Blog 1577 – 01.11.2020
Yesterday, on the fiftieth anniversary of my first day of an “in country” combat-zone tour of the Republic of South Vietnam, then a barely nineteen year old, I saw Sam Mendes’s remarkable new film “1917.” It was cathartic to sit quietly in the dark for two hours and weep for all my brothers who died in that war and so many others in my war and all wars as well as all those who survived those wars to live and carry wounds visible and invisible, the true ribbons awarded in wartime.
I am glad and grateful that I was fortunate, even spending almost a year in a “war zone”, to never have to see the devastation first hand. And I suppose my invisible wound from my war is the guilt I have carried since, that I had it so easy when others had it so hard. But I asked for it, prayed for it, to be spared and yet prayers or no, no one is ever truly spared who participates in war.
Upon my return I had several weeks at home with my parents before having to report to my next duty assignment. I had married my girl friend days before leaving for ‘Nam but about four months before my return her letters just stopped, not even a “Dear John” letter. I guess she just did not have the heart to tell me that she had found someone else. Did I love her? I think so. Did it hurt? Yes, it did. Did I get over it? Not for sometime, but eventually I did. We always do when we let ourselves.
I had been home about a week when my very observant and loving mother commented, “Do you realize how often that you wash your hands?” I had not realized that about every fifteen minutes I was running water over my hands and rubbing them with soap vigorously. As a part of the military processing before leaving our respective units and returning home we were “debriefed” – told in quite explicit terms how our efforts had contributed to the war effort. I was a teletype repairman for the Army Security Agency. We handled all the Top Secret war communications. To me it was just a job, that I reported to and did to the best of my ability, day in and day out, till they said I could return home. I was awarded an Army Commendation Medal for meritorious service. I don’t know where it is. I had no idea until that briefing that I was also part responsible for so much death and destruction and so I guess like Pontus Pilate I was just trying to wash my hands of the whole affair. Rituals help but as the twist on the old saying goes, “Time heals all wounds, and wounds all heels.” And we have all known and unbeknownst played the role of the heavy sometimes.
Watching two young men, about the age I was in my war over fifty years later than theirs, trying valiantly to save the lives of sixteen hundred of their comrades in the movie 1917 was a moving experience. My wife patted my hand comfortingly often throughout the movie as I quaked and tears streamed down my face. I loved those two young Brit soldiers, all those brave and reluctant soldiers on both sides. They all reminded me of me. They were just trying to do their jobs and hoping to make it home to their loved ones. Most of them carried a picture or several of loved ones with similar notes on the back, “Please come home to us. X” I think I cried the hardest when I saw one of those notes in the film.
I got to come home. Many did not. Strike that, perhaps it was they who got to go home and I and brothers like me who were left to battle on. Be that as it may or may not be, all I truly know is that many a would be homecoming did not happen after their war nor mine. Letters of condolence, ribbons, medals, returned things, rings and folded flags can never be adequate substitutes for those horrendous losses. But did we learn from those losses? A few have perhaps, but not enough yet to break the cycle of war. The war of 1917 was billed as The Great War, The War To End All Wars. It was not, nor was WW2, nor the many wars since. A folk song from my youth says, “Picking flowers everyone. When will they ever learn, when will they ever learn.” Fifty years from my war and over a hundred years from theirs, God, but I hope 2020 is the year.
Your friend and fellow traveler,
I was a soldier once but no more war for me,