War Story: an account or anecdote concerning one’s personal experiences of hardship, ordeal, or adventure in military combat during war. ~ Dictionary.com
Though as an activist, philosopher, educator, and veteran, I speak often of war in theory and in practice, I earnestly strive to avoid telling war stories as traditionally understood. While, on occasion, I may certainly make reference to experiences, mine and others, in war and during military training, what I do is, I hope, educative, that is, I tell the truth about war’s reality – its criminality, futility, and waste – and its tragic and profound effects upon the warrior. While striving to avoid making war appear noble and warriors heroic, I endeavor to dispel the mythology that Warists, those who make and profit from war, continually perpetuate and foster upon the American public, particularly the youth.
I do, however, acknowledge two very unique and specialized occasions when war stories have value. First, telling or documenting war stories as “testimony” may have social value such as when veterans courageously testify about, or social scientists document, the inevitable atrocities of war at a hearing or tribunal, e.g., Winter Soldier Hearings, or in an investigative report of such experiences such as in Nick Turse’s “Kill Anything that Moves, the Real American War in Vietnam.” Second, telling war stories as “therapy” may have cathartic, perhaps even curative value, if related in an appropriate therapeutic environment and in the company of others who understand and shared the experience.
Telling war stories under any other conditions is problematic and should be avoided. For example, telling war stories as “historical accounts,” oftentimes contributes to the mythology of war as the historian or documentarian is invariably careful to respect the dignity and nobility of her nation’s soldiers by relating their actions, whether intentionally or not, in a positive light. Oral histories, personal accounts, and memoirs are just as suspect as the memoirist often, perhaps understandably, positively portrays his actions and not to disrespect the nobility, dignity, and sacrifices of fallen comrades whom he may have loved as a brother or sister (consider, for example, the national best selling memoir by Marcus Luttrell, “Lone Survivor: The Eyewitness Account of Operation Redwing and the Lost Heroes of SEAL Team 10).
For the most part, however, telling war stories is propagandist as evidenced by the willingness and enthusiasm of the government to fund such popular war-story films as “Top Gun,’ “Acts of Valor,” “Blackhawk Down,” “American Sniper,” and “Hurt Locker,” that portray our side as noble, heroic, selfless, and moral, the other as insurgents and evil. Further, telling war stories contributes to the mythologizing of war by masking its horror, brutality, futility, and waste behind a façade of positive human virtue such as comradeship, altruism, and a willingness to sacrifice oneself for others or for one’s nation, even if for a cause that is ambiguous or suspect. Most insidiously, perhaps, whether intended or not, telling war stories provide an incentive to the next generation of prospective warriors, cannon fodder, to enlist in the military. Finally, telling war stories is voyeuristic, allowing the listener to vicariously delight in the excitement of battle and the “joy of the kill”— all without personal risk or peril– similar to the rush experienced by video war gamers and paintball “warriors”.
It has been nearly fifty years since I enlisted in the Marine Corps and participated in the American invasion and occupation of Vietnam, the primary, no, the sole purpose of which was, as far as I can determine, to kill people and blow shit up – that is, after all, the definition of the strategy of attrition. Though as a somewhat naive late adolescent/young adult, I was deceived into believing otherwise, I was not championing American values or defending freedom. Nor was I liberating the Vietnamese people. Perhaps understandably, given my young age and a military and political leadership, much like today’s, that demonstrates its disdain for transparency, I was incapable or unwilling at the time to question or to doubt what I was being told, or to make such subtle moral and legal analyses and judgments of value and necessity.
When you strip away the lies and jingoistic rhetoric, I was an aggressor and an occupier motivated by mythology, struggling to survive in a hostile and alien environment. Ultimately, my goal was to stay alive and return home with my body and mind intact regardless of the cost to those we were allegedly there to liberate and protect.
Since there is nothing truly noble or heroic in such egoistic and for the most part, criminal behavior, I have nothing of value to relate about my experiences, what some may see as “adventures,” in war. Further, since aggression and occupation is immoral and illegal, my experiences in the military and in Vietnam are not something of which I am proud. Nor did it provide a “service” to this country or to humankind. So should we meet on the street one day, do say hello, but please do not thank me for my service as aggression and occupation is not something for which someone should be thanked.
At the time of this writing, as this nation embarks upon a congressionally mandated thirteen year-long commemoration, perhaps celebration is more accurate, of the 50th anniversary of the Vietnam War, our leaders, in the interest of forwarding their hegemonic agenda of militarism and resource exploitation, continue to avoid acknowledging the truth about our involvement in the Vietnam War. Though perhaps inspiring to civilians, even comforting to some veterans, war stories, by contributing to this mythology, ultimately hinders reconciliation, dishonors the veteran, makes healing more difficult if not impossible, and damages the moral integrity of this Nation.
The Vietnam War is history to many, ancient history to most of my students. As evidenced by the tragically high occurrence of PTSD, Moral Injuries, and suicides among veterans, the war persists and the struggle for survival continues.
So while I will continue to talk and write about war and its consequences, I will avoid telling war stories. Though loosely based upon my personal experiences of war and recovery, what I offer the reader is not a memoir, but a jumble of very personal recollections, insights, and cynical ranting about war and the struggle to restore a sense of normalcy in its aftermath. Primarily, it is intended as a means to educate about war and healing, as a tribute and as a voice for those with whom I walked the road of war and recovery, so many now gone, who sacrificed so tragically, in most cases unnecessarily, for a cause they believed just and necessary.