Listening to Veterans

As a Vietnam veteran who opposes the Iraq invasion, I am faced with the difficult question of how to appropriately honor our military men and women without glorifying war.

In 1969 and 1970, I served as a medic in a helicopter ambulance unit out of Phu Bai, followed by a much more dangerous six months with an infantry company in the coastal farmlands of Binh Dinh Province. I opposed the war, but I had made a commitment to save the lives of as many people as I could, both Americans and Vietnamese. That decision was the product of a romantic vision, combined with a desire to be tested, to see what I was made of. War can work effectively to that purpose -- but at what cost?

I was a month shy of 23 when I went. By the time I left, every solid friend I'd made was dead or severely wounded, and I'd long since stopped making friends. I had seen almost everything that can go wrong in a war zone: gunshot wounds, fragmentation wounds, napalm burns, a GI's legs crushed by a tank, a child's toes sheared off by a water buffalo's misstep. What got to me most was the constant loss of friends. That, combined with having to be continually on guard against random hidden dangers (booby-traps, snipers, and hit-and-run ambushes, not to mention friendly fire) has left its mark on me.

When I got home, nobody gave me a bad time. But I found that any conversation would stop cold at the word, "Vietnam."

As I think of the alienation of that war and its aftermath, and consider the present, I alternate between deep anger and deep sorrow. My heart breaks when I see, on TV and in newspapers, images of aggressive young GIs manhandling ordinary Iraqi people, treating them as less than human. The same thing happened to us in Vietnam. We all lost our humanity.

I never knew Vietnam before I went there as a soldier, but I got a taste of Baghdad one month before the U.S. onslaught. Last January and February, as part of the Iraq Peace Team, I lived in a small hotel in an artisan quarter of Baghdad. I walked the streets. I ate roast chicken and lamb kebobs in small neighborhood restaurants. Baghdad is the cultural center of the mid-East, and I went to gallery openings, took in wonderfully sophisticated paintings and sculpture, and attended Writers' Union discussions of great passion and gravity.

I found the city a warmer place than, say, San Francisco. On the streets, almost everyone would return my hello. The traditional greeting, salaam aleichem, means "Peace be with you." The response, wa aleichem salaam, means "And with you, peace." As I became known in the neighborhood, people would add a wonderful gesture of recognition to their greeting, placing the right hand over the heart.

I wish our troops could have seen this beautiful city before it was a war zone, as I wish I'd seen Vietnam before the war. I wish they could have experienced that warmth, because civility has now been replaced by mistrust, and they don't see the real Iraq. These young GIs were promised they would be welcomed as liberators, not knowing that foreign forces are never welcomed unless they dislodge another occupying power. Now, everyday, they face random violence. The numbers of dead and wounded Americann troops are rising. In guerrilla warfare, it is precisely the most innocent-seeming person or place that becomes the most useful weapon. A familiar cycle of paranoia and aggression begins.

Some local people support them or are neutral. Others want to do them in, or report to people who can. The soldiers don't have time to distinguish one from the other, and are learning to mistrust everyone -- the taxi driver, the street vendor, the family in the minivan that fails to stop at a checkpoint. The more the soldiers fear for themselves and their companions, the more harshly they treat the local people -- and the more the locals resent their presence. The cycle feeds on itself, as it did in Vietnam.

We will soon be welcoming home the first of another generation of emotionally damaged veterans. Many will have trouble relating to people who have not seen what they've seen.

How shall we honor them without endorsing the inhumanity that all war -- including this war -- embodies? They will need deep understanding. If you know returning veterans, don't press them with probing questions, but give them room to talk. Listen even when they tell you things you don't want to hear. Let us, if we can, move beyond "us versus them" thinking.

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