Tuesday, April 24, 2012

'Insanity' is definition, not defect of war

    They are through fighting it. But recently I read similar words from opposite sides of a long-ago war.

    The first were from a man who opposed the Vietnam war. The second was from a Vietnam veteran.

    What's odd now is how strikingly similar their narratives sound.

    The man who opposed the war, Weather Underground cofounder Mark Rudd, spoke recently at McLennan Community College in Waco, Texas. Though the college surely expected, and got, a blow back for inviting him, Rudd offered fascinating insights, summed up with this:

    "I regretted the whole strategy."

    That strategy was militance.

     Rudd said he was "ashamed" of the bombings the group committed, crimes which he says happened after he left the group. Such violence "was the beginning of our downfall," he said. "We adopted a bad strategy."

     The proper strategy, he said, would have been "talking to people so that maybe we could prevent the next war from happening."

     Now to the words of one who went to war, and believed in it at the time. Today?

     "It's been 45 years since my exposure to the insanity of war," wrote the man, who said he still suffers from post traumatic stress disorder.

      "As I occasionally attend a veteran's gathering, I am convinced those who celebrate war continue to live an insane fantasy."

      He was reacting to a column I wrote about the atrocities attributed to Staff Sgt. Robert Bales. The Army soldier, on his fourth combat tour, is accused of a rampage that killed 17 Afghan civilians — surely a case triggered by battlefront trauma.

       The Vietnam vet from whom I heard brought up the My Lai massacre and the role of Lt. William Calley. Though one would wish to assume Calley could not have been considered in his right mind, wrote my correspondent, "given the same training, placed in the same situation, and seriously believing in the request of his country to kill the enemy, anyone is capable of administering wholesale death."

      He asked the rhetorical question: What the difference is between what Calley did and what bombers do?

      Then again, we wish to believe that the explosions and flames that rocked Baghdad (and Vietnam's jungles) produced nothing more than shock and awe.

      Some will observe that to focus our attention on Calley and Bales is to be distracted from what constructive and supportive things men and women do in combat zones, like Sgt. Dennis Weichel Jr., killed while rescuing an Afghan child.

    The New York Times described Weichel's heroism in a recent article, which was framed in part by the military's reluctance to provide background about the deed. Details came not from the military but from Afghan civilians and Weichel's comrades.

     But of course, this is not what war machines do, and Americans tend to forget that.

     For more than a decade, Americans have relied on instruments of warfare to enforce their will in two countries. Not since Vietnam have we been offered clearer evidence of what comes when a nation believes too strongly in the power of war.

     I defer here to a man who fought one our our wars, whose words ring of the "Vietnamization" that preceded America's pullout from that endeavor:

     "We will never justify the damages done to our service members and their families (in Afghanistan), because one day we will be negotiating with the Taliban just to close out the war effort. 'Insane' is not sufficient in description."

      The U.S. and Afghan governments have just signed a defense agreement that ultimately will mean a shift to a support role for the United States that isn't a combat role. It can't come soon enough. It's time for Afghans to decide the future of Afghanistan.

      Longtime Texas newspaperman John Young lives in Colorado. Email: jyoungcolumn.com.

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