Benjamin Franklin said it: “There was never a good war, or a bad peace.”
A short list of words associated with war: evil – degrading – abominable – atrocious – senseless – gruesome – monstrous – inhumane – pernicious – barbaric. I have been there . . . participated in it . . . seen it with my own eyes. It is unconscionable. There are extreme cases where it might appear necessary, but that does not make it justifiable. War might be resorted to as the lesser of two evils, but even when that is the case, it is still evil.
In The U.S. Marine Corps Story J. Robert Moskin writes of Vietnam: “This war ripped at men’s souls.” That’s what war does – any war, any time, any place . . . it ravages the core of what it means to be human. In war a peaceable small-town boy from Indiana is required to fire a fifty-caliber bullet into center chest of a farmer from Afghanistan which turns the latter into a puddle of unrecognizable body parts. And people wonder why that Indiana boy comes home with a tainted soul and damaged brain.
Some speak of “rules of war.” In combat there is only one rule: survival. The niceties of civil society go out the window when one sees a fellow Marine crumple into a dead heap. To be sure, brothers-in-arms do heroic, self-endangering things for others . . . but it’s part of the survival mode. I will run through withering machine gun fire to rescue another squad member because tomorrow I might need you to do that for me. And, of course, there is the stark fact that some are willing to die in order for another to survive.
One of the many inequities of war is that old men send young ones to fight and die. The age at which most Americans died in Vietnam was twenty-one. When I was in Vietnam in 1969 Lyndon Johnson was 61; Robert McNamara was 53; Richard Nixon was 56. The reader can guess what the average age of U.S. senators and representatives were during the war . . . or how many of them went into battle themselves. It was relatively easy to sit in a government office and order the napalming of an “enemy” village. It was much more difficult for the F-4 Phantom pilot to actually drop the bomb. It was indescribably hard for the ground troops to view the charred remains of elderly and children. While politicians go home to their grilled steaks, teenagers an ocean away struggle to stem a buddy’s bleeding femoral artery torn asunder by shrapnel.
“Any decent person who knows what warfare is can never go into battle with a whole heart,” writes Orson Card in Ender’s Game. A person might enter combat with a whole heart, but one always – always – comes out with a damaged one. The damage is quite often reparable, but only with intense purposefulness, compassionate understanding, tender care, and loads of time.
My descriptions are graphic on purpose. They serve to push the point that a nation must go to war only as an absolutely last resort. And if that last resort is decided, the returning veterans must be received with every possible means for restorative healing.