by Arthur James
I remember the horror of death. On a darkening evening, three soldiers encountered me on a jungle trail. Our meeting startled us. The soldiers braced to shoot me. Shaking, I wedged myself and my M-16 rifle against a tree. I shot two of them. The third person dropped to the Earth on that dusk eve, crawled into dense bushes, and thankfully fled away. "Oh God." I groaned deeply. "What have I done? Why am I here?"
War unites humanity to feel madness, horror, and insanity. There must exist an enclave of peace, meditation, solace, and a quiet place to step back from this insanity. To be able to find and touch the Self's reserve of tranquility of Being is a difficult spiritual struggle. The Word one searches for to be descriptive and speak, fails. Words are all we have to work with. Words lack the power and often we people feel diminished with hardly the capacity to communicate. I represent myself guilty of this fact.
Before I digressed into the second paragraph, I began to mention that portraits were found on the limp, lifeless, lacerated forms. In long moments immediately after their death, I began wondering about those rummaged pictures my fellow squad members found. I wondered about their mothers, fathers, children, and their extended families of friends. Being stricken with a truth I had always known: These Vietnamese were people, distinguished and unique individuals. They were fellow humans, not my enemy.
On that sleepless night as I camped in that jungle, horrible, alien
thoughts were coursing through my mind. I was sick and angry, hurt and
sad for the dead, their families, and for the American people who
agreed to send me to kill them. I was out of harmony with goodness,
with the universe, with sanity. Evil and corruption had grasped me.
Evil had temporarily occupied me, engulfed me, and dwelt in my body. I
perceived its power to ruin. I experienced it. All my being shuddered.
I would never be the same. I hated my part in the killing.
Why did I get into the fighting? When I landed in the country in July 1969, I noticed the beauty of the land with its dense vegetation. People were wirey but delicate. I was attracted to their rural self sufficiency and sustainable way of life. I distinctly remember sensing they had something to teach me and the United States.
Recruited soldiers are often only vaguely aware of the American peace movement's contention that war is morally wrong. Instincts inform the psyche that a country, alien in culture to America, should not be attacked. Soldiers agree, admitedly or denied, that poor and undeveloped nation should not be displaced or obliterated.
But the peace movement can seem too angry and 'far away.' In my case the draft was the law. My grandfather and uncle had graduated from West Point. I had grown up full of World War II--everybody pulling together when our country needed 'defenders of democracy.' Unfortunately, youthful soldiers lack discretion, they are overly idealistic, not wishing to be wary, but wanting to trust their government. A soldier does not want to believe their nation is lying when they are told they are needed in defense of democracy in the world.
So I landed in Southeast Asia in the middle of a monsoon night, with an uninformed conscience, and a hope I would never have to take a life. I was in disagreement with American policy, yet blindly in allegiance.
There is a strange bond and brotherhood camaraderie among veterans because we encountered and faced death together. We had our own language, which we understood more in the gut than in the head. We used the expression "it don't mean nothin'" to gloss over many unspeakable events. You said "it don't mean nothin'" after squirting bug repellent on a leech that was attached to your body in an effort to remove the leech. You said "it don't mean nothin'" when the monsoon rains drenched and chilled your body but cleansed your foul smelling fatigues. You repeated "it don't mean nothin'" when a likable soldier nicknamed Cranky lost both of his legs and months later died.
But most of us while still in 'Nam could not find justification for intervention into that foreign land. There were only a rare few who were deranged psychopaths given to accept a licence to kill. Those with unsuppressed killing instincts were frightening, deformed creatures, and every person looked forward to the day we could flee home to America, which we referred to as "the world." Once back home in "the world" American mainstream media and movies began to portray former soldiers as maniacs, pariahs, snipers, vets seething with hatred, or as disordered persons to be shunned.
Some allege they were called "baby killers" by the folk on whose behalf they thought they were supposedly protecting. Veterans became the most obvious scapegoat (demonized) and symbol of a war America was losing. Veterans sensed distinctly, for various reasons, America had a need to ostracize veterans and forget (denial) their mutual complicity in wars' carnage.
With two months of advanced infantry training, my government tried to train me to become an efficient killer. After seven months in guerrilla warfare; I faintly remember Army personnel spending a few minutes trying to debrief me as I lay on a medic cot advising me to tell no one of my military mission. (I had been wounded on February 10, 1970 in Cambodia and Americans were not to be officially fighting there at that time.)
FOR THOSE who have visited the Vietnam the Vietnam Veterans memorial in Washington, D.C., trying to sort things out, the complexity remains. Many diverse egos and factions continue to pundit their war theories. Perhaps each person that is now advocating bloodshed in the Middle East would look to search for someones name on the black marble Wall and see your own face reflect back toward you?
A friend explains to me with a twisted and pinched countenance that visiting war memorials may cause weeping. I understand avoidance of painful sensibilities is an hypnotic method of pretending war can't happen. Numbness is a defence mechanism of defence which many people utilize.
The wounds of war never go away. And just as the over 58,000 names which are etched in the Vietnam Memorial Wall cannot be erased. This government cannot gloss over the death toll of millions of Southeast Asians and estimated 650,000 which is mounting in the Middle East and elsewhere. Let's not sanction the proxy killing of this government manufactured "War on Terror." What indescribable misery this unsustainable "global economy" imposes upon an innocent world in the false name of freedom and democracy! The government never admits their premeditated crimes. Government, aligned with greedy corporate financiers, never apologize.
FOR THOSE who have the courage to admit that war is not noble in any sense, a humble strength and moral authority is freely given, commissions one, so to speak, to help prevent future wars and unnecessary suffering. The present war-hate is total absurdity. If we fail to cultivate honest virtues and refuse to teach future generations to not hate, rather choosing to continue the repetition of wars, then it still "don't mean nothin.'"
*The author was drafted into The First Air Calvary and assigned to a combat infantry unit in Vietnam from July 1969 until he was wounded in 1970. In opposition to the arms shipments and illegal drug sales to finance the Contra war during Reagan/Bush Sr.'s presidency, he returned a statement to the government with: a Silver Star, a Combat Infantry Badge, a Air Medal, and kept a souvenir Purple Heart. He manages a small organic farm with help from his community in rural western Maryland.