Tuesday, November 10, 2009


Years ago, I thought that one day I would recover from my 365 days in Viet Nam. The physical wounds would heal, the nightmares, the tremors, the bursts of anger, the strangeness of home, the home I dreamt of for 365 days, all that had gone wrong, would be set right. I was wrong.

The physical wounds only festered and with time, and multiplied as ripples of a stone dropped in a still pool. The psychological wounds became an infinite series of obstacles, of high walls that had I had to struggle to overcome. It all left me exhausted, and there were many times that I felt the struggle wasn’t worth it, that death would be better a path to follow.

I often wondered how infantrymen of past wars came to terms with the very same problems, both during war and after. I watched movies, read books, spoke with veterans of other wars for the hint of an answer and finally realized that none of us returned to the world we recalled. There was no answer. We were isolated from the ‘civilians’ who couldn’t imagine what we saw and did.

The combat experience is as all encompassing as an orgasm, past and future do not exist, all is here and now. Combat is the struggle between life and death, a titanic struggle ending in annihilation.

At the end of each fight all existence is reduced to the living, the dying and dead, on or off, zero or one, black or white. For a minute or two, I knew everything. Life was simple, and I was the answer. I was at the center of the world. Later on I would understand that the killing place was nothing but a personal memory, unrecorded, unknown, and of no interest to anyone. As time passed, even I wondered if anything did happen, if I were even in a battle. Perhaps it was all a dream.

September 1, 2009, passed by without note that seventy years before, World War Two began when German tanks and infantry invaded Poland. World War Two was the greatest catastrophic human event in the history of the world. It estimated that 78 million people died during the war between September 1, 1939, and September 2, 1945. At wars end, the geo-political boundaries of the world were rearranged, millions were refugees, the French and English Empires collapsed, wars of liberation and independence began, much of western Europe was destroyed, and the Soviet Union’s smothering, dictatorial subjugation of eastern Europe began, setting the Cold War into place.

By September 1, 2009, the veterans were all dead, the monuments to their sacrifice cold, and hard as ancient tombstones. Europe had been rebuilt, the reality of war became history once again, and no memory of it remained. The events of World War Two became objectified, forever frozen in time and place. Unfortunately, that is the way with all wars, no matter how cataclysmic and devastating.

All wars are spoken of as if there is a Big Picture and Small Picture. The Big Picture is the ken of monarchs, politicians, dictators, and generals. They mostly are people who never lived in the Small Picture of war. As every combat infantryman knows, the Small Picture is where you stand, where you sit, where you sleep and how far you can see. You are always outdoors despite the weather. You are too hot, too cold, too wet, too filthy, hungry, and always sleep deprived. You are always living amid your own feces. It is a miserable existence even if no one was trying to kill you. Those who were trying to kill you were not limited to the ‘enemy.’ There were the faceless unknown officers who wanted warm bodies here, or there, and then back here. Hurry up and wait. There were your fellows soldiers who thought you were there when you should have been here; the artillery rounds that fell short and exploded among us; the planes who thought you were someone else. The new, inexperienced officers who sent troops to the wrong place to get killed or wounded because they were panicked. And then there was the guy in your squad who hated you for some reason, and was waiting for the chance to shoot you during a firefight. There are as many ways to die as there are soldiers who die in a combat zone.

Soldiers who are killed never looked like anything I imagined. A human torso without arms, legs, and head, steaming from the heat of the blast; just buttocks, attached to nothing, with no thought as to whose they might have been. A recognizable human face pealed back from the skull flattened against a vehicle’s unbroken windshield. Someone struck by a piece of metal, still walking with a pink mist around his head, then just dropping to the ground with blood spurting yards up into the air and on the ground. The human body is a balloon filled with blood under high pressure

Once I was walking a few yards behind a guy and his back exploded. I recall thinking, “why did you carry a hand grenade on your back?” Then I was on the ground and all I could hear was a high pitched ringing in my ears. Later, I would learn that a piece of vertebrae of the guy in front of me had penetrated my lower lip and lodged in the back of my mouth between my upper and lower jaws. He had been shot in the chest.

The stench of war is a Small Picture. Large amounts of fresh blood always smelled like aluminum foil to me, the dead who had been killed yesterday smelled one way, but those dead three days, were intolerable unless I had Kool filters jammed up my nose and kept my mouth closed.

The reality is that there is no Big Picture war. War is a small, disgusting Small Picture. War should be reserved for survival in the face of destruction. To make war for any other reason is not only stupid, it is insane.

It is about to be Veterans Day as write this. I think of all those young men who gave their lives in causes that were driven by those who have never seen, smelled, or risked everything in war. I wish it had all been different. But most of all, I wish that future war makers understand that there is nothing honorable in dying for a cause which can’t even be articulated. What would be honorable would be to ensure that war should be the last, the final resort, so that young men can enjoy all that life is, instead of what might have been.

What Might Have Been
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