For One of the Wars I Lost

The sword inspires the romance of war in those who haven't seen it slice open bellies

That night, almost fifty years ago, I remember something wet hitting my cheek, so I reached up and wiped it off, noticing it was a bloody piece of flesh.  It was then that I turned to see that the man sitting next to me in the ditch had just had his face blown off.  This thought came to me often decades ago, and I strained to remember who the man was, but my memories always went dark at that point.  I would push my memories day after day, but nothing came.  I finally gave up, developing a theory that one’s mind creates “memory scars” to cover up events that would drive one mad if one could recall them entirely.

In 1966-67 I represented Military Assistance Command and US Army Vietnam, the two biggest US military organizations in Vietnam.  They sent me to combat units to gather information.  I rarely spent more than two days anywhere and then travelled on, usually by helicopter or other aircraft.  I saw the entire breadth of the war, from the southern Delta to the Demilitarized Zone in the north.

There was death all around me.  I got shot at nearly every day.  Something would explode near me every week; claymore mines, mortar rounds, recoilless rifle fire, rocket propelled grenades.  I was sometimes under fire for several nights, unable to sleep for days at a time.

The movies never capture the reality of battles.  The noise alone causes people to go deaf, and I lost my hearing in Vietnam.  So the movies can’t even get the sound right.  The fear, when everything is exploding around you, is fear on steroids, and you think your insides have melted.  But the horror seems to always be capable of advancing to a higher level, just when you think you can’t take any more.

One evening after finishing a visit to a recently-arrived First Brigade of the 101st Airborne Division at a place called Phan Rang, waiting for an aircraft that would take me to my next assignment, I got into a conversation with paramilitaries who looked to me to be Cambodian, so I asked about that and was told they were Vietnamese of Cambodian descent, probably used by the CIA to make raids into Cambodia.

Then in the advancing darkness I noticed they were all wearing necklaces of human body parts.  I hadn’t been able to make it out before, but as soon as I saw that I made excuses to get away to the edge of the runway to await my aircraft, thinking, “We are on the same side in this war.”  US foreign policy has been in bed with the most horrid human rights abusers.

But even knowing that covert part of war does not tell the whole story, the parts our martial mainstream media ignore, the truly unjust consequences of war.

While walking one evening I glanced down an alleyway just as a crippled eight year old smashed a three-legged dog’s head with a rock.  The boy could not walk upright, but crawled on all fours, dragging the dead dog behind him.  The dog would likely make a meal for the boy’s family.  This is what happens to children in war.  In a caring world the boy would have had food in his belly and medical care. Vietnamese ate the garbage thrown out by American troops.

I became so upset at seeing starving children, pathetic victims of war, that I bought food and set up a feeding station, but I had no expertise in this and it turned into a disaster, as thousands of children surrounded me, clawing at me, and children who got food were beaten by larger children who took the food from them.  Thousands of little hands clawed at me until my uniform became shredded and I was bleeding everywhere.  In the end all the food was gone and thousands of children remained hungry.  I could find nobody to help me with this, the military command didn’t care, it was not their job.

One day I heard two soldiers complaining when a sergeant intervened with “You shouldn’t have volunteered.”  The two quickly pointed out they were drafted, insisting they didn’t volunteer.  The sergeant returned, “You could have gone to prison, you could have committed suicide, but no, you volunteered.”  Many, of course, “volunteer” because they are poor and have no other place to go.

As a combat veteran, I understand war from the inside.  I have seen the suffering and wonder how it is that “winners” can be declared in wars.  It seems to me that everyone loses except the capitalists, who appear to love war– the wars are fought, after all, for them.

It didn’t take a combat experience for me to understand this.  When I was fifteen years old I remember wondering how nations could go to war and destroy cities that took so very long to build.  It is one reason human beings never seem to advance to their potential. We are spending our time rebuilding cities while wasting resources to prepare for perpetual wars which rise up to damn us.

None of this is new.  Homer told us thousands of years ago that war is futile.  Some see his depictions of the Trojan war as romanticizing war, but the ancient Greeks were famous for strong irony, and Homer was a master at it in his classical tales.

In his Iliad, Homer showed how the losers of war suffered, as the hero of Troy, Hector, was killed and dragged behind a chariot until pieces of his flesh were scattered before the walls of the city.  Hector’s wife Andromache became a slave of his enemies, and his infant son Astyanax was thrown from the walls of Troy to his death on the rocks below, so that even Hector’s genetic line was lost.  The people of Troy suffered, the men slaughtered and the women taken as slaves.

In his Odyssey, Homer showed how the winners suffered, taking ten years to return to their homes after the ten-year war. How could any of their numerous dead be winners?  Only fools and capitalists may find victory anywhere in war.

The Greek god of war, Ares, was depicted as an idiot who would run naked onto the battlefield and be defeated by his enemies.  This was clearly intended to show how nonsensical and futile is war, as statues of Ares were painted red to depict the blood he would shed in losing battles.  By contrast, the goddess Athena attempted to negotiate with reason rather than fight her perceived enemies, but unlike Ares she wore armor and never lost if forced to go to war.

In every war there are writers who warn us of the consequences, some of the most beautiful writing existing.

A favorite of mine is Mark Twain’s The War Prayer.  It captures, in very few words, the truth about war– that there is horror for those involved in place of the romance our leaders and corporate media portray.  Every young student should be required to read it, as a counter to the ridiculous history our schools propagandize to the young, with their romanticized wars for “freedom” and “democracy,” things our ruling Establishment, in truth, despise and do not allow anywhere, as much as possible.

Another of the finest works about war is the poem “Dulce et Decorum Est” by Wilfred Owen, a British private in the First World War, who died shortly after penning it.  Its last line is as powerful as any ever written, when Owen tells us that if we could see what he saw, we would not tell our children the “old lie,” “Dulce et decomum est, pro patria mori” (it is sweet and fitting to die for one’s country).

Parents should have a responsibility to teach their children that war is wrong and that nations and individuals should not practice it.  My father had been a sailor in World War Two, having been on the battleship California which sank at Pearl Harbor to start the war, and other ships that sank during major battles of that war.  I grew up learning the lie that Wilfred Owen so eloquently exposed.

If indeed the armed forces of nations exist to defend those nations, they should not be allowed to leave their own countries unless attacked, and any nation’s armed forces that does so would be considered to have committed a war crime and be tried by the international community.  We need to change the definition of “civilized” to “those who do not engage in war.”

Without war spending and related “security” spending on weapons, foreign spying, national police spying and the like, we would have the resources to clean up our ravaged environment, provide a college education to all citizens, provide quality medical care to all, wipe out homelessness and hunger, provide jobs to anyone in need at a living wage, advance science and the arts, and generally create a more harmonious world.

The thing that holds us back is war, and those who tightly control our government against the will of the people.  Peace is popular with the masses, all over the world, except for the tiny number of oligarchs and plutocrats who run the world, using wars for their intimidation and profit.

One of my trips in Vietnam was to the Fifth Special Forces HQ at Nha Trang.  In that city I watched a crowd form– hundreds of people with somber faces– so curiously edged closer to see what was happening.  A Buddhist monk sat cross-legged at one corner of an intersection, his assistant pouring liquid over him.  I thought it might be water, as part of a ceremony, not understanding what was happening.  Tears ran down the cheeks of the assistant.  And then he lit a match, and flames shot up a thousand feet into the air, as I realized the liquid was gasoline.

Before he died the monk appeared to be staring through the lambent flames straight into my face, imploring, “If I can do this to encourage peace, what can you do?”

Jack Balkwill is an activist in Virginia. He can be reached at Read other articles by Jack.