For many years I’ve read histories of WWII and autobiographies of soldiers and civilians trapped by that storm of history. A safe estimate is 200 books. No matter how much I read, there’s more to learn. I’m not talking about learning dates, strategies and statistics about battles. I read about people – their experiences, their noble deeds, their fears, their sufferings and their struggles with haunting memories and recurring nightmares. Currently, I’m reading The Solder’s Tale – Bearing Witness to Modern War. The author, Samuel Hynes, a combat veteran of WWII, recounts the experiences of soldiers in WWI, WWI and Vietnam. He does this by bringing together the common themes described by the men who fought and wrote about their experiences. He lets the soldiers speak and gives us a glimpse into the horror of their world. Here’s an excerpt.
At first, Junger said, the dead were too unfamiliar to be recognized. But that passed. Because the war on the Western Front was stationary most of the time, the dead were densely and continuously present on the front lines; troops lived in a world of corpses, walked over them in the trenches, watched them decompose on the barbed wire, exhumed last year’s dead when they dug this year’s trench, until eventually, as Junger put it, "we were so accustomed to the horrible that if we came on a dead body anywhere on a fire step or in a ditch we gave it no more notice than a passing thought and recognized it as we would a stone or a tree."
Like stones and trees, the dead became one of the materials of the earth, to be walked over or around, and even used, when necessary, in the construction projects of war. Frank Richards describes a trench: "Some of the parapet had been built up with dead men, and here and there arms and legs were protruding. In one bay only the heads of two men could be seen; their teeth were showing so that they seemed to be grinning horribly down on us. Some of our chaps that had survived the attack on the 20th July [on the Somme, in 1916] told me that when they were digging themselves in, the ground being hardened by the sun and difficult to dig away quickly, if a man was killed near them he was used as head cover and earth was thrown over him. No doubt in many cases this saved the lives of the men that were digging themselves in."
The men of WWII experienced a different hell from the soldiers of WWI. The men and women in Korea and Vietnam had their unique hells. What kind of hell are the men and women in Iraq enduring? How many years will they struggle trying to find peace and escape the memories?
A philosophy magazine made me painfully aware of the victims of the war as it discussed the suicide rate among veterans of Iraq. I read it and hoped it wasn’t true. I went to the web to search for validation or repudiation of the statistics. Unfortunately, the statistics were accurate. Instead of a rise in dissent has come an increase in suicides and psychiatric problems. The rate of suicide among soldiers in Iraq is nearly a third higher than the US army's historical average. (http://www.opendemocracy.net/democracy-americanpower/iraq_vietnam_3588.jsp)
Charles Sheehan Miles, a veteran of the first Gulf war, remembered engaging two Iraqi trucks that caught fire. As one of the occupants ran ablaze from the truck, Miles fired his machine-gun and instantly killed him. His immediate response was, he said, "a sense of exhilaration, of joy", but a split second later he felt "a tremendous feeling of guilt and remorse". The image of the man on fire, running and dying, stayed with him "for years and years and years," he said. His unit returned home amidst great celebration and he was awarded a medal, yet he felt, in his words, "probably the worst person alive". (http://www.opendemocracy.net/democracy-americanpower/iraq_vietnam_3588.jsp)
Private Peter Mahoney, who was part of the initial invasion force in 2003, was haunted by the vision of a little Iraqi girl who had been lynched by a crowd because she had accepted sweets from a soldier. Fifteen months later he committed suicide. (http://www.opendemocracy.net/democracy-americanpower/iraq_vietnam_3588.jsp)
A recent newspaper article stated that it took an average of 12 to 15 years for Vietnam vets to become homeless. Sadly, in a little over a decade, civilians will be like the soldiers in the trenches of WWI who became desensitized to the dead. We will walk past the homeless veterans from Iraq, avoid eye contact and think of them as alcoholics and addicts and beggars. We’ll not ask what memories they are trying to dull with drugs and alcohol. We’ll not think of the shattered dreams and families that were victims of the war in Iraq. No, we’ll simply quicken our step and leave them to struggle alone.
I despise the magnetic signs on the back of vehicles that say “I support our troops”. Bullshit! Buying a sign supports some corporation that is profiting from the war but it doesn’t help the men and women in Iraq. Their lives are no better because of that damned little piece of auto jewelry. Does it take away their homesickness? Does it alleviate their fear? Does it give their families assurance of their safety?
There are genuine ways to support the troops. Call for an end to the war. Call for the impeachment of those who started the war. Demand the government provide counseling and help for those suffering emotional wounds.
In war, there are no heros -- only victims.