By Edd Merritt, contributor
Us and them
And after all we’re only ordinary men
Me and you
God only knows
It’s not what we would choose
Forward he cried from the rear
And the front rank died
And the general sat
And the lines on the map
Moved from side to side
Black and blue
And who knows which is which and who is who
~ Us and Them, Pink Floyd
War? Is it really the best way to settle political disagreements between groups of people—showing others that they are wrong about how best to govern themselves by killing them? And on our side by sending the lowest members of the cultural rung into battle so that the higher ups don’t endanger themselves, yet they give the orders? Just look at the officers taking credit for wars won, wars that were fought in the trenches, not in the officers’ quarters.
We are a nation with a history of going off to war. The most recent happened not that long ago. We have now decided to pull our troops out of it.
As we are confronted by news that implies the only way to deter conflicts between countries and cultures is by doing battle with the perpetrators, those with whom we disagree, we feel we have no choice but to go to war. War, by the way, is defined as a state of armed conflict between nations or groups. To be armed is imperative insofar as it means killing people. It is that process that brings out the intensity, fear, conflict, psychological insight, yes, even bitter humor that focuses on how we accomplish the end result and how that result moves us emotionally forward.
This focus on war and its products took me back to a book I had read not too long ago by Michael Herr titled Dispatches (Vintage International, 1991). Herr wrote it originally in the late 1960s after serving as a war correspondent in Vietnam. In that capacity he was both on the front lines of battle—with the group of soldiers he identified as “grunts,” before returning to Saigon or Khe San to send his observations and thoughts about them as “dispatches” for publication in this country and others, for as he says in his first chapter, “We also knew that for years now there had been no country here but the war.”
He calls those soldiers who crept up on Viet Cong base camps at night “Lurpes.” They felt themselves to be in a world that was different from the one the rest of us inhabited. Several told Herr, “I just can’t hack it back in the World.” After returning home, one of them said he would sit in his room and point a hunting rifle at people and cars that passed on the street below his house.
American troops and the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) felt that as those doing direct battle they needed to bring an American presence to the scene, and partly that was accomplished through names they gave to such areas as Landing Zones. The LZs took on American femininity such as LZ Thelma, LZ Betty Lou.
Unlike the previous world wars, the enemy in Vietnam became hard to identify. They did not wear badges. Often the VC worked in ARVN camps, shining shoes, laundering clothes then heading home and mortaring where they had just been.
Herr goes into detail (often lurid) about what he witnessed. “I went to cover the war, and the war covered me,” he says.
Death became a symbolized event. In Dak To during services in their honor, the boots of the dead were arranged “in formation on the ground.” At the same time their bodies were in bags and being shipped home.
I became interested in returning to this war because, as in today’s conflicts, politicians spread lies about what was happening in this Southeast Asian country, managed to draft soldiers to fight it for them and physically stayed outside the rice paddies themselves.
I happened to be there as part of an operation that carried the American tag “Rolling Thunder.” The aircraft off my ship were bombing Hanoi. The target city could have been Tokyo or Tucson or Anchorage, Alaska. It was an American effort nonetheless—war, to, once again, end all wars. We Americans have a way of saying that (and by the way often claiming victory regardless of the true results) each time we enter battle. In Vietnam we tended to be just “white boots marching in a yellow land.”
At the end of Dispatches Herr admonishes us to remember that Vietnam’s boundaries extend beyond its mapped borderlines, and even if we have not set foot in Southeast Asia, Vietnam, Vietnam, Vietnam, we’ve all been there.