"Did Anyone Survive the War?"

08/10/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

A few weeks ago while showing the Vietnam War Memorial to some out of town visitors, a young man's voice startled me. This ten or twelve year old surveyed the more than 58,000 names on the wall, Including 16 of my Air Force Academy classmates, and asked his dad "did anyone survive the war?"

"Yes," I thought. "I did but barely."

But the question deserves a better answer, especially in light of the recent death of Robert S. McNamara, the architect of the Vietnam War and later its remorseful critic.

It is an axiom that no one who goes to war returns as the same person. The changes can be as trivial as the thrill of a first view of a new country thousands of miles from home. Or it can be as profound as holding a dying friend or staring into the eyes of someone you have killed. But in a very real sense, no one survives the war.

The changes wrought by war are often so small as to be undetectable except on close examination by those who knew the individual before the war. A certain ease to anger. A reluctance to discuss the experience. A frequent sense of being in another place. But too often the returning soldier is a far different person even if there are no visible wounds. This is especially true of those who have seen combat. Another axiom of war is that soldiers do not fight for King or country, nor for God or flag. Those in battle fight for themselves and their comrades, to achieve victory and bring the group home intact. Only this explains the heroism of those who risk and often lose their lives for others or to retrieve a dead comrade's body. The worst experience of war is not to be in danger or wounded, it is to see friends die while you still live. The second worst experience is to kill.

We see the changes wrought by war in the 200,000 homeless veterans sleeping on our streets each night, the bulk of them Vietnam era veterans. We see it in the hundreds of thousands of Vietnam era post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) cases and the estimated 300,000 cases we will soon see from the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. Even deeper in the shadows are the suicides, divorces and family abuse that the war experience triggers. And, tragically, we see it clearly, if we will look, in the tens of thousands of severely wounded whose bodies and lives will not be whole again.

No, no soldier survived Vietnam and no one will survive the current wars, unscathed.

Nor did Robert S. McNamara survive. He lost his belief in the power of intellect and reason to control events in another culture and country. He lost his confidence in numbers - body counts, bomb tonnage - to accurately portray the course of a conflict.
But at least at the end he had some comprehension of the scale and genesis of his failures. There is no indication as yet that the other contender for most arrogant Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld, has or will reach a similar point.

My current concerns are not on the geo-strategic level. What neither Mr. McNamara nor Mr. Rumsfeld seemed to understand or appreciate was the effect of the war on the participants. By all means we should learn from the strategic mistakes made in Vietnam and Iraq. We must understand what motivates our opponents and the limits of what can be achieved with military power. But let us also understand what war does to the warriors. What stresses are caused by being attacked, by killing and by seeing others killed. Let us be prepared to deal with those consequences from the beginning, not as an afterthought. Let's make sure as many as possible survive the war with as few visible and invisible scars as possible.