Monday, May 26, 2008

War Is A Force

Last night I watched a piece on the NBC's Dateline. Timed for memorial day weekend, it focused on a Vietnam Vet, Rich Luttrell, who had held on to a haunting photograph for decades. As an 18 year-old, he volunteered for service in Vietnam and really had no idea what would follow. Like many young people today, he'd been raised on all the images and myths about war. When faced with the reality, his moral emotions got in the way.
In his first fire fight deep in the Vietnamese jungle he came face to face with a North Vietnamese soldier. They stared into each other's eyes for an endless minute and then the American shot and killed the Vietnamese. In the aftermath, he noticed something in the corner of the dead soldier's pocket. Sightly larger than a postage stamp, it was a small photograph of a man with what looked like his daughter. A quick glance at the corpse on the ground in front of him, and he knew it was this man and his daughter.
Other fire fights and killings followed, but the American serviceman kept the photo and never forgot the haunting portrait of the Vietnamese soldier and his daughter. Years passed. In an attempt to get beyond the photo that would not leave him alone, the American vet went to the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington D.C. and like so many others before him, left the photo at the base of the wall. On a given day, park guards retrieve all manner of items left at the wall. Baseball gloves, rifles, photos, dog tags, and uniforms often decorate the ground. On my first trip to the wall I noticed two ice cold quarts of beer left for one of the 58,000 names.
You know what's coming... A few years ago the official historian for the wall published a book called Offerings At The Wall. Of course the small photo was in the book. When an article about the book appeared in a Vietnamese newspaper, the photo was published in Vietnam. When an old woman living in Hanoi received a package with something wrapped in newspaper, she chanced to see the photo and recognized the man and his daughter.
Recently, the American soldier and the little girl from the photo met. Lan, the girl, is now in her 40s. Rich Luttrell wanted to return the photo. Face to face, the white haired veteran and the Vietnamese woman cried, embraced, and healed, or at least tried to heal. A most poignant moment. It filled me with pride and respect for both.
Watching this program evoked so many things. The American vet wept freely, but seemed to feel the need to say that he did not regret being in Vietnam. "I do carry some guilt because of that action, but I have no regret as a soldier and participation in that war." I did not expect him to change his stance about U.S. involvement in Vietnam. Yet, as he held the little girl who had become a woman repeating "I'm sorry," I felt a disconnect. Isn't there a bigger issue here that needs to be articulated? It's important to recognize that this veteran is an empathetic, moral human being. Equally important is the recognition of what war does to empathetic, moral human beings.
The remainder of the program dealt with young men and women returning from Iraq with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and other ailments both physical and mental. How sad and sorry I feel that each generation must learn these horrible lessons alone. It seems that we think most often of the physical consequences of combat and not enough about the psychological consequences. Suicide rates for veteran of the invasion of Iraq are quite high; quite under-reported.
The Chris Hedges book War is a Force That Gives Us Meaningshould be required reading for anyone seeking citizenship, joining the military, getting a driver's license, birth certificate, passport, or high school diploma.

1 comment:

Cameron McPherson Smith said...

yeah, i need to read hedges' book. i'll order it right now! i recently read vonnegut's 'cat's cradle' and was reminded of when i first read it when i came to the part where he says that to commemorate wars we shouldn't hold parades with bands and uniforms and flags, but paint ourselves blue and roll around or crawl on all fours, grunting, because that's what war really is. when i first read that i was a sea cadet on the uss constellation 100 miles off the coast of san diego. i was going to join the navy and fly gets...that was my plan to get into space, because at that time, you had to be a military aviator to get into the astronaut corps. anyway, i read that, realized that i was a cog in the wheels of a huge Death Machine (the real function of the aircraft carrier, i realized, was simply to deliver bombs and other munitions), and when we landed back in san diego, i got the hell out of the military track and onto archaeology and mountain climbing. all of that came from one sentence in one book. i wonder what hedges' book might have in store for me. cheers cameron