Our current HuffPost Book Club pick is "What It Is Like To Go To War" by Karl Marlantes. We are talking about different aspects of the military experience over on our Book Club page; this entry was created as part of the discussion; go to the page to have your say.
The Vietnam War is not over.
Every Memorial Day, Rolling Thunder's 50,000 motorcycles shake every monument in Washington, DC. Primarily composed of Vietnam veterans, the message is clear. We are still very much here. We will not be forgotten. Vietnam still informs and haunts.
And, for Marlantes, the war may finally be over. For veterans of other wars, and all who now feel they have been combatants in the Global War on Terror, Vietnam walks amongst us, sometimes in darkness and riding Harleys into the light, John Kerry and John McCain, still very much alive. Never forget the 55,000 dead. The million more living with physical, emotional, and spiritual injuries, and those that have learned how to live more fully and those still bleeding, many homeless and in despair. Why do so many think of homelessness synonymously with veteran?
Common Sense can be expensive. One knows what one must do. Our growing knowledge base and emotional intelligence combined with a sense of common good, the logical, the sensible, and the transcendent (It matters what world we leave our children) is evident, unforgiving and relentless. Pay Now or Pay Later. "If he's sick, let's help him, but for God Sake, Let's get him off the Road." Help Before Harm. More Harm. Before the psychological weapons have been turned on others, after already wounding the bearer's Soul. Is there ever any sensible amount of blood loss?
In 1978, returning home from a Christian educator's tour of the People's Republic of China, I had my first physical glimpse of Vietnam. Only three years after helicopters evacuated the American Embassy in Saigon, the Swissair pilot alerted us that we were now over the Vietnamese coast north of Khe Sanh. At 35,000 feet, a beautiful white line of sand could be seen below and a lush, darkening green stretching to proximate clouds below. After all those years, fighting not to go, I was suddenly physically 'there' eating economy filet mignon with a bloody mary.
Marlantes was finally able to emotionally and spiritually leave Vietnam during an extraordinary ritual near Santa Barbara. This passage may make many readers uncomfortable. But, for those thousands that receive care from the VA, and, those sleeping on the streets, the war may not have ended. Most do not walk through blood everyday. The definition of urgent care, of emergency, has evolved, and has a budget.
Those who fly drones from remote consoles may not discover, if ever, that they are bleeding in the days and years ahead. Is there a statute of limitations on wound care, soul injury?
Listen to Marlantes. He really wants to end the Vietnam War for his buddies, to end it for the country. His extraordinary message to us part wisdom and prophecy, part insight and prayer, sourced out of character-building experience, mandating better preparation of future warriors, help those now in combat, and those who are still children on the school ground.
When physical wounds heal or rehabilitation achieves passable mobility, if personality has been compromised or lost, you are still profoundly wounded. You are still in need of urgent assessment and care. An MRI cannot detect damage to the soul. A CAT scan cannot detect the depth of traumatic grief. The numbness. The pain. An, inability to identify where it hurts? A traumatized warrior or veteran may not be able to describe that place 8,000 miles inside of him, or what may be hovering just above. Now, that is terror.
Everyday I hear the artillery salutes and flyovers at Arlington National Cemetery, the final earthly home of the free and the brave. In death, remembered as veterans, and, for those still living, still suffering--under-diagnosed, under-funded, under-served many still emotionally and spiritually at War in Korea, in Vietnam, in the Gulf, and after September 11th in South Dakota or Bloomingdales, the sports stadium or mall--all profoundly impacted and considered combatants in the global war on terror, the continuing emotional and spiritual battlefield where there is no peace.
Home ownership? Affordable. Health insurance? Possibly. The cost of battle? Maybe not if we only knew the extent, the lifetime timeline of injuries. Visiting Normandy and Auschwitz. Hearing the daily final salutes. Seeing the coffin crew outside their barracks practicing folding the flag over an imagined grave for the next, anticipated fallen warrior. And, meeting the grounds crew at Arlington, the gravediggers of twenty or more a day. Sacred work.
This is an era of regularly anticipated violence, regularly anticipated atrocities--though lessening here, increasing there--Virginia Tech and Utoya, Oakland and Afghanistan. When near death experience and battle fatigue infect, poison the testosterone, and young warriors, the Big Swinging Dicks urinate on the dead, humiliate captives with culturally abhorrent torture, enhanced interrogation, inflict ultimate psychological and spiritual damage to save lives.
If war is hell, where does the military chaplain serve? Who tends the chaplain after hundreds of military blessings, prayers, tributes, and funerals? What words can be found to name the silences? Why is this generation so different? Is it because we have a better understanding on what may be treatable? The increasing cost of blood?
For the insane, doing crazy stuff must make sense to them at the time. In combat, and technology, it may be much harder to identify the enemy, and the battlefield expanded well beyond the uniformed and visible. When is rape ever a legitimate weapon of war? Responsibility for ones actions defines a civilization.
At home, one may find victims and survivors, the abused. When did Man Lessons become seducing and sodomizing children and understood as innocent horseplay? Perspective illuminates and condemns.
Marlantes cites powerful examples of justice and mercy. When war combines with justice and becomes the warrior's soul and spirit, understood in 1969, seeing the earth from space and walking on the moon, the creation of global markets and mutually assured destruction. "Only One Earth" made it harder to see differences from space. Woodstock and Attica, Selma and Stonewall, a time when something definitely was in the air.
Marlantes bled all over the place, so much psychic and spiritual pain and near death. No wonder Marlantes has five kids and two wives; this guy has been desperate to create life and make sense of the service, make sense of the wound. How to sustain life with value, humanity, personality, resource. How younger others may be better prepared for new generations of weaponry and conflict unimagined. How to live after battle. Learning to hunt and wrestle, to thrive, to realize needs, to physically interpret dreams.
Star, Life, and Eagle. Car, Wife, and Beagle.
And, for Marlantes, after going to War, learning to listen, to remember, and sing. To identify when noise become music. How can you sing through an emotionally damaged, clenched throat, giving voice to an injured and scarred soul? First, sitting in homage, before memorials, paying ones respect, never really able to hear the silence again. There will always be memories to use, to celebrate and mourn. And, sadness for those who suicide alone as they have been unable to drown under all that blood, the last thing one can give.
Many of Marlantes recommendations for military chaplains have been implemented in various, individual degrees in combat arenas after Vietnam. I have gathered in Colorado Springs every spring at the invitation of US NORAD/NORTHCOM chaplain leadership with senior level chaplains from all service branches seeking to share best practices and wisdom. Establishing a common operating picture that serves troops in training and combat, their families and loved ones, as well as those who may be impacted by domestic disaster and in need of humanitarian interventions after catastrophic disasters.
The emotional and spiritual trauma of today's battlefield, and the desolate landscape after tornado, flood, wildfire, or hurricane, caregivers have learned much and are compelled to share that learning to extend care both at home and abroad. They got the bleeding part a long time ago.
Marlantes has not been afraid to put pressure on the wound.