Sunday, May 25, 2014

The Good War

I hesitate to say “war made me who I am” for many reasons, but it’s as important a foundation as any I might suggest and as it’s memorial day I thought to expound on it a little; for my own benefit is no one elses.

War was not something I thought about much as a kid. There were war movies and tv shows, Rat Patrol for instance. It seemed more adventure than grim reaper. Even those entertainments that showed the dead romanticized it, making the corpse piled horror seem more the Bela Lugosi version than the Nosferatu. My dad the history freak laid out the reality, but still, not having experienced seeing someone’s limb flee their body or the blood seeping from their exploded innards at least documented in film if not in person, I had no call to take it particularly seriously. Besides, we were at peace. My dad was a Korean war time vet, but had only served stateside and just barely at the end of the conflict. The only violent action he ever saw was years after his service when he chased some young punk on a bicycle a half mile for having tried to rob my grandmother. (Had the punk only been North Korea we’d now have a unified peninsula)

But once I’d reached the ripe age of 17, boys I knew started to vanish and little notes started showing up, reminding me of my forthcoming “duty”. I was busy with drugs mostly, and common, lesser thuggery, so while I thought about my impending doom now and then, I only truly concentrated on it when I’d go home to have an actual meal rather than buttered rice and cheap wine, and I’d see Walter Cronkite tally up the day’s body count.

One of the guys I knew was dead within a month of his leaving; another lost most of his arms. As December creeped up I found myself caring more and more, watching the news, reading the paper, talking to elders, steeling myself for my tragic end. I registered on my birthday. Mom made me pork roast with mashed potatoes and a piece of cake; a fair compensation for signing my future away.

I found myself incapable of expecting anything but the worst. It was a Runeborg thing, a lack of luck, a black Swede curse. I would be drafted, I was the guy who was certified as unable to live up to expectations, a brilliant idiot, sure to qualify for nothing but shark chum. I would be infantry, go to Nam, have to kill some people I didn’t know or care about, then I would die, hopefully so quickly as to be painlessly as well. I didn’t obsess about it. My father had taught me logic well; what would happen would happen, no sense wasting time on debating the projection. But I did start thinking about war.

I wasn’t raised with prejudice. I admit Minnesota isn’t exactly diversity heaven; in the sixties you might have been hard pressed to come up with enough latins to make a good Cinco de Mayo party. Blacks here lived pretty much in two enclaves neither of which the Runeborgs visited. though we did drive through the one on the way to grammas house a few times a year. Still, I never did get the idea that stereotypes were anything but that; perhaps rooted lightly in some truth, like a bonsai in an empty egg carton hole, but just petty insults in the main. People of other colors were just odd to me, like people with heavy accents, like my grandtante Lisa for instance who swore she had no accent and would glare you into a puddle if you said otherwise. Truly, they were all the same to me; Native, black, Hispanic, Ukrainian immigrant, Australian… pretty much the same thing… odd.

But when Nam was discussed, so were the Gooks. The Gooks were like unto the Japs as were the Krauts and the Reds and oh I dunno, there were others. And the Gooks were hated, mostly cuz they weren’t really human beings like we were at all, but raving fanatics whose minds had been siphoned out by giant Commie rat-bastard vacuums and their skull filled with a singular devotion to the death of all who do not follow their rules. Sure, I’m exaggerating. It never got that specific. It was more like “cuz they’re assholes that’s why” or the good old “cuz they have slant eyes and buck teeth” which only made me think of Mr. Moto which made me think of Peter Lorre which made me think of Boris Karloff which made me think of Frankenstein which made me visualize tunnels full of crawling Frankenstein monsters popping up from holes in the ground and growling in that special Frankie way at our soldiers… which wasn’t very scary really but more grin inducing.

But it made me think about Viet Cong and to break it down to one guy, a photo I’d found of this one soldier in PJ’s and a silly straw hat, and I stared into his eyes and tried to conjure up the monster he must be. He did look crabby, I’ll admit that. Of course a Snow Leopard in a cage looks kinda crabby too when someone’s taking a picture of his distressed being so I couldn’t blame the guy. His eyes were a little less than rounded but surely not “slanty”. Maybe one of his parents was Russkie I figured, so his eyeballs unslanted a little in the womb. And his teeth didn’t protrude at all; in fact they were pretty pearly, which surprised me a little as I never figured on poor Communist states to be bastions of dental hygienics. The fact was, given that he was probably a lot shorter and his hair a lot darker and his face a lot rounder, he looked just like me; a plain old ordinary human being.

I knew right there he (generally speaking of course as he might have been the actual Frankenstein monster for all I really know) did all that stuff that I do; he liked kids or didn’t, he probably had a girlfriend (it was the sixties, don’t flame me for not thinking a possible boyfriend) he probably sang songs with his pals and got a little too high sometimes and his mother probably still hugged him in spite of his protestations and his dad probably still whacked the back of his head with an open hand when he was being disrespectful… He loved and feared and anxiously awaited, and was frustrated and bored and all the same shit we all did. And he just as easily might have been a soldier for the exact same reasons many of us would become soldiers; because it was a job, because if we didn’t we’d go to jail, because we didn’t want to be traitors, because we bought the bullshit that on the other end of our guns there’s be a Frankenstein monster and not a human being at all; one who deserved everything that was coming to him in the form of a hot lead projectile, that once he and all his fellows were dead or had capitulated in some humiliating and testicle removing way, our ways would be saved, our babies could once again sleep at night without the fear of boogymen stealing them away, and we would from that day forward live long and prosper.

I felt… empathy for this stranger; sympathy even. Never again could I look at someone I didn’t know, no matter the color, or the shape, or the ethnicity, or the odd accent for that matter, as a representative of the worst of his or her kind; as immediately suspicious, as lesser or dumber or lazier or more corrupt. I can’t say it changed me completely because I was 95% there already. But as our own patron saint of moron politicians Mr. Rumsfeld would say, I didn’t yet know what I didn’t yet know; until that moment when one secret of the universe was made clear to me: Aint nobody here but us chickens, and we’re all equally tasty… to the Grim Reaper.

My number was drawn; it was in the low hundreds. I enlisted in the Navy to avoid the curse thing. I failed miserably; I should not be thanked for any service, I was rejected and have had to live with that hanging around my neck my entire life, emotionally and legally. In spite of that I came out of the experience a better man who understood the absolute wrongness in grouping humans together by some artificial marker, who enraged at the spewing of racial epitaphs, as well as saliva aimed at soldiers, who developed a contempt for the general public, a taste that never left, that only grows stronger with every Bircher, with every Militia, every Teabagger, every left wing manifesto dribbling nutjob, every human being that finds some catharsis in the hatred of others who are not like themselves.

I don’t do the hero thing. Not all military personnel are heroes. Some just needed a job, some were given a choice of jail time or military, some did the French foreign legion thing and ran from something to oblivion. Heroes are heroes, they know it, and most don’t want credit for it. To use the word so lightly cheapens it, or more, makes a mockery of it. My wife’s ex-husband joined the Air Force because he wanted a job and an adventure. He’s not a bad man, but he’s about as patriotic as a tree stump. He was a clerk, spent a couple years in Texas and a couple in Germany where he and Linda toured Europe as planned. I’m not thankin him for his “service” if you get my drift. A sacrifice requires sacrifice. Not all soldiers sacrifice. Many if not most “combat” soldiers do, and for them I offer thanks, and to the real heroes I offer something more than thanks and slightly less than deification.

I am not one to disparage the military for no reason. Simply put I believe if we don’t show our teeth there are neighborhood dogs that would put us down. That said, I wish not one more drop of blood would be shed, not one more future dream ended, not one more child raped or dragged off into the bush for a uniform and an AK. I wish the military was unnecessary, that violence was long a thing of the past, that good conquered bad and crazy was never explosive and we could all “just get along.” This is what would honor the men and women that died for us. Not flags and parades, not poppys and bumper stickers full of platitudes and plastic ribbons, not dedications of thanks or eloquent speeches or moms and apple pies. Peace people. Not saying “I hate those motherfuckers” ever again. Yes, doing what HAS to be done when it does, but THAT and THAT alone and no more. It’s fixing this poverty and hunger, this jealousy and fear and this 8th century cultural illiteracy madness. It’s doing what we can do, being nice to the cashier at the grocery store even when you’re hot and at the end of your rope, saying “I don’t do dat” when someone says the word spic or nigger or any of that crap rather than pulling your head into your coat and slipping off into the shadows.

If we just continue the game that’s been played since the Neanderthals, we dishonor the deaths of those who spent their futures on our continuing to live. I’m not doing it all that well, but these are the thoughts that came to me back in 1969 when my future was suspect, and this is the journey I’ve been on, all because of a war.

1 comment:

  1. We didn't have the draft when I grew up but I had no desire to enlist. Oddly, I would now, but I'm oo old.