What could I tell them about war?

On Friday, I visited a private high school in response to an invitation to speak to their 10th-grade English students about war. I was asked to come because I am a combat veteran – a rifle platoon leader in Vietnam in 1967-68 – and have written a novel, Cologne No. 10 For Men, a satire based partially on my experiences. The students had read Hemingway’s Farewell To Arms, Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried, and Walter Dean Myers’ Sunrise Over Fallujah—three excellent booksfor summer reading. And what did I tell them about war? They asked what weapon I carried: M-16. Was I scared?: all the time. Was I drafted or did I enlist? I enlisted to go to Officer Candidate School and volunteered to go to Vietnam to fight a Communist takeover of the world and to get a good war record on my resume to advance a planned career in politics. (Oh, the illusions of youth!) What was the Vietnam War like? I told them that soldiers in the same war had many different experiences depending on when and where they served and what work they did—in the field, on an artillery firebase, or on a large, safe base in the rear, at a time when the North Vietnamese were able to assemble large fighting forces, or times when they were hiding and rebuilding. My own experience involved participating in thirty-five combat air assaults in helicopters, cordoning and searching villages, and patrolling jungle trails in search of the enemy. Each night we would make camp, dig foxhole defenses around the perimeter, and dig sleeping holes to keep our bodies below the surface of the ground so that shrapnel from mortars and rockets wouldn’t hit us. It was a primitive camping trip during which we slept on the ground in tents, ate food out of cans, and dug holes in the ground everywhere we went—holes to fight from and sleep in. Our unit did our job efficiently: we killed and captured many enemy troops, committed no atrocities against enemy soldiers or civilians, and had the good fortune to lose no troops of our own to enemy fire. I warned the students about the risk of being killed or maimed in war or coming home mentally tortured with PTSD or having a disease appear many years later as a result of war exposure. Fifty-eight thousand U.S. soldiers died in Vietnam and 4,400 have died in Iraq. I told them that a third of adult homeless men are veterans plagued with mental problems. I hope they will weigh these outcomes against the advantages of being in the military, some of which are the pride in serving one’s country, employment in the military, GI Bill educational benefits, and no down payment VA home loans. I talked about “just wars” and compared World War II, in which we fought back against Japan who attacked us, to Iraq, a country we attacked even though they did not attack us. Of course, soldiers don’t often get to choose their wars. I mentioned the million or more Vietnamese civilians and hundred thousand or so Iraqi civilians killed in those wars. I said that nations have tried, through the United Nations, to resolve international disputes without war but we have failed too often. At the end of the first period, I sang them a lullaby I wrote in my spare time in Vietnam—“Go To Sleep,” written for the children I hoped to have. (Some soldiers write poetry; some play cards; I wrote songs.) Then the teacher attached speakers to her computer and played them my award-winning blues ballad, “Diggin A Hole” from my “Skytroopers” CD. The students applauded.

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This entry was posted in Relating to Cologne No. 10 for Men, Relating to Skytroopers, CD and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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