Tales of Nam
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It took so long because it hurt so badly. There is no shame in this. We were sent into combat the same way that warriors have been sent into battle since the first alpha male set out with some mates from his cave to take something of value from a neighbor. When the neighbors decided that they were not about to give up their women, or their land, or their god; war broke out. In the intervening years our leaders have become better at justifying warfare, but the basic process itself is about the same.
So you found yourself on the battlefield somewhere with a weapon in hand and your buddies all around you. You had been trained in the various arts of killing the enemy, and told that this was your job. Most importantly, you knew that those other guys were out there whose job it was to kill you. If you did your job you might get a medal. If not, you would have let your buddies down, and you would be disgraced. For most of us, this was a no-brainer in more ways than one.
Somewhere in the dark recess of the skull lies the remnants of the reptilian brain. That artifact of our evolution is alive and well. That demon can not only kill any species that roams the planet, but finds it most exciting to do so. If you have been in combat, you have looked into the face of that demon and you know him more intimately than most of your civilian brothers and sisters. It does not matter whether you actually stuck a knife in the flesh of another to take his life, shot him at 50 paces, fired into a group with an automatic weapon, loaded artillery shells for delivery, or launched weapons from a remote location. The objective and end result were the same; the death and destruction of other human beings. No one who has been through these kinds of experiences is ever quite the same.
Perhaps you were unlucky enough to lose a comrade in arms. You may have witnessed the death or wounding of someone you are close to. Maybe you came across dead or injured civilians: children, babies, youths, women. Even if you never set foot on Vietnamese soil but were part of Rolling Thunder, or controlled strikes from the carriers in the Tonkin Gulf, or fired shore bombardment missions off the coast of I Corps in support of the Marines ashore, you were part of the killing machine. It is true that the closer you were to looking Charlie right in the eyes, the more likely you would be to suffer severe trauma, but particularly sensitive individuals can be some distance removed from the carnage and still experience its effects.
The simple truth is that everything that we learned in school about the sanctity of human life, and everything that we learned in church about loving our neighbors is irreconcilable with what the warrior does in combat. When you are on the battlefield you mostly don't think about such things. Keeping safe and staying alive are a tad more important. One day, however, you come home. One day, you return to civilian life. Maybe then you have time to think about the moral dilemma that will occupy the remainder of your life. Many of us postpone that day as long as we can. We build a wall around the combat experience, then we tell ourselves that we will deal with it someday. Nobody I know is in the rush to get to that day. The shrinks call it avoidance or denial. I call it survival.
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