The Glory of War and of Being a Soldier for Joey, (my soldier)
by Lonna Gooden VanHorn,
Written in the spring of 2003, but submitted, with all humility, as an article on the 2nd anniversary of the Iraq War, March 19, 2005. Submitted with humility because I cannot know what it is like to be a soldier. I can only guess. However, I ran it by several soldiers, including my husband. They did not dispute what I wrote.
Not much has changed in the ensuring two years except knowledge of American atrocities against the Iraqi people is now fairly widespread.
I am not a writer, but my frustration with the events of the past many months and the transparent dishonesty of our leaders which is largely ignored by the media, has compelled me to write. The most compelling reason I have for writing is the unconscionable and (in my opinion) criminal glorification of war by those who mostly chose not to be soldiers themselves, or who at least never saw combat. They have never seen or experienced the misery inflicted upon the peoples of lands ravaged by war, or upon the soldiers of both sides fighting it. Neither have I, but my husband is a Vietnam vet. Even if he weren’t, however, I would not be fool enough to glorify war.
The United States has never really experienced the indignity of foreign invaders on her soil . The Revolutionary War and the War of 1812 involved little “collateral damage” to the citizens and the countryside. But, the countries of Europe have been invaded, and those people remember the ravages of war, which is part of the reason why they protested so vehemently against this war. Even in America, however, the South still hates the North for the minor (by comparison) misery the North inflicted on the South during and after the Civil War.
In no way is it my intention to demean the people who serve or have served in the military. I am the daughter, niece, and above all, wife of men who served in the military. Many service people are among the best and most idealistic people on earth. They joined the military because they felt they had a duty to our country. It is WAR ITSELF that is the monster.
As I stated, my husband is a Vietnam vet, and it is my belief that the experience affected him profoundly in some positive but mostly negative ways. I believe it caused him to disassociate, and I believe our children would probably concur, but we all know he is a good and honorable man.
It is my belief that military service is the defining moment in the lives of many men. For many, the experiences they have in the military, particularly in combat are when they are most challenged and come closest to using all of their hearts and minds and bodies to utmost capacity. In those instances they are most alive, just as other people are most alive when challenged to the utmost in sports. Combat, for many, is an adrenaline rush. Chris Hitchens says it is like a narcotic. But, it is a narcotic people come “down” off of in different ways. It changes people, forever.
In the last decades many and perhaps most young people have joined the military not because they wanted to fight in a war, but because most expected to be able to serve without having to experience war. They could feel good about performing what many thought of, vaguely, as a “duty” to their country and reap the benefits being a veteran provides. This, I think, would be particularly true for the women who joined the military, and for those who joined the National Guard or the Reserves. Post high school education in this country is very expensive, and there are few good jobs for young people without training. If one serves in the military, the government will train one for a job while one is in the service as well as pick up most of the tab for further education once one is out. Also, in one of the few “civilized” nations in the world in which health care is neither provided for nor affordable to low-income workers or the children of low-income workers, it IS provided in the military.
The military entices kids by the promise of travel, adventure, and “being all you can be.” The military also gives them something many have never had in their lives -- the idea of “belonging” and the element of an ordered life they may have lacked. Consequently, some of the young people who join up actually come to love military life. But, by and large, it is my belief that the kids serving in the military today did not enlist thinking it likely that they would actually be involved in a real war. In my cynicism it has occurred to me many times that the powers that be do not want the economy to recover. They do not want to make life better at the bottom end. WHERE would they get their soldiers for their promised “eternal war” if poor and lower middle income class kids had more promising options for jobs or education outside of the military?? The enlistment and reenlistment bonuses grow ever larger. Dangle enlistment bonuses in front of poor kids. What do they mean? Perhaps the possibility of buying a new car, something rich kids are given by their parents, but that poor kids only dream about. The idea of having enough money to go out and buy that dream with cash is enough to make a considerable number of poor kids enlist.
In its own way the military is a cult and basic training is an experience in brainwashing designed to make the recruit see himself not as an individual, but as part of an all important group. The mentally healthy young people know this, but the mentally unhealthy ones can become shaped into monsters by it.
In order to make soldiers willing to kill they are taught to dehumanize and hate an “enemy.” This unspecified “enemy” is depicted as being less worthy or less valuable or even just a “target” rather than a real person so that the soldier can justify to himself the fact that it is alright to kill this “thing.” This is not a healthy mindset for people to have. The military can use such a mind-set in war-time, but when these men come home…. It is useful to remember that Timothy McVeigh, the Oklahoma City bomber, John Malcom, the purported Washington sniper, and now Eric Rudolph were all Gulf War Veterans. They were taught violence, and they remembered it. Timothy McVeigh was one of those who bulldozed over living Iraqi troops during Gulf War I. At his trial he said what he did in Oklahoma City was no different than what the American military does on an almost daily basis. Where could he have gotten that idea? After the bombing of Afghanistan, four soldiers at ONE fort, Fort Bragg, came home and killed their wives. There were also suicides.
The effects on most soldiers are not this extreme, of course, but it is difficult for one’s humanity not to be affected to some degree by such training. I saw a WWII veteran recount how when a Japanese flyer hit the ship he was on and burned up, some of the sailors made necklaces out of his bones. He said he was ashamed of it now, but at the time he thought nothing of it. John Kerry testifying before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in 1971 said:
“They told stories that at times they had personally raped, cut off ears, cut off heads, taped wires from portable telephones to human genitals and turned up the power, cut off limbs, blown up bodies, randomly shot at civilians, razed villages in a fashion reminiscent of Genghis Khan, shot cattle and dogs for fun, poisoned food stocks and generally ravaged the countryside of South Vietnam, in addition to the normal ravage of war and the normal and very particular ravaging which is done by the applied bombing power of this country…. These were not isolated incidents but crimes committed on a day-to-day basis with the full awareness of officers at all levels of command.”
I believe that many veterans carry memories of some actions in the military that they are ashamed of. I have no problem granting most of them nearly blanket forgiveness for these actions. None of us who have not served can know what we would have done had we been involved in such group actions when young. Most soldiers are made to suffer for not “going along” just as are most children. Most soldiers are also little more than children when they enlist. For all or even most of them to be strong enough to withstand ingrained peer pressure is more than we have the right to expect. Stories are starting to emerge now of atrocities being committed in Iraq by coalition soldiers. These stories are not pretty but they are part of the “glory” of every war – the humiliation of prisoners by soldiers whose guns have put them on a power trip, and the rape of women. The dehumanization of the people involved. Stories of these things already happening in Iraq are beginning to leak out in the English press, but not, of course, in the American press.
The military is a necessary entity although it is my belief that the world would be both a better and safer place if we flipped the budgets of the military and the Peace Corps, but we need to think really carefully before we risk the lives and health of our children in war. Dying to defend one’s country might be a legitimate reason to risk a soldier’s life or to cause him to kill others, but after the war is over and the soldiers come home and have to live with what they were a part of, I doubt that killing or dying so that the United States can obtain more oil or so that the United States can use bombs so that its war manufacturers can build more bombs is likely to seem legitimate to too many mentally healthy people.
More than the fact that they may be killed or wounded themselves, however, it is important to remember that these soldiers have to come home and live with the fact that they have killed people when they were raised by the mantra of “Thou Shalt Not Kill.” It is destructive enough to the soul of an individual to know that he has killed anyone, but for him to also suspect that the killing that he did cannot be morally justified is more than many souls can live with. As clergyman Washington Gladden said, “It may be sweet and beautiful to die for one's country, but to kill for one's country is neither sweet nor beautiful. I could be willing many times over to give my life for my native land, but to kill my brother man -- no; that does not invite me... War is the quintessence of unreason; it is the reversal of the nature of things; it is a social solecism. Its motive and mainspring is hate, and hate is not good for men or nations."
That is particularly true in wars like the Iraqi war in which so many of the Iraqi casualties are civilian, particularly children. For the soldiers to hear the media paint what they have done as “heroic” when within themselves they know that very little of what they did was in any way heroic, is likely to make living with their actual experience of war even more confusing and difficult. In a war such as the Iraqi War, if they think about it, they know that most of what they did and are doing had very little to do with defending their “country.” They are told it is their duty to do what their commanders tell them. If that is the case it is up to those of us who send them to war to make sure they are not sent to war except for the most compelling of reasons so that they are not required to follow the orders of a commander when they have come to suspect that what they are being ordered to do is not for the sake of the security of their country, but for that nebulous phrase “American interests.” As has been shown abundantly in the past couple of scandal ridden years, “American interests” generally means American “corporate interests” and increasingly American corporate interests mean obscene wealth for the few at the top. In short, most American soldiers who die are dying for the greed of a few wealthy people and families who praise the “heroism” and “sacrifice” of these brave soldiers. That these people stand to profit financially from a war they decided to instigate against the will of the world is beyond unconscionable. Need I mention names?
Men are taught from the cradle to be “brave,” are derided for being “sissies.” We have heard for years from psychologists that men are not “in touch” with their emotions. Is it surprising then, that after they get home many veterans have problems in dealing with what they have seen and experienced? One quarter of all the homeless are veterans. Half of that quarter are Vietnam Veterans. Estimates of the number of Vietnam era soldiers who have committed suicide are between 20,000 and 200,000 soldiers. If a middle figure is used, the number of suicides is well over the number of combat casualties. In researching this piece, I was surprised to note how many veterans of the “good war” World War II also suffered from symptoms of post traumatic stress; how many drank themselves to death or retreated into isolation because of the difficulties they had in dealing with what they had experienced. The most decorated hero of World War II, Audie Murhy was one of those who suffered from PTS.
Pushing oneself to the limit may be an adrenaline rush, but being a soldier in combat and seeing what man is capable of doing to man is in no way glorious. It sickens the soul. Killing is not glorious, it is horrifying. Especially when one is not even killing an enemy one can see, but is very likely killing civilians. In our increasingly high tech wars, pushing a button to cause death one does not see requires very little courage, but even for those soldiers if they must kill they want to kill an enemy, not civilians or children. In a guerilla war or in fighting in an occupied country one comes to assume everyone is the enemy, and the killing becomes ever more indiscriminate. The soldiers must disassociate themselves. Yet even in war the heroes are not, generally, the ones who kill, they are the ones who sacrifice themselves for others.
In World War II, it is said that only 20% of soldiers fired their weapons. But the army improved it’s training. By the time of the Vietnam War, that number had increased to 90%. Perhaps it will be easier still for this generation to kill. The first Gulf War as well as the current war have been treated as a Nintendo game, and these kids do know Nintendo. Because video games have helped make war seem like a game, one soldier who came home from the war said he would never play video games again. This generation of soldiers has seen so much manufactured killing on tv, and the killing they see is so largely done without emotion that perhaps they will be less affected emotionally than were previous generations of soldiers. If so, is that a characteristic we want to encourage in society?
I don’t believe most of our soldiers will think it is easy to kill, however. It is my guess that when they come home many of them will be angry. They were trained to do a job and they did it. But after they get home from the war they will have had time to see past the propaganda, or they will have begun to see past it at least. As two time medal of honor winner General Smedley Butler said, he never had an original thought until he got out of the military. He suspected what he did in the military was a fraud when he was serving, but after he got out and was no longer under the thumb of the military, he knew it was.
And if, Gulf War veterans, these soldiers too, come home to be stricken with mysterious illnesses and find out theas did the first re is uranium in their semen or if their children are born deformed or ill, they will be angry. We owe it to them to make sure our government does it duty by them. If we don’t take care of the people we send to war, we don’t stand for much as a nation, or as a people!
Bio: Lonna Gooden VanHorn is the mother of six and a grandmother. Born and raised on a small farm in Minnesota, she now lives in a very Republican eastern New Mexico city, with her husband, a veteran who spent 18 months in Vietnam.
Before madness took over the helm, she encouraged each of her six children to join the military, and is most grateful, now, that none of her six children heeded her advice. She writes, now, because she knows how she would feel if it was her child risking his/her life or health in a bogus war for corporate profit. And even more, perhaps, she writes because she cannot imagine what it would do to the soul of her gentle grandson if he were made to kill.
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