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The Combat Experience: The Child and the Video Tape and the Horror.

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Headlined to None 11/9/09

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And it is . . . for many combat veterans. Many have been witness to a comrade's making the transition from vibrant to vacant and lifeless. Many have experienced it more than once, and to more than one member of the squad. And the transition is rarely without the accompaniment of bodies that have been gruesomely opened up or without limbs having been ripped from the parts of the body that were never intended to be ripped off. But now let's play Groundhog Day, as in the movie. Every morning that you awake you know that at some moment in the day, a moment that will strike without warning, you will go through it all again, and that each time will be as crystalline grotesque and as suffuse with terror as the first. Although years may intervene, and the revisiting may become less frequent, sometime during that year, or the next, you will be back in the middle of the street once again, exactly as it was the first time.

What would you take, what substance or potable would you ingest, or what activity would you engage in the vain effort to make it stop? Anything? Everything you could? Would you pause to ponder the first damn whether what you were imbibing or what your were doing was legal, or acceptable in polite society? The military's suicide rate among combat soldiers and veterans is higher today than at any time since records were first kept. So again, you're not a soldier, nor are you a marine, you're just a parent who cannot make the reel stop replaying. Think about it, because for many of our men and women in uniform and now out, it's all they can think about. That and the vain pursuit to stop thinking about it.

Ready for the next analogy?

Winston Churchill quipped, "There's nothing quite so exhilarating as being shot at and missed." The "exhilaration" Sir Winston was referring to was a product of the body's involuntary saturation of the nervous system with epinephrine (adrenaline) when an individual is suddenly in a crisis situation. It puts every sense on heightened alert, and is a prime motivator in the "fight or flight" response.

How long can anyone stay there before fatigue counters the life-saving mechanism, leading not to life preserving behaviors, but to life endangering ones? A made up game in the mind. You're in a reasonably spacious room, the floor of which is covered by water, and you're barefoot. From your shoulder has been hung a bucket of common baking flour. And in one hand you're grasping a 1-quart jar which has a 2-inch opening at the top. In your other hand you've got a teaspoon. Your challenge is to transfer constantly (no time outs), one teaspoon at a time, the flour into the jar. As either the bucket is emptied or the jar is filled they're replaced. But if so much as a few grains of flour fall to the floor, en route to the jar, an electric switch will be activated and you'll be electrocuted. The room has a chair upon which you can sit down and rest, but for no more than 10 minutes of every hour.

How long would you be able to keep it up, not spill any flour? The very first moments of the very first day might be easy. No problemo. Perhaps, but will it be just as easy two hours later? What about six, or eight, or ten? Keep moving and keep spooning. Stay alert. Just one mental slip. Just one.


And oh yeah, your young child is sitting at a desk, and whether it will be you or the child who receives the deadly voltage . . . you don't know. But it'll be one of you. That much you do know. You also know that this is not a one-day challenge. Next day, same thing. And the day after that, and the week after that, and the month after . . . Remember: Stay alert. Just one mental slip. Just one.

Whether it was in Vietnam or in Iraq or in Afghanistan, going on patrol was much like that, with but a single exception: the area you were patrolling either frequently or all the time had folks hiding -- whether in the jungle underbrush or in homes or in stores or in cars or in heavy apparel -- who wanted to kill you, and probably would succeed. That's what you think anyway. Not the statistical odds that are overwhelmingly in your favor. But the odds the statistics of which you know too well: become a statistic and be hamburger; either with some part of your body that looks like it, or your brain that will function like it, or your deadness that will have no more life than does it. But if it's not you, absolutely the squad member with you. Nerves fray. Good judgment is oftentimes the precursor casualty to death and dismemberment.

It was either bad luck or it was worn out wits, but one of your buddies in the patrol paid the price: his belly was ripped open and he slowly, quite agonizingly died with his intestines trailing into the dirt, and no one that moment was interested in scrutinizing things for contributing mistakes. To add to the mix, that was the third time in a month you've seen something like that, and you've had it with the Geneva Convention niceties. Sorry to break it to the yet-to-be-baptized among us, but that's the way it is: You eventually reach that point where maybe you just don't care about the rules any longer.

For months you've been hot. For months you've been swatting fleas and ticks and mosquitoes. For months you've been eating uncooked meals from tin cans. For months you've been filthy, unable to shower. For months you've gone sleepless. And for months you've been scared . . . and now, in this one moment, you're just plain angry. Angry at everyone. You hate almost everyone. You hate your president. You hate the lieutenant in charge of the patrol. You hate your wife. But most of all you hate those whose land you're in. In that moment, that very special but not wholly uncommon moment. You've had others. And you're looking for someone to make as a receptacle of all your hate and all your discomfort and all your frustrations. You're looking for someone to kill. Don't even need all that much of a reason -- any one of a hundred will do. Pick a card, any card.

Then: chaos. The distinctive crack of a bullet and the idiosyncratic high-pitched ringing whir passes within inches of your head. It came from over there: that hooch or that house or that store. . . So you unleash every round in your weapon, then slap in another magazine. There's small weapons noise and folks screaming and shouting everywhere.

Then, as quickly as it began it stops. Everything is in dead silence. Except for one woman who's kneeling, facing you. For whatever the cause, she's wailing hysterically at you, cursing you in a language you don't understand but one that's laced with the most foul profanities you've come to recognize as such. Your reflex response, "Shut up! Shut up!" is punctuated with every verbal obscenity you know as well as those in that strange language that you've learned since your first week of deployment. But she just won't. The haranguing is a butcher's meat cleaver to your brain. "God damn you! God damn you! Shut up, or I'll make you goddamn shut the hell up!" But on she goes. Almost daring you. She is daring you. And then you squeeze the trigger one more time. Her screaming stops. And for just that one fraction of a second you feel no part of guilt or regret. Thank god, she finally stopped that damned screaming is what you're thinking. Except you're not thinking. You stopped that a long time ago. It's just feelings now.

And no one in the squad rats. "Collateral damage" is how the report read.

But now it's been a while. Not only are you not in a combat area, you're no longer in the service. And the tape of that moment of that day keeps playing: the woman's screams, your shouts, and your bullet to her brain. It's Ground Hog dejà vu all over again. No one can make it right. You can't make it stop. And you damned sure can't tell anyone.

***

This is the best I could do. Fault the men and women who turn momentarily into savage beasts if you will. I won't. I can't. But that's a part of the deal. It comes with every hand. Maybe not that bad. Hopefully not that bad. But it's there: the chance. And it is because we asked them to take the risk of facing it, and to do our dirty work when they were confronted with it. Just don't tell us about it. We don't want to know. Heroes don't behave like that.

This Veterans Day, please, think about what you're asking, and what the price may be to some soldier or marine for fulfilling your request. And, if we can, can we try to not make so many veterans?

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An "Old Army Vet" and liberal, qua liberal, with a passion for open inquiry in a neverending quest for truth unpoisoned by religious superstitions. Per Voltaire: "He who can lead you to believe an absurdity can lead you to commit an atrocity."
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You come close to capturing the folly of war with ... by Margaret Bassett on Monday, Nov 9, 2009 at 9:20:41 AM
beyond any reasonable doubt that the argument ' Wa... by Mark Sashine on Monday, Nov 9, 2009 at 12:22:48 PM
Mark writes: "A soldier picks up a weapon and with... by Ed Tubbs on Monday, Nov 9, 2009 at 1:22:12 PM
to brush off the horror.Surely, you are right- the... by Mark Sashine on Monday, Nov 9, 2009 at 1:39:41 PM
No matter what we may ask of them, should they not... by KenH on Monday, Nov 9, 2009 at 2:25:53 PM
I agree with the above. People were sent to Viet N... by John S. Hatch on Monday, Nov 9, 2009 at 3:34:32 PM
Don't know about being a soldier. Never was. My co... by mikel paul on Monday, Nov 9, 2009 at 5:47:46 PM
My only regret is that both my sons were in combat... by Jason Paz on Tuesday, Nov 10, 2009 at 4:35:56 AM

 

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