January 4, 2013

Casualties of War

Over 18,000 service men and women have been wounded, over 2,000 have died, fighting in Afghanistan. In 2012, 176 soldiers died; another 177 committed suicide.

Bad memories are a like a malarial parasite that reawakens at unexpected moments after lying dormant for months, even years. Like any other disease, they can sicken you, sometimes to death, unless the source is properly understood and treated.

Service in a war zone imprints memories that don't go away ... ever. Doesn't matter what you did. Cook or clerk, combat soldier or artillery gunner, officer or enlisted ... memories shaped during those months or years are gouged deeply into the brain, creating neural pathways the size of the Grand Canyon. You never leave the war zone. It follows you home, a secret sharer that remains mostly invisible to friends and family.

I came to understand that the war never stops trying to kill you. Most of us learn to live with it; a sad few can't. The war raging inside them overwhelms them, and they become casualties, just as surely as if they had been struck down by a bullet.

Let me be clear. My service in Vietnam was relatively tranquil. I wasn't in combat. For much of my tour, I lived in large base camps, albeit under pretty primitive conditions, but I had my three squares and a cot. For maybe four months, I was deployed in remote locations, some of which have no name, just a pair of coordinates on a map. I never fired my M-16 at anyone, and as far as I know, no one ever shot at me, if you don't count the hundreds of rockets and mortars that landed in my vicinity.

That said, the months and years after the war were ones of adjustment and reconnoitering a new inner terrain that the war had occupied inside my head. I lived and I learned. It helped that I was older when I went in, and maybe a little wiser after a couple of decades of letting the dust settle.

If that was me, I can't imagine the pressure that combat veterans felt. The pressure amped up a dozen times over? A hundred times? Countless adrenalin surges, too many close calls, too many shattered limbs, too many explosions, too much sudden death, the memories piling up like bodies on the battlefield. It isn't something you just walk way from. Everyone in a war zone returns home wounded in body and spirit. Everyone needs time to heal. Everyone needs help.

We know they want us out, friend and foe alike, and yet the war goes on. Why? Vietnam tore the country apart. It should have. Afghanistan and Iraq haven't. In my view, that is as much due to a purposeful decision to keep the war out of the public eye as it is to support for the troops. The war in Afghanistan has for the most part been an invisible one. It was years before we were even allowed to see flag-draped coffins. Out of sight, out of mind.

How to bring the war home? How to make us pause before rather than repent after sending children off to yet another war? If young men and women, even just a few thousand a year, were being drafted, do you think we would still fighting?

Perhaps that is the answer. Not a full-blown draft, but the random selection of a few thousand men and women to fight in any war we elect to wage. Just as the ancient Greeks and Romans chose champions to represent them on the field of battle, so maybe should we. Or hostages to fate. Either way, we the people would have to sign up for that choice. Maybe the knowledge that your child or grandchild might be one of those forced into wartime service would be a powerful inducement to think twice, maybe thrice, before rushing off to war.

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