Returning from War: A Rumination


With the fear generated by terrorist threats, and some leaders calling for more boots on the ground, we need to think again about what that really means.  We have seen what it means to the countries where we pursue these “actions” ─ death, devastation, and dislocation on a horrific scale.

We know, and the VA should clearly understand, that combat is not some video game where participants can hit pause, grab a sandwich and chat with their buds, and then pick up the game again.  We have now had so many Americans involved in the wars in south Asia that we have to continue to think carefully about what their return to civilian life will mean, both to them and to us.

My only guides to the effects of having served in combat are hearsay, family folklore, and my personal experiences with men returning from Vietnam.  I don’t mean experience with those so permanently damaged by the war that they returned only in a physical sense.  I mean experience with men who came back from war, resumed their “normal” lives, yet still carried the war with them.   I think that many of those returning from the Middle East are dealing with the same emotions, the same memories, and the same issues.

Most vivid for me is a story a friend told me in our last year at a small “cow-college” in central Texas.  Jimmy, his wife, and his father-in-law went dove hunting soon after his return to Texas from Vietnam.  They drove at dusk to a stock tank.  The men positioned themselves at angles on either side of the tank and waited for dove to come in to drink.  As the Sun was setting, the first flock fluttered in, and the firing began.  Jimmy downed a bird, and a feral cat bounded out from the high grass to take it.  Jimmy swiveled and fired.  The shotgun blast killed the cat, kicking its body back into the tall grass like someone was jerking it away with a rope.  With no hesitation, he pumped another shell into the chamber and swung back toward the tank.

His wife had been watching him from the hood of the pickup behind him. She flew off the truck, running at him in a rage, screaming at him, asking him how he could do that.  He looked at her, laughed and asked, “What do you think I have been doing for the last twelve months?  After that, you expect me to worry about killing a cat?” He turned back to wait for the next flight of birds, and she ran sobbing back to the truck.

Jimmy had been a combat infantryman, who went to Vietnam just out of high school and ended his single tour as a non-commissioned officer responsible for a squad.  He and his wife married just before his departure.  They had lived apart longer than together. At that point in their marriage, he had lived a life as distant from hers as the life one would live as an astronaut exploring the eternally dark, shadow less craters on the far side of the Moon.   He and I were college friends, but there was a pick-up football game where he pushed me, cursed me, and challenged me to fight over some imagined slight.  I held up my hands, saying, “You don’t want to do this.”  But, I was wrong.  He did.  It didn’t matter that I was his best friend.  Nothing mattered, but the anger that he carried, which was larger than our friendship.  At that point, I think it was larger than anything in his life.

I knew Jimmy better, but Butch was my personal introduction to Vietnam.  He was a gear-head three or four years ahead of me in school.  He ran with what everyone, but him, saw as a bad crowd.  He fought with some regularity and seemed to like it, but he had no reputation for cruelty or bullying.  He just liked to wear his hair in a duck’s ass, drive fast, drink beer, and sometimes fight other boys who wore black jeans and kept their cigarette packs rolled up in the sleeves of their white t-shirts.  He knew my older brother, and I knew his younger sister.

One broiling West Texas summer day, when I was twelve or thirteen, a friend and I were walking home from our baseball field through a Chicano neighborhood.  Four or five low-riders in an old Buick began following us, slowly tracing our steps through their world.  We were terrified and walked quickly to a busier street and into a nearby burger shop.  I hovered near the door, trembling from the contrast between the withering heat outside and diner’s arctic air, as well as the twin jolts of fear and adrenaline.  The low-riders stopped outside, the Buick’s engine idling, cigarette smoke curling out the dark interior of the car.

Butch drove up then, ordered lunch, and asked what was going on.  I told him, and he went outside.  Of course, he knew our shadows.  He squatted on the curb next to their car for a few minutes, laughing and chatting with them.  They left, peeling out, hooting and waving to us.  We were never in real danger.  They were just bored, passing time by messing with two Anglo kids in a neighborhood where we obviously did not belong.   But, to us, the danger felt real, and Butch had saved us.  He made nothing of it.  He didn’t belittle us for being afraid of his buddies.  He just finished his lunch, then he drove us back to our own neighborhood.

A couple of years later, he got in a bit of trouble, probably fighting, alcohol, or both.  The judge offered him the traditional Texas choice for wayward youth who got into scraps with the law but just needed a little “maturity,” rather than a stint behind high walls and barbed wire in Huntsville.  He could join up or jail up.  He joined the Marines.  I suspect that any service would have done, but the Marine mystique must have appealed strongly to Butch.

They reported he was killed around what was probably Da Nang in ’65.  We held an assembly at our high school, where he had been a poor student, except in shop, the only thing he really cared about. They gave his sister some certificate or remembrance, or maybe just flowers.  As I remember, they reported his death in the local newspaper in detail, “He was shot in the head by a sniper while on patrol.”  Later, when the war expanded, and the ways to die became more horrific, or maybe just more numerous, they stopped saying things like that.  The newspapers simply reported each death like every other, one school day was just like the next, and people began to recognize the choice “to join up or jail up” as a life and death decision.

Throughout high school, Larry and I played football.  Both of us played because it was expected.  We were, after all, male, possessed marginally coordinated arms and legs, and attended a high school in West Texas. Neither of us, however, had much aptitude for the game.  We finally earned our varsity letter jackets in our senior year.  We accumulated the required hour of varsity game time in a series of two to five minute bursts, when we relieved exhausted first string players, or in a few longer periods, when we were so far ahead that our pragmatic coaches thought it safer to risk our knees, ankles, necks, and shoulders than the body parts of better players.

Larry married his high school girlfriend.  Her pregnancy put an end to their belief there was no need to use birth control because she could not become pregnant.   I don’t know whether that belief had its roots in an early example of a medical error or fanciful thinking.  I was away in college, and he was in Vietnam when their young child, a boy, slipped out of his wife’s apartment early one morning and drowned in the complex’s swimming pool. They flew him home for the funeral.  I think of Larry in Southeast Asia wondering who among his buddies might be the next to die, or when he might die, and thinking Texas was the safest place in the world.  The next day, his baby in Texas is dead, and he is being flown around the world to put him in the ground.  A few days leave followed the funeral, then he was shipped back to finish his tour.  I have always wondered if all those he left in Vietnam were there when he returned and if he cared, or if he even noticed.

When I was a graduate student, Tex was a student of mine in night school, a couple of years after he returned from Vietnam.  In Vietnam, his father sent him half a dozen special packages.  When put together, they made a 12-gauge pump action shotgun. He liked the shotgun better than his M16 for what he called “close work.”  He did multiple tours. He signed up for what would be his last tour because his best friend had been killed.  In that last tour, while on patrol, he heard a noise in the jungle off to one side of the trail. On reflex, he turned, firing with the shotgun, slipping into cover and yelling to warn his men of a possible ambush.  When no ambush materialized, he advanced toward the site of the noise.  He found the bloodied corpse of an old, unarmed Vietnamese farmer.

During his time in Vietnam, Tex had honed himself, thru dedication and experience, into a sharp tool of war.  He had proudly gathered to himself the skill and experience that made him feel something like an ancient Spartan or a Roman legionnaire.  He discovered, in the end, this meant that he could kill old men in black pajamas with ferocious speed, unthinking grace, and terrible certainty.  He decided then it was time to shed his ribbons and come home.

When I knew him, he worked in the local parks department, building children’s playgrounds.  I would see him sometimes when I took my daughter to a park on the weekends, just sitting and watching the children play.  Occasionally, he would saunter over up to some vertical support beam on a piece of equipment and shake it, testing its stability.  He told me, “It’s just nice seeing kids enjoy something that I helped build.”  I always felt that in his trips to those parks he was like someone suffering from seasonal affective disorder unconsciously seeking out sunlight.  I see him sitting there watching and listening as intently as he had in the jungle, letting the energy and joy of those children spill over him, wash him and fill some dark space inside him with their purifying light.

When I met Bob, he had been a Ranger and Special Forces officer, had spent the last years of his career in a responsible staff post at the Pentagon, then retired young.  He was an ROTC graduate who had done multiple tours in Vietnam.  Each time he returned with a promotion and command of a larger unit.    I don’t know what he was like earlier, but I doubt that he was much different then from when I met him.  He seemed, at least to me, surprisingly unscathed by the war.  He had, I am sure, killed Vietnamese and, as an officer, he had given orders that caused the death of his own men.  But, he carried the weight of those deaths naturally, like a few extra pounds that required him to wear his slacks a size larger.

He is the only person I know who went through the war and remained wrapped in the cocoon of the professional military.  He had remained in a place where what he had done in Vietnam was deeply respected, neither questioned nor reviled.  Men who had shared the horror and all the rest of Vietnam surrounded him.  That may have made the weight of his war experiences a more natural thing, somehow easier to bear.

He had nothing but scorn for Ollie North, whom he knew personally from his Pentagon days.  He said North was a politician, not a soldier.  Besides, North was an Annapolis graduate who had become a Marine, which for Bob was a truly damning fact that contained all the information needed to summarize North’s considerable failings.

Bob was an interesting mixture of intelligence, Southern gentility, and machismo.  At Ft. Bragg, after the war, he commanded an Airborne unit.  As the story goes, his men had started a rumor that anyone who jumped with a reserve chute in the next exercise was a “pussy.”  He had sternly warned his men that was against regulations. He was later in the jump plane with his bunch of hard-muscled 20 year-olds.  None were wearing reserve chutes.  Just before they opened the door, he rose, dropped his own reserve chute off his harness, looked at his men, and was the first out the door.

I suspect that he was a good combat officer.  I can see him treating those kids he commanded with a mixture of comradely concern and parental sternness.  Intuitively, one knows that he wouldn’t ask someone to do something that he himself had not done or was not prepared to do.  If he asked you to put yourself in harm’s way, you would know that it was a necessary thing and that he would not leave you hanging if things went badly.

Bob seemed to embody most of what we hope to find when we look for a professional soldier worthy to serve a democratic society.  He possessed loyalty, intelligence, honesty, common sense, and decency.  And, it was all wrapped around a hard, blackened core that made him capable of witnessing the worst that war had to offer, continue to move forward, and come back for more.

Bob reminds me in many ways of one of my uncles, of whom I was very fond.  He, along with my father and four other uncles, served in WWII, but he had gotten only as far as England when hostilities ended.  He returned to service in Korea as a non-commissioned officer, saw action for about two weeks, was wounded, decorated for heroism, and promoted up from the ranks. He then remained in the Army as an infantry officer serving in Germany, in Japan and in such inhospitable foreign lands as New Jersey and Louisiana.

He was a light colonel, commanding an ROTC unit in Texas, during the early years of Vietnam.  When Vietnam heated up, he had the choice of heading for Fort Bragg and joining a unit  preparing to go or taking his 20+ years of service and retiring.  Even with only two weeks of real combat behind him, my uncle knew what awaited him on the other side of the world.  He basic response was “F**k you very much for this wonderful opportunity. But, I been there and already got the T-Shirt.” He retired.

There are, of course, many others.  Bill spent a year with ARVN units directing U.S. artillery and air support.  On his return to the States, he spent months in the mountains of the far northwest, living alone and killing game for food, staying there until something inside him was finally spent, and he could come down from the hills.

Robert joined the Coast Guard and spent his time sailing and teaching chemistry at the Coast Guard Academy.  All the career USCG officers, looking for promotions, were lined up three deep for the few, available Vietnam assignments.

Tim appeared for his induction physical after five days with absolutely no sleep. He was so deeply psychotic at that point that even the Selective Service physicians, who must have seen every ruse imaginable, were impressed.  He got his deferment, then promptly joined the Peace Corps, as some form of penance to repay whomever was drafted in his stead.  He spent years teaching school in a remote African village. His duty was probably more hazardous than Bert’s, who spent active duty in Okinawa, manning a typewriter and drinking Japanese beer.

A number of years ago, I read an essay in one of the weekly news magazines.  The writer was lamenting that he had somehow missed Vietnam, the most extraordinary experience for males of his generation.  One wonders how he missed it.  He may have been incapable of service, or he may simply have awoken one morning, found that the war was over and discovered that he had forgotten to enlist.

The author deeply regretted losing the opportunity to live with the intensity of elation, horror, and fear that are part of being at war.  And, he lamented the lost opportunity to form the kind of bonds with other men that form only among those who have faced death together and survived.  The idea that a man can only find the truest experience of brotherhood in war still seems to me one of our most enduring, socially acceptable perversions.

But, to be fair, there was some truth in that author’s unrequited desires.  Tex’s supervisor “wrote him up” for something as inconsequential as forgetting to lock his truck during lunch, and he was threatening Tex with disciplinary action.

Tex laughed at how monumentally silly it all seemed.  He had lead men in combat, had their lives depend on where he positioned the claymores and the sharpness of his night vision.  He had seen his friends, literally, in pieces.  He had known terrible responsibility and gut-wrenching fear.  Yet, the threat of being “written up” by some bureaucrat in starched khaki work-pants and a name patch on his shirt was now supposed to be of towering importance.

Tex’s laughter over his circumstances, though, carried a hard edge of bitterness.  This episode reminded him of his loss.  He had lost that period in his life when almost nothing he did was trivial or mundane.  It was a period that made his decision of where to place his foot with each step of crucial, even deadly, importance to him and the men around him.

Most of us never experience life at that level of intensity, except in the rarest and most unwanted of instances.  Few of us seek out those very limited number of professions where moments of such intensity can occur.  For most of us, the almost deafening jangle of everyday life fills our time.  Flat tires, babies with the stomach flu, and aging parents are not the stuff of addictive, peak experience.

I personally had two years of student deferments during Vietnam, then I won the draft lottery.  My birthday was chosen on the 348th draw.  I should probably feel guilty about accepting a student deferment when, for a period in high school and college, I believed in the war.  But, that was over 30 years ago.  I have since accumulated a host of guilty acts that crowd that faded hypocrisy into the far corners of the cavernous section of my mind reserved for guilt.  I feel no guilt about my lottery victory.  It was a fair game, and I got lucky.

I certainly feel no sense of loss at having “missed” the Vietnam experience.  For many of those whom I knew, Vietnam cut deep, lasting marks in their lives. If you ever go to Pompeii, you will see the deep grooves in the stone streets of that ancient city, marks worn by innumerable chariot wheels rumbling through that city two thousand years ago,. Those grooves were perfectly preserved for centuries beneath a blanket of ashes.  When uncovered, their edges were still sharp.  What I often saw in the Vietnam veterans that I knew were moments when the deep, hidden ruts that war cut in their lives came to the surface, and I sometimes rubbed up against their sharp, painful edges.

What does all of this mean about those returning from our current and future war?  Given how much more we now know about post-traumatic stress disorder, some of those with the deepest problems will be diagnosed and receive treatment.  But, the bulk of those exposed to the stress and horror of war will “re-integrate” and take up their disrupted lives with no treatment, no drug addiction, no budding psychoses.

But, they will never be the same people they were before they went to war.  I fear that inside them will be those deep, sharp ruts that will from time to time rub thru their skin, injuring them, and possibly cutting into the hearts of those around them.


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