TIME TO LEARN FROM THEIR SILENCE


I hiked the other day with a group, including a man who had driven to the trailhead with a “Disabled Veteran” license plate on his vehicle.  He was the lead hiker and set a good pace. He was probably my age, give or take a few years, and we started talking, since this was an aerobic hike—fast, but not so fast that we couldn’t talk.

When I mentioned I was a retired physician, he said a corpsman saved his life.  I didn’t have to ask where.  I knew it was Vietnam.  Corpsman=military=my age=Vietnam.  He didn’t say what happened, only that he ended up in Yokosuka, Japan, for 5 weeks before being sent back home.  He is a Marine (note the tense, for Marines consider themselves for the rest of their lives as a Marine), and we talked about ships, sailors, and generalities.

We did not talk about what happened to him.  He mentioned Hue (“Way” is the pronunciation, for this household word in 1968), and I was polite enough not to inquire further.  I had a pretty good idea what happened to the Marines in Hue, and it was ugly, awful, and part of the devastation we inflicted on many of our countrymen and their families plus another country and their people that year.

This man lived; 58,000 Americans died, as well as least three million Vietnamese, probably a lot more. Cambodia and Laos were subsequently sources of many more deaths.  This man wasn’t killed but wounded, and when one starts tallying the wounded, we are in eight figure range—more than ten million.  Americans never trusted the government quite the same again after Vietnam.

The man didn’t talk about the war, and neither did my late brother, who served in Da Nang.  When we start talking about the numbers of people who were indirectly affected by the war, the number is immense.

Only non-combatants like me, who served on a ship that was near Vietnam, but 6 months after “Frequent Wind,” the exodus, talk about our military service.  The guys who were the grunts, the hiker with me called himself one, remain silent.  Almost all of them do.  They don’t brag about their service, and even John Kerry didn’t throw his military record into Bush’s face in 2004, only his medals, about 30 years earlier.  A lot of men who fought in World War II remained silent for years…or forever.  The Republicans at the 2004 convention who wore bandaids, deriding Kerry’s service, were among the most shameful behavior I have ever seen.

This silence should tell everybody how bad war is.  It is so bad that people who have witnessed the tragedies stay silent.  Such is likely is a protective mechanism, but may come with a cost, perhaps PTSD.  The man was a good hiker, and we got up to the top of Spencer Butte and down in about 3 hours, a decent time, although he could have pushed the pace had he wanted.  Four days prior, he and I were part of a group that hiked up Rooster Rock, north of Eugene, 2300 feet vertical, and he was good.  He didn’t mention his military service that day.  It took a second hike with me to mention what he did.

Perhaps the men who start or continue these wars, many of whom have never served in the uniform of this country abroad might think a bit more about the cost.  No, I am not talking about the kept off budget “Emergency Authorizations” during the Bush administration, which were barely challenged by any American, let alone in Congress.  That’s just money; when Republicans spent it, we were patriotic, when the Democrats did it, there was howling about budget deficits.

No, I am talking about the cost to a CIB (combat infantry badge) veteran, disabled, who doesn’t talk about it, and the men who died and will never talk again.  What did they see that kept them silent?  What did they see that their families didn’t even know?  What is this cost?  Well, of course, there is life insurance, but that is a monetary cost.  I’m talking about other costs, something Wall Street, bankers, a good share of politicians, and too many Americans don’t think of and never will, unless it affects them.  To them, unless there is a dollar cost, they aren’t interested.  Health insurance costs money, so many don’t like the country’s spending money on it.  The fact that people feel relieved to have such insurance, and that is a fact, is unknown to them.  Wilderness is board feet of timber, cubic feet of water, a place where they should be able to mine.  The value of what I see, feel, and do in wilderness has no monetary value, so these people ignore it.

Wars are at times necessary, but in my lifetime, Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan were all unnecessary, fought under false pretenses, and run by old men. When I hear jingoistic phrases and see flag waving that make war romantic and patriotic, I wonder why almost nobody asks, “Why do veterans not talk about what they saw?”  I am profoundly saddened, puzzled, angry when people discover that war does bad things to people that we try to sanitize, so the public won’t be offended.  Why were only 16% of us against invading Iraq?  I saw what was going to happen, wasn’t it obvious?  It was to me.

I wonder why we still hear men push to go to war with Syria, Iran, and Russia.  I wonder, of course, where the money is going to come from, since the Republican-led Congress, and that includes the Senate, since they are running that for all practical purposes, wants to cut spending.  I wonder why we act surprised when the VA isn’t helping veterans.  This happens with every war.  That costs money we don’t have.  Why didn’t these guys die or go elsewhere?  A significant number are homeless.  They served, then were thrown away, like old furniture.

When we go to war, we are going to change the lives of every individual who serves in harm’s way.  People will die, families will change, and money will be spent.  The first two have incalculable cost.  The third we try to ignore.  If we go to war, we need to have a national discussion on this, without Fox News, Karl Rove and jingoistic “leaders” calling the shots.  We need to discuss what exactly what it is that makes this particular war so necessary., because thought and negotiation must be expended, before lives and treasure.  Lives are treasure that we cannot put a dollar value on, regardless of what the actuaries and the lawyers say.

Nothing short of the survival of the country should be a cause for war.

 

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