Monday, July 13, 2009

"Did Anyone Survive the War?"

By Richard Klass at the Huffington Post

A few weeks ago while showing the Vietnam War Memorial to some out of town visitors, a young man's voice startled me. This ten or twelve year old surveyed the more than 58,000 names on the wall, Including 16 of my Air Force Academy classmates, and asked his dad "did anyone survive the war?"
"Yes," I thought. "I did but barely."
But the question deserves a better answer, especially in light of the recent death of Robert S. McNamara, the architect of the Vietnam War and later its remorseful critic.
It is an axiom that no one who goes to war returns as the same person. The changes can be as trivial as the thrill of a first view of a new country thousands of miles from home. Or it can be as profound as holding a dying friend or staring into the eyes of someone you have killed. But in a very real sense, no one survives the war.
The changes wrought by war are often so small as to be undetectable except on close examination by those who knew the individual before the war. A certain ease to anger. A reluctance to discuss the experience. A frequent sense of being in another place. But too often the returning soldier is a far different person even if there are no visible wounds. This is especially true of those who have seen combat. Another axiom of war is that soldiers do not fight for King or country, nor for God or flag. Those in battle fight for themselves and their comrades, to achieve victory and bring the group home intact. Only this explains the heroism of those who risk and often lose their lives for others or to retrieve a dead comrade's body. The worst experience of war is not to be in danger or wounded, it is to see friends die while you still live. The second worst experience is to kill.
We see the changes wrought by war in the 200,000 homeless veterans sleeping on our streets each night, the bulk of them Vietnam era veterans. We see it in the hundreds of thousands of Vietnam era post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) cases and the estimated 300,000 cases we will soon see from the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. Even deeper in the shadows are the suicides, divorces and family abuse that the war experience triggers. And, tragically, we see it clearly, if we will look, in the tens of thousands of severely wounded whose bodies and lives will not be whole again.
No, no soldier survived Vietnam and no one will survive the current wars, unscathed.
Nor did Robert S. McNamara survive. He lost his belief in the power of intellect and reason to control events in another culture and country. He lost his confidence in numbers - body counts, bomb tonnage - to accurately portray the course of a conflict. But at least at the end he had some comprehension of the scale and genesis of his failures. There is no indication as yet that the other contender for most arrogant Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld, has or will reach a similar point.
My current concerns are not on the geo-strategic level. What neither Mr. McNamara nor Mr. Rumsfeld seemed to understand or appreciate was the effect of the war on the participants. By all means we should learn from the strategic mistakes made in Vietnam and Iraq. We must understand what motivates our opponents and the limits of what can be achieved with military power. But let us also understand what war does to the warriors. What stresses are caused by being attacked, by killing and by seeing others killed. Let us be prepared to deal with those consequences from the beginning, not as an afterthought. Let's make sure as many as possible survive the war with as few visible and invisible scars as possible.


  1. Thanks Tom.. for posting this most insightful article.. i served 4 years in the service during the Vietnam conflict.. I was never in country.. but some of my friends now were.. Heros ALL.. we are not just touched by the war itself.. but by the aftermath. I now serve all those who served in all our conflicts.. the most incredible men and women were from WWII.. their spirits are beautiful.. Men and Women returned from Vietnam, but as Charlie Daniels sings they are 'STILL IN SIGON'.. I see them every day at my job.. some cope.. others are too broken.. they take drugs to forget or they drink to forget.. but the demons still come.. now to the horror of it all... when a 23 year old girl comes to me to check in for Psych.. after coming home from a ture in Irac.. it brings the tears.. our children.. are torn, broken, and bleeding.. and it's not just their bodies.. we can fix some of their bodies.. we can't take away the dreams.. the haunted eyes..This is a must read for anyone who really wants to understand what happens to those who Serve. Thanks again Tom.

  2. I doubt I will be ever able to show the respect and admiration I have for our veterans. I was born at a time that put me in between wars so I was not drafted and I did not enlist. I have been blessed to live in a country that can count on people to do what ever it takes to keep it ours.
    I spend much time disagreeing with our leadership but am able to separate the dictators from the servants.
    You that have served in honor, deserve to be honored. Our country should step up to the plate and take care of you and those that have sacrificed much to defend our constitution.
    I may be a peace monger but you are a true patriot. May the peace I am seeking find you.
    Thank you Naukishtae for your service to the United States of America.

  3. Thanks Tom.. I was drafted, and then rejected.. I went immedeately and enlisted.. I had a ministers defural.. but gave it up.. we can't always agree with those we have elected.. but we can and will respect and honor them. They serve, just as we did.. I don't know whos job is harder.. each new President comes into office with a full head of hair.. by the time they leave they are grey.. that in itself and the tired look in their eyes shows the cost.

    Thanks again Tom.. I will now subscribe to the Huntington Post so I don't miss another artical as good as this one.. people always try to say what war is.. I think this really touched it.. Goddess bless

  4. I have to admit that Carl Young brought this story to my attention. I do browse the Huffington Post but missed this except for the heads up from Mr. Young. He is a local vet that does many good works. He and people like you keep me on this. I need your help to bring this to the light of the general public. I am just a conduit for information. Help keep me informed and I will do my best to pass it along.

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