[Mentions brutality and suicide.]
“Any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind; and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee” Meditation XVII, John Donne
It is Feb 12, 1973. I pour a shot of whiskey from the bottle that has remained unopened since I toasted the New Year with a friend. My wife asks if I am coming to bed. I shake my head. There is something on the TV I must watch.
They are coming home. These men who had been brutalized and locked away were coming home.
Not home, home, but Clark Air Force Base.
In the country to the south 591 families are gathered around their television sets. Watching, praying, hoping for the glimpse of a face they hadn’t seen for years. Fathers, mothers, brothers, wives and children who had never known their father - all with the same prayer.
As the Starlifter makes its final approach a voice on the television describes how these men, who’s only crime was they did what their country asked of them, were brutalized and tortured.
Brutality begets brutality.
Who is more brutal, the man with whips and chains taking out his fury on a helpless prisoner or the pilot of the B-52 raining death from 30,000 feet. So high the exploding bombs look like brown and black flowers popping up from the earth. Far removed from the smell of fear, sweat, piss and vomit that fills the hastily built tunnels where thousands take refuge. Never hearing the cries of the babies or seeing the fear in the eyes of their mothers as every ‘thump’ thump’ ‘thump’ of the exploding bombs threaten to turn this refuge into a mass grave.
Who is more brutal: the B-52 pilot who is doing the job he was trained to do, the job his country asked him to do, wondering if today a surface to air missile (SAM) will find him. Or, the General, safe in his office half a world away, who orders the bombing of a place he has never seen and people he has never met; who calculates the number of planes to be lost and decides the losses are acceptable; who will call it ‘carpet bombing’ when he really means ‘bombing those bastards back to the stone age’.
I have no answers – so I watch.
I don’t know these men – why do I care? Maybe it is guilt!
Guilt that, like them, I had once believed the lies that a dictator duly elected by the CIA was better than a dictator duly elected by the Communist Party; that a country with no navy and no air force was a threat to the North American way of life; that a leader trying to reunite his country after fifty years of brutal French colonial rule would go on to take over the rest of Asia.
Guilt that I listen to the ‘body count’ without realizing that behind each number were grieving mothers, father, sister, brothers, wives and children.
Guilt that I looked at kill ratios which said ‘it is OK if one of our’s died because we killed more of them’, without realizing that behind that one were grieving mothers, father, sister, brothers, wives and children.
I don’t know these men – why do I care? Maybe it is disgust!
Disgust with an otherwise good man who couldn’t find a way to end the war chose to quit rather than carry on . . . . “Hey Hey LBJ . . . . . .”
Disgust with a leader of less moral degree who spoke of “Peace with Honour” in a place where there was no honour.
Disgust with a system where the sons of the rich, white and powerful could get exemptions from fighting, while the sons of the black and the poor were cannon fodder.
I don’t know these men – why do I care? Maybe it is shame!
Shame that I had watched the television images of napalm being dropped, forgetting that the flames were burning children alive.
Shame that, in my mind, I had mocked an elderly Polish couple I was visiting. They spoke with pride of their son fighting in Vietnam, their fireplace mantle laden with his pictures. To find out later a folded flag now replaced some of those pictures; that there was an empty place set at the table where no one would ever sit; that once a month, for the rest of their lives, they would make the trek to Veterans Memorial Cemetery to put fresh flowers on his grave.
I don’t know these men – why do I care? Maybe it is sympathy!
Sympathy for the young soldier my friends were trying to calm down after he had ‘flipped out’ destroying his mother’s apartment. A boy who should have been attending his senior prom; who had seen more violence and death than most grown men; who now faced a lifetime trying to forget what he had seen and done.
Sympathy for the mother who had signed the release allowing her son to join the Army on his seventeenth birthday; who would take the guilt of her actions to her grave.
I don’t know these men – why do I care? Maybe it is remorse!
Remorse that two friends planning how to escape the poverty of their lives decide that going south and joining the US Army was a ‘way out’; that I would stay and he would go; that he would return in a wheelchair in constant pain until one day he would end the pain; that there is nothing that I can do to change the past.
So I sit, sipping my whisky, watching as the mobile staircase is moved into position. A carpet is rolled out from the bottom of the stairs to the waiting ambulance. Slowly, painfully the men start down the stairs. At the bottom they turn and salute the flag and start the fifty feet to the ambulance. Some are smiling, they wave to the camera, and quickly make their way to the ambulance. Others, with legs that no longer work, painfully make the long walk.
The camera focuses on one man. Stiff legged he starts his journey along the carpet, threatening to fall with each step. Half a world away family, friends and complete strangers try to reach out with their minds to support him in his struggle. The next man out of the plane catches up with him and reaches out to steady him, but then pulls his hand back allowing the man the dignity of taking those last steps on his own.
Why do I care? A better question is why did so few care?