To Go To War”, written by Karl Marlantes, copyright 2011, ISBN 13:978-0-8021-1992-6, published by Atlantic Monthly Press of New York NY.
Mr. Marlantes is a veteran of Vietnam, and it took him nearly 40 years to get this book written. He came back from ‘Nam, to the spitting on him in airports, to not being allowed to wear his uniform, or talk about his experiences, because of the hate and bigotry against the men (and women, but more on that later) that were in Vietnam, and no help for these veterans. While men (and women) who were involved in WW II, and Korea mostly returned on troop ships, with fellow veterans, people they could talk to, about their experiences, and what they are left with, young people who fought in Vietnam (or simply worked there in non-combatant positions) often were flown home, mostly on their own. And when they got home, no-one wanted to listen to them. I see the same things happening as a result of these wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Violence, marriages destroyed, no jobs, homelessness, drug use and alcoholism, suicide. And people who did not have to go through this, shunned them when they wanted to talk about their experiences; they simply did not want to hear it.
I’m going to quote a few things that Karl wrote, and follow it up with a few more comments:
“If you go to war singing ‘Onward Christian Soldiers’, you’re going to raise the devil.”
Since Vietnam, the US has been involved in more than a dozen wars: Cambodia (Mayaguez), Iran (failed hostage rescue), Lebanon, Libya (bombing Qaddafi), Panama, Grenada, Gulf I, Somalia, Bosnia, Kosovo, Afghanistan, Iraz, and Libya again. The US has aided and abetted killing in the Falklands, El Salvador, Afghanistan (when the Russians were there), Angola, Cambodia, Colombia, and Israel/Palestine. This list comes from Karl Marlantes book. He goes on to say “We are a very aggressive and warlike nation. Denying our own collective responsibilities for the activities, whether they were right or wrong, is like scurrying around the house of an alcoholic, hiding empty bottles, and never mentioning the drinking.”
He speaks of a “Sunday school head lice” aspect. Thou shalt not kill. Violence is bad. People who do either of the above are bad. So talking about it is going to spread the nits and infect everyone with this disturbing reminder of our human condition.”
I am reminded of the story of the church whose members would pray to God that their children, or their members, who were at war, would be kept safe in the fight, and to bring them home. An angel walks in and stands at the front of the church and says “let me get this straight. You want me to save your friends and family, but by doing that, you are asking me to kill the sons and daughters of the enemy”. Can’t you imagine God/dess looking down on you and wondering the same thing? Or is your God one that does not care about the “other side”.
“Warrior energy is fierce and wild. Men and women who go to wars, in whatever capacity, are called the Warrior Society, or The Club.”
Karl Marlantes speaks about Terry Waite, the envoy of the Canterbury Church in England who often went in to areas where hostages were held to get the hostages out – until he himself was taken hostage, and held for five years, blindfolded, in daily fear of his life, mistreated – once he apparently had a chance to grab a gun and get out, but he did not because he would not be violent himself. His moral philosophy was ‘Violence is not the way to solve problems’. But the warriors philosophy is “No violence except to protect someone from violence”.
Finally, Karl wrote “Killing people with Marines is ethically no different from killing people with hatchets. Only the distance from the spurting blood differs. So when a politician sends in the Marines………………..” Well, take it from there in your own words.
The point is, and I wish everyone who loves war, or who sends our youth in to wars, would have to read this book – that it would be required reading for everyone having anything to do with war, or who is around afterward to help these folks who have been in war, and survived. Under Obama, at least the men and women returning from Iraq and Afghanistan are getting the help they need, physically and mentally. But we must all bear the shame, whether we believed in what was being done, for the problems of those who were in Vietnam, and all those other places in the years between Vietnam and Iraq/Afghanistan.
Folks, we are sending these young people into places where it is killed or be killed. We are putting guns in their hands and sending them out into a jungle, or the bush, or the desert, and telling them, you are on your own, save yourself if you can, and take out as many of them as you can. In most cases, those we are killing are also obeying the commands of their superiors, their bosses, their dictators. And unlike us, if there is a real distress over having to be told to kill, where sometimes our young men and women are allowed to be conscientious objectors, those who live and fight in countries with dictators don’t have this chance. They are usually tortured, and then killed in a gruesome way, and their heads left hanging to say to the people “this is what we do if you don’t obey orders”. There are kids in Africa who are 10 or 12 years old, who are having guns put in their hands and told to go out and kill the “enemy”. But, they don’t know why they are the enemy.
We talk about the tens of thousands of names are up on the Vietnam Wall. Has no-one ever considered that there are tens of thousands of lost names of Viet Cong, or South Vietnamese, who were also innocent, were just doing what they were told to do by superiors, most of whom never had to do the fighting, who may have not been out of harm’s way, in this day of rockets and bombs, but who were not in the scrub having to fight.
Did you know that these men were sometimes out days at a time, no place to get a wash, no place to clean their hands, in the same clothes day after day after day, maybe frightened enough to pee in their pants, yet get on down the road to the next ambush, or the next fire fight, or the next valley or mountain? How many of you care? And how many of you have ever told one of these young men or women “I don’t want to hear about it”, as a way to placate yourself and absolve yourself from any of the guilt.
How many of you have had to sacrifice any of your lifestyle while these young men and women were “over there”, doing your dirty work, the dirty work you might approve of, but don’t want to know how it is done? During WW II, which was considered a “good war”, people at home gave up many things – new clothes, sugar, beef, rubber products, plastic products, gave up household utensils that could be melted to build more airplanes, or tanks, or other machines of war. But we were never asked to do that for any wars since WW II.
I hate war. But I feel somewhat guilty for not doing more. Perhaps instead of drinking and dancing and having a good time, I should have volunteered to go to ‘Nam. And here I am going to inject something about women. During Vietnam, many women volunteered to go to ‘Nam. There were nurses, they were Donut Dollies, they were entertainers, some were even WACs who went to do clerical jobs. Most of these women, the ones not actually in the service officially, were listed as men – because there were no women in Vietnam. If a woman tells someone they were in ‘Nam, the reply is usually “oh, you were a nurse?” And if she says no, then she is told “you weren’t in Vietnam – there were no women in Vietnam”. Until fairly recently, there was nothing to remember these women, but a statue was finally put up in Washington DC near “The Wall”, to honour those women. But women who were “in country”, who got killed, do not have their names on the wall. The women who came back ill, with PTSD, with Agent Orange, did not have access to the medical care the men had, which was rare for that war anyway, until fairly recently in time. If they went to their regular doctors and said “I got hit with Agent Orange”, their regular doctor would tell them to go to a VA hospital, where they were turned down because “there were no women in Vietnam”. And it cannot be proven without much hardship because again, women in Vietnam were listed as Male on the gender section of their paperwork.
I just wanted you to know that. Karl did not write about the women in his book. The information I got was from a second book I just read about specific women in Vietnam, written in 2000. It is a book of individual stories from women who served there, in several capacities.
But back to Karl Marlantes book. He suggests, very appropriately, that when we send men to war, we need to have a place they can go upon returning, for debriefing and with doctors and counselors who can help these men (and women) “come down”, depressurize, set their minds at rest. They need the support of their families, and friends, people who won’t say to them “I don’t want to hear about it”. I know there are many of these warriors who don’t want to talk about what they went through, but they need to – they need to vent, to cry, to share their pains, and their confusion, and their guilt and anguish. They don’t need to hold it all in.
Just think about the suicides that are happening today – two a week is the average across these United (or non-united) States. But we sympathize with the person whose family member or friend was the one who did it, and we should have sympathized with the one who killed him/herself from the beginning.
I have friends who work for the VFW. They seem to have little spats over hierarchy, but in the long run, they are trying to do something good for these folks. I have volunteered to crochet lap robes for the men and women who are in the VA hospital in Temple, TX. It is the least I can do, now.
My mother was raped when she was about 69 or 70. She was in another town. She was in the hospital for a few days, and had to take preventive medicine to fight against the possibility of AIDS. When I went down to see her at a later date, sometime after it all happened, she asked me “do you want to hear about it?” I said no, but she proceeded to tell me anyway. I was frustrated because I didn’t want to hear it, but she needed to talk about it. I wish I had had a bit more understanding then. In my case, it wasn’t something that led to her doing herself violence, but she died at the age of 75, of spinal meningitis, and while it probably wasn’t connected, I feel like she probably did not want to live any longer anyway. I do not feel guilty, but I feel sorry that her life events were enough to make her not want to live.
Carol Stepp, Austin, TX