The more I live, the more I realize that war is worthless.
I can’t pretend that I know what it’s like to go to war. I can try to imagine it and get a glimpse of the terror, but I will never be forced to live it. And relive it. And for that, I’m grateful. I’m grateful to people who have risked their lives (often without wanting to) so I can live somewhat freely. I know that I owe much of my relatively comfortable life to the people who have come before me and suffered. I don’t deny that.
But everyday I struggle with seeing the reason behind it all. Why we go to war, why we fight with other nations at all. Why so many lose family members and friends and come out as shells of the people they used to be. Everyday I ask myself if any of this is worth it. The wars, the hatred. How can we be so adamant about fighting other countries when we cannot even straighten out our own? America is overruled by internal violence. As another letter on this wall states perfectly, “Here is the ultimate haunting question, I think: Did you die in vain? Never mind if it was heroic. Forget if you should have been there or not. The fact is that you were there – and you died there. So, did it serve any greater purpose?” How many lives were cut short too soon? How many were there against their will? And how many more were fooled by the government and its promises? How many people in this country still do not even know or comprehend the full truth of what happened?
Often I’ve been hesitant to voice these convictions, for fear of stepping on toes. I know there are many people who believe wholeheartedly in their country and that something good is gained from every experience, but I can’t stomach it to turn my cheek in acceptance when something feels completely wrong. And it isn’t just these atrocities that chip away at my faith (in a God and especially our country), but everyone who stands beside them. So many here refuse to acknowledge that something is wrong. In one of Pauline Herbert’s poems, she recalls, “I was no warrior. I didn’t shoot, search, destroy. But I was witness to the abominations, becoming atheist in the midst of war.” Her experience of war was so traumatic that she lost her faith completely. How, as a country, can we stand by something that devastating? Something that strips a person of any personal convictions they had before and creates a disconnect with their identity? Something that leads hundreds of thousands to their premature deaths (even after returning home)? For what? Land, oil? Are you proud, America, of your power?
If the idea of war itself isn’t enough to rattle your conscience, modern warfare is not what it used to be. Sides are not so drawn out or black and white anymore. There aren’t lines of soldiers on each side, facing off, even though the education system often likes to portray it that way. As Michael Schwalbe notes in his essay, “On average, ninety-percent of the casualties are women, children, and the elderly. This makes all modern wars crimes against humanity.” It is completely abhorrent that innocent people have been brought into the center of war itself as “casualties.” Even the term itself screams to the corruption of the system it follows. In a system where the deaths of innocent people are viewed as “casual”, repetitive, and completely necessary, how can so many people remain silent and uninformed? My heart breaks because this ugliness has always existed within our country, and defines it more and more as the years pass.
And so I cry out. Not for the brave souls who would die for American soil or interests. I cry for all the lives wasted in an unnecessary war, for the human beings who had families and purpose far beyond loading a rifle and becoming a statistic. I cry for every name on this wall, all of which the government took advantage of for furthering their own benefits. I cry because after centuries of wars in the name of religion and oil and land, we are no better as a nation. We are not virtuous or even free, in the truest sense of the word. I cry because as I get older, I find it harder and harder to salute to our flag and what it stands for.
One night, our communications intelligence unit assisted in targeting and destroying a large number of North Vietnamese towns and villages, including the complete obliteration of the city of Vinh, just north of the DMZ.
A few days later, one of our junior officers proudly passed around a stack of detailed aerial photos of the bombardment’s destruction … only scorched earth and bomb craters remained.
Scrawled boldly across one of the more devastating photos the officer had written, “Well done!”
I glanced at the photos and casually passed them on. Then I helped spot more targets for obliteration.
Little did I know at that moment of my youthful indifference, that those images would live with me forever as a reminder of the cruel insanity of war and my deadly role in it.
All I can say is, “I’m sorry.” I am so very, very sorry.
DANANG, VIETNAM, 1970-71