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A Civilian Speaks To Veterans

A must-read for anyone who knows a war veteran… and anyone who never met one.

A must-read for anyone who knows a war veteran… and anyone who never met one.

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Over the last several weeks, I have been thinking about Veterans Day (really Armistice Day) and, as a veteran myself, what I might write about veterans on this day. The specifics of a subject escaped me until I opened my email this morning and found a message from TomDispatch about America’s addiction to war and what that means to veterans. The article, entitled, “The Intolerable Price You Pay” was written by Dr. Kelly Denton-Borhaug, who is a civilian and professor of religion at Moravian University in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania.   

After reading Tom Engelhardt's introduction to the article, I immediately read this from Denton-Borhaug:

“As Americans, all of us are, in some sense, linked to the violence of war. But most of us have very little understanding of what it means to be touched by war. Still, since the events of September 11, 2001, as a scholar of religion, I’ve been trying to understand what I’ve come to call “U.S. war-culture.” For it was in the months after those terrible attacks more than 20 years ago that I awoke to the depth of our culture of war and our society’s pervasive militarization. Eventually, I saw how important truths about our country were concealed when we made the violence of war into something sacred. And most important of all, while trying to come to grips with this dissonant reality, I started listening to you, the veterans of our recent wars, and simply couldn’t stop.”

I knew at once I was going to like her article. As I read on, I found that more and more of her statements mirrored mine, some of which I have written on this site during the past 15 years. I went on to read this:

"Worse yet, most Americans refuse to face our national reality. Instead, they twist such truths into something else entirely. They distance themselves from you by labeling you “heroes” and the “spine of the nation.”  They call war’s work of death the epitome of citizenship. They don’t want to know how often and how deeply you were afraid; how conflicted you were about life-and-death decisions you had to make when no good choice was available. They don’t want to hear, as one veteran said recently in my presence, that too often your lives “were dealt with carelessly.”

Seven years ago, I wrote about this “hero” stuff in my article, “Veterans Day And Thanking Veterans”:

"Much of our "thanking the troops" comes in the way of concerts, downtown parades and ceremonies at the local city hall or cemetery. These days, sports teams at all levels have boarded the "thank the troops" bandwagon and fill pre-game and half-time shows with military jet flyovers, unfurling huge flags, playing martial music or honoring particular veterans while the fans roar and the cheerleaders wiggle their butts and scream, "Yay, troops!" The announcer, to much applause, may then speak of our "heroes." But might I suggest that the blanket referral to veterans as "heroes" should stop. I hear it a lot nowadays and it always makes me uncomfortable, not because there aren't veterans who are combat heroes, but because the term is used so broadly it loses meaning and trivializes the notion. If you were to go into any VFW hall or other gathering of veterans and ask all the heroes to stand up, you would most likely get blank stares. Going to a war zone or being shot at is not heroic in and of itself, as most soldiers see that as merely doing their duty. We do them more honor if we engage them in conversation about their service than if we place them on a pedestal. Pedestals create distance. On the other hand, I must point out that the struggles many of these veterans have after returning home truly are heroic in nature, but I wonder how many people who have no connection to military service understand that particular version of heroism."

 Several months after I returned from Vietnam, a close woman friend took me to see the movie M*A*S*H.” I sat dumbfounded among the theater-goers who were laughing and clapping. They had never actually seen, as I and other veterans had, the bloodied wounded on stretchers being taken off helicopters and rushed into a surgical hospital*. Where was the film's humor? My friend had no clue and I did not yet have the means to explain. Denton-Borhaug captures this chasm between the civilian populace and the soldier: 

“These dynamics silence the truths you carry within you. I’ve heard you say that you often find it impossible to tell the rest of us, even family members, what really happened. You struggle with feelings of alienation from civilian culture, unable to express your anger or describe your struggles with deep-seated shame, guilt, resentment, and disgust.”

I wrote about my return from Vietnam several years ago on the 50th anniversary of my “homecoming,” a ridiculous euphemism that suggests celebration after a football game, not after a war. 

“Sitting on the curb outside the terminal [Oakland Airport] I watched the people greeting friends and family. Laughing and enjoying the sunny day. Did they not know that there was a war on? How could they be so insouciant? Twenty-four hours earlier I had been in a combat zone. I was astounded. Baffled. Visiting my uncle in Berkeley a few days later, I knocked on his door and he welcomed me with a wary, ‘I suppose you don’t want to talk about it.’ ”

Unfortunately, I did not talk about "IT" except with fellow veterans and always with a gallows humor, like a Navy SEAL I once encountered in My Tho in the Mekong Delta who joked to me over steak and beer about a particular sort of land mine by calling them “toe poppers.”  He told me his “war stories.” But he only talked about what happened, never about what either of us were feeling as he relived them.  (Make no mistake. I was an intelligence officer not an infantryman but I cannot unsee what I saw or unhear what I heard or unbury my friends.)

I am grateful to Dr. Benton-Borhaug for her contribution to helping us all better understand the veterans' plight. I urge all of you who have read this far to read the entirety of her article at TomDispatch.  

*The particular hospital near my initial duty station was the 3rd Surgical Hospital at Binh Thuy Airbase

Comments by Readers

D. Crook

Nov 11, 2022

Thanks for your thoughtful article.  I didn’t know about Denton-Borhaug’s writing—seems like she’s done some listening, even if she generalizes a bit—maybe that’s unavoidable—she does a fair job of articulating some of it—better than I have in any case.

I don’t like to go out on Veterans day.  “Thank you for your service” makes me feel so gross.  My thoughts about my own service and what we do in the name of “security” or “economic stability”, etc. are complicated.  One thing I am sure of is that violence is what we do when we can’t think of anything else…or don’t want to spend the effort.  I won’t say it’s always avoidable—but I think there are better options more often than we’re willing to admit.

One thing I have gratitude for is when people want to make a connection with me—whatever inspires them to do it / whatever creates the opportunity for it—can be different things I guess.  I do wish they’d not use “thank you for your service” for it though.

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Dick Conoboy

Nov 11, 2022

 Denton-Borhaug has written extensively so I would imagine that some of her generalizations might be further explored in her articles or books. 

I wrote to her this morning.  I will share any response she gives, if she does not object.

I fully agree with your comments.  Thanks for taking the time. 

Can you give the readers here a brief summary of where you were in the military and what you did?  I certainly would like to hear that.

Dick

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Pearl Follett

Nov 11, 2022

Yes, I am touched by war. My father was in the trenches during WWI. A machine gunner, he was lucky to be alive and had been only slightly gassed. He re-entered the service after the war and was a soldier-farmer on an army post. As a child, I could see the war in his eyes which always looked so sad. At age three I had pneumonia. My crib was in the living room of our home where the roof did not leak. I overheard my father and his buddies talking about the war. They talked about how they could not smile or laugh and said that the only time they felt human was when they were together. They talked about the dying tent where their buddies breathed their last. My father died when I was six. My sister and I played under his hospital bed while my mother visited. We heard him ask for forgiveness for the men he had bayonetted to death. 

Later, during WWII, both my brothers went into the army. Gregg was ambushed in the jungles and left to die. He was rescued, but he had life-long injuries from the incident.  Harry fought in Europe. He came home on leave knowing he was next to be sent to Japan. He thought his number was up. Crossing the Pacific, he saw the ocean covered in battleships, all heading for Japan. Then the bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The war ended for Harry and the others but it has not ended in the mind of man. The horror of the Bomb haunts our waking hours and gives us nightmares at night. Because of the bomb, everyone on the planet is touched by war. As long as violence is allowed to rule our world, we are all touched by war. There are no heroes, only victims of war’s immorality.   

 

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D. Crook

Nov 11, 2022

I was Air Force 90-98—munitions sytems (mostly database work during peacetime).  For context, that’s the very end of the cold war, which was a very different mindset than what came after; then Desert Shield / Storm; and Okinawa after that for the remainder of the time.

Minot, ND—our mission was MAD.  The protocol there is if someone nukes a bunch of our civillians, we nuke a bunch of theirs.  The theory is that it’s a deterent.  The practice is that you have to be prepared to actually do it.  The reality, of course, is that we would end-up destroying the planet.  I didn’t think about it much in those days—18 years old, E2 rank—I wasn’t entirely clueless, but critical thought was a ways off for me yet.  That was also the first year, I think, that you couldn’t smoke indoors anymore.  Senior NCO’s who suddenly couldn’t smoke in their offices anymore were a terror in their own right.

Moron AB, Spain—Desert Storm.  We got there a little late—I think it was over about 6 weeks later.  Our bombers flew their missions over the mediteranian and back.  We weren’t ever shot at, and were not in range of the SCUD’s as far as I know.  I think Army took most of the causalties then—a certain amount of that having to do with faulty beacons / identification systems (frienly fire).  I remember when we were still in Minot preparing to go—we didn’t get to know where we were headed—we thought we were going to be facing Sadaam’s “elite” forces—it’s all we heard about on the news—that and the SCUD threat to Isreal.  Our command had us fill-out “do-not-recussitate’ directives before we flew out.  They said they couldn’t force us to sign them, but we’d have to live with ourselves if a buddy got hurt trying to drag us to safety after we’d been shot.  I don’t know why that memory comes-up now.  Didn’t occur to me then—my buddies weren’t  going to check if I’d signed a DNR before trying to save me.  I don’t know what kind of CYA the command was going for with those—some kind of cost-saving is my guess.

Okinawa, Japan—spent the rest of my service there.  Tiny island—65 miles long or so, just a couple wide.  Most of the military bases in Japan are crammed onto it.  Complicated relationship with the Okinawan people.  I know we think of good-guys and bad-guys when we think of wars—these people faced devastation from both forces—some 150,000 died in those few months of the battle, as far as I know—as much as half the entire population.  There’s a lot of trauma there still—even as most of us don’t know much about Okinawa or WWII history.  GenX and older don’t really think of themselves as Japanese, which always seems to surprise Japanese citizens I speak with.  (We have our own analog of that nationalistic sensibility in the U.S.—I couldn’t see it when I was young, until I saw it in Japan—so much for self awareness, I guess—but at least it comes along eventually).  High unenployemt rate, and high dependency on government jobs on the military bases.  They have to ask U.S. military for an escort to visit the tombs of their ancestors each year (these visits are an essential part of their culture) at village sites that were destroyed during the war / now reside inside of fenced-off military-controled areas.  I’ve never met kinder / more humble people in my life anywhere else on earth—my best friends after all these years are still there in Naha—even as the U.S. military presence remains a hardship for them.  I was there in the early 90’s when 4 service-members were convicted of raping a 12-year-old Okinawan girl and leaving her bound in a surgar-cain field.  And for all the news nobody saw stateside—the DUI’s, burglaries, assaults, etc. we committed there.  It wasn’t any different than you’d expect for any U.S. city stateside with 100,000+ people in it, which is about how many service-members we had in Okinawa in those days, I think.  And it’s not characteristic of most folx’ service either—not what I’m trying to say.  A lot of us did a lot of nice things too—volunteered at old folx’ homes off-base, and such things.  I just mean to say that it’s not the hero fantasy that get’s celebrated at football games when F16’s fly over blowing colorful smoke.

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Dick Conoboy

Nov 11, 2022

 Thanks.  Yours is the experience of most veterans, especially young ones - with youthful naivete only to be recognized after getting older.  Jobs that are sometimes boring, sometimes not.  But you captured the essence of the overbearing presence of the US military in some countries and the predictable result - conflict.  Thanks for giving us a window into your experiences.

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Michael Chiavario

Nov 12, 2022

Thank you, Dick.

As a member of the forces that resisted the draft during the Viet Nam era and worked hard to bring you guys home, I appreciate the validity and power of your piece that questions our culture of war and blind adulation of veterans without context of their struggles or the reality of war and it’s causes.

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Dick Conoboy

Nov 12, 2022

Michael,

Thanks for looking out for us.  I did a bit from the inside just after Carter pardoned the “draft” evaders.  I was a year from resigning my commission when I wrote to Time Magazine the letter you can read here from the February 14, 1977 issue.  I was assigned at the time to the Intelligence and Security Command (INSCOM) at Ft. Meade, MD.  The wife of the commanding general of INSCOM was furious about the letter and told her husband that I should be court marshalled!  Not sure what the charge would have been since I was just agreeing with my Commander-in-Chief. 

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Christopher S Hudson

Nov 13, 2022

Terric comments, thank you. I was a Conscientious Objector in 1971 as an 18 year old summoned to “serve.” No way. Just as I was about to do my alternative service in a VA hospital, the whole fubar mess fell apart.

Raised by parents who taught me to question authority, I saw through the propaganda narrative 40 years ago. Currently, as we are subjected to another deceitful narrative about Russia and Ukraine, it would be wise to ask “who benefits”? And to remember Smedley Butler’s exhortation, “...war is a racket.”

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Wendy Harris

Nov 13, 2022

I loved the statement regarding important truths about our society that are hidden when we make the violence of war into something sacred. These are the tools of hegemony that enslave us and keep us working to sustain a status quo that is not in our own interests.

The idea of lives dealt with carelessly was also powerful and coincided with what I was taught as a sociology student at Berkeley… that war was an equity issue that used up poor young men of color at much higher rates because they could not find decent jobs, while the white middle class entered the military on the officer track… still not a good thing, still not something safe, but not as bad as the grunts had it.

There are interesting theories about war by anthropologists, sociologists and more radical ecologists. They believe that war started when we stopped being hunters and gatherers and became farmers. After a while, we had surplus, something new.  We needed a military to guard our grains. And we wanted more surplus, as we always do, but that is backbreaking work so we needed to enslave people and force them to be our source of energy. That required war. And to this day, war is often about acquiring things, or protecting things of value to the state.  They value these things more than they value our lives.  Of course, they must make a big deal of honoring those killed or injured while doing the state’s bidding, while at the same time ignoring medical or mental care for survivors who come home. (I hope that has improved.)

I am surprised I never heard any mention of the term wounded warrior. Is that also uncool like calling someone a hero? I knew people who had brothers or relatives who were never the same and never functional again.  They are the living dead.  And even those who appear relatively fine may be keeping so much hidden, as you have shown us. (I was curious if female soldiers had the same experience since women are encouraged to talk about their feelings.)

Thank you for writing about this every year and teaching us about what it means to be a vet and what the government is really all about. 

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Dick Conoboy

Nov 13, 2022

Wendy,

Regarding wounded warrior.  I think the concept of moral injury invoked by Denton-Borhaug is what we are speaking about here.  The term wounded warrior connotes in most minds a physical injury and allows people to ignore the more insidious injuries to soldiers, those of a psychological kind that “destroys a person’s moral center.”

 

 

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