Monday, July 23 , 2018, 12:02 am | Fair 70º


Ken Williams: Burden of War Shouldn’t Be Carried By Soldiers Alone

For the sake of our warriors, we can't continue to turn a blind eye to the tragedies and horrors of the battlefield

“War is not war until the first miserable, immortal doughfoot (i.e., infantryman) has had his guts blown out and his parents have got the word. This has happened. War is not war until wives and children have been made to cry over farewells, and this, too, has happened.” — “From War by Jet and by GI,” LIFE Magazine, July 17, 1950

I ran across this quote from a combat grunt in a LIFE Magazine that someone gave me recently. I could feel the despair and disillusionment of the soldier with those who fail to see war for what it is. Police action, armed conflict, nation-building, pacification, all neutral words — all lies that politicians use as a bill of goods to get us to offer up our sons and daughters for the latest overseas adventures.

It has been 10 years, and except for the Marines and soldiers in Afghanistan, we pretend that there is no war. With judicious use of words, the media may notify those who care that our casualty rates are at record rates and that the promised withdrawal of troops is still on track.

Do those in Washington really expect us to believe that those fighting the occupation — the local militias, drug lords, criminal gangs and terrorists — will be defeated in a handful of months? Do they really think that we don’t know the tremendous expenditure of time, money and human lives that nation-building takes? Or that our Afghanistan allies aren’t hip deep in the drug trade and have tribal, family and business relationships with the Taliban? Or that they, too, oppress women and turn a blind eye to so-called honor killing and rape? That the government there isn’t corrupt? Is this the kind of people that the outcome of the war depends on? Are these the men that our children die for?

Where are the mass demonstrations calling for the return of our children? Where is the moral outrage that two presidents — both Republican and Democrat — have sent the same warriors repeatedly into harm’s way? Why are there no raised voices (except for Rep. Ron Paul’s) made so by the moral qualms of the civilian collateral damages — the old men, women and children who are killed and maimed by fire and steel?

And then we pretend that once the Marines and soldiers come home, eventually that all will be OK. It won’t be. Not only will the physical and psychological wounds take time to manifest themselves, but the healing will take years if not decades to occur. And, most tragically, some will not heal. If the Vietnam War is any indication, suicide rates and cancer deaths caused by the witch’s brew of deadly chemicals that accompany modern warfare will take an ever-increasing toll.

Some of the returning warriors will question the morality of why we kept them in harm’s way for so long. Why is it, after our experience in Vietnam with a corrupt and oppressive regime — one also with tentacles into the drug trade of the Golden Triangle — that we still haven’t learned our lessons? Why is politics more important than the lives and health of our children?

War is not pretty. It is not a recruitment speech wrapped up in a shiny new bow. It is horrible, bloody and dirty — the worst of human invention. Violent death by modern war is jarring, psychological damaging and it warps the soul of survivors. For the returning warrior, it is impossible to forget the cruelties than man can inflict upon one another — the faces maimed, the bodies crippled and the souls laid bare.

A few returning veterans will roll with the honor of having served in combat, but most will retreat to the deep recesses of their minds and souls and question the bloodshed, the horror, the pain of war. Some will turn to the comfort of God in their hour of need. Some will question and argue with God how all the insane cruelty was allowed to manifest itself. And, tragically, others will reject God with condemnation for allowing it to happen.

Some will be boastful, but most will quietly struggle with these existential and moral questions. Loved ones will also struggle with how best to approach the suddenly strangling silence, the outburst of anger, the withdrawal and, sadly, the abuse of alcohol and drugs that veterans have turned to in the past to deaden the pain and bury the memories.

Ideals and self-image are among the first casualties of war. Sadly, a country and its veterans become defined by the brutality that is the signature of war. This burden is not the veterans’ alone, and they must be shown that. It must be shared by all of us.

For the family and friends, the loved ones and those concerned with the well-being of the returning war veterans, patience is the only road that is clearly laid out — patience, love and the knowledge that those in pain need a shoulder to lean on, a kind word, a caring gesture. There are no magic cures, no neatly laid-out plans on how all of this is supposed to play out. But the knowledge that the returning war vet is not in the game alone is the first and the most important step that needs to be taken.

Some of the questions outlined above will torment both civilians and the war veterans. Perhaps this time the answers can be struggled for by both, the pain shared by both and not by the veteran alone in isolation — the cruelest wound of all.

— Ken Williams has been a social worker for the homeless for the past 30 years. His writings and opinions reflect only his personal views. He does not speak as a representative for or on behalf of any organization with which he may be affiliated. He is the author of China White and Shattered Dreams, A Story of the Streets. He has just completed his first nonfiction book, There Must Be Honor.

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