August 12, 2006

War is Bad Even For Those Who Fight in It

Eric Alterman's letters are always insightful. At times they are absolutely not to be missed. This week, that letter came from Roger H. Werner.

Name: Roger H. Werner
Hometown: Stockton, California
Comments: Eric, On the matter of atrocities committed by the US military during Vietnam I would like to relate this story. In 1971, I was attending a New England liberal arts college. I was living in a small dormitory with perhaps 25 other men one of whom was a transfer from other school by the name of Jeff. Jeff was a really nice fellow: Quiet, friendly, always smiling and laughing; in short, the kind of guy who was plain nice to be around. Jeff lived alone on the third floor of our small dormitory. One night the entire dorm woke up to a terrifying series of screams. I lived at the foot of the stairs to the third floor, and, along with two of my close friends, was on the third floor while the screaming continued. We opened the door to Jeff's room and he was lying in his bed drenched in sweat, bug-eyed, and paralyzed with fear. Jeff was immensely powerful and he began to flail at the air with his hands.

It took the three of us along with several other volunteers to hold him down to prevent him from hurting himself. He eventually collapsed into a sobbing heap. Once the ruckus ended, most of the guys left but I along with one other fellow, a man who after 35 years is still my closest friend, remained behind to make sure Jeff remained calm. It didn't take long for Jeff to return to normal and he began to talk, to spill his guts.

This event happened 35 years ago and I can recall it as if it happened last week. Jeff's story flabbergasted me. Jeff was an officer in Army intelligence and for a year it was his duty to interrogate VC prisoners. This was his method of interrogation. He would take four prisoners aloft in a Huey and fly east over the South China Sea for an hour or so. The Huey then hovered at approximately 5,000 ft. Jeff and two enlisted men would take the first prisoner and walk him to the open door on the side of the chopper. They didn't bother to ask the first prisoner any questions but merely tossed him out the door. They then took the next prisoner in line and offered him a chance to save his life. Each prisoner was then given the opportunity to talk.

When the interrogation was over, each of the three remaining prisoners was thrown out of the helicopter. Jeff said he undertook this ritual several times a week for about a year and he wasn't the only officer doing it. VC prisoners were not treated as POWs but as insurgents and irregulars not subject to the Geneva Convention. Rather innocently, I asked Jeff about his nightmares.
He told me that he could clearly see the faces of every man he killed; they would surround his bed at night and stare at him. He wasn't sure what they wanted but he was convinced it was something. He wasn't sure he could live with these nightmares for long. Jeff did not return the following year. Anyone who befriended a returning Vietnam veteran right after their tour of duty ended and before the rose colored glass had a chance to tint their vision of the war, could perhaps tell similar stories. Veterans were of course reluctant to speak about such horrors but many did so.

Of course, My Lai wasn't the only atrocity during the Vietnam era; they were all too common. I suppose one can draw a distinction between killing VC and women and children but frankly I cannot see much difference: A life is a life and murder is murder. In my opinion, the real atrocity of war is the fiction that it can be fought without atrocities. To win a war it is often necessary to dehumanize your adversaries and once that happens it becomes a little easier to kill them and if women and children die they may be chalked up to regrettable tragedy.
I believe if there is anything dirtier than a dirty war it is a sanitized one where one side never sees the true ugliness of murder and mayhem on a mass scale. Anyone who thinks war is ever a grand notion should be compelled to fight and wouldn't it be wonderful if the damn fool leaders who start wars in the first place were compelled to finish them personally. I suspect we might have a lot less war if this were to occur.

Posted by Mary at August 12, 2006 09:10 PM | War on Terrorism | Technorati links |