The U.S. began bombing Vietnam with B-52’s in 1966. Twenty thousand combat soldiers were on the ground at that time, a small percentage of what was to come. That summer I lived on an Army base in Colorado. What I experienced there broke my heart and changed me as a person. Today, to the tune of the same rhetoric, same politics, same promises of freedom, we again send our youth to sacrifice and die. My long ago summer seems like it was yesterday.
I was a university student, majoring in nutrition with the intent of becoming a Registered Dietitian. The Army, interested in recruiting dietitians, offered an all expense paid July at one of their hospitals where we would serve as “trainees”, and hopefully become enamored with what the Army had to offer.
Resistance to the “police action” in Vietnam was beginning to build; it was enough to cause most of my classmates to look askance at the military. I, on the other hand, had no trouble leaving decisions about the protection of our freedoms to the wisdom of elected officials. I was happy to consider being of service to my country, and anyway, was pretty confident that they weren’t going man the front lines with dietitians.
My assignment, along with seven other students, was Fitzsimmons Army Hospital in Denver, Colorado. We worked with a variety of people of all ranks and responsibilities. Numerous evenings were spent at the officer's club as well as on the town in Denver - pretty exiting stuff. We lived in officer’s quarters, walked around in white wannabe officers uniforms, and in general enjoyed a heady sense of being “special” people.
We were young and war was fun.
Darkness, however, quietly crept in. Our responsibilities included meeting with patients to discuss food preferences and dietary restrictions. One wing, “Four East”, filled even the most stalwart young dietitian with foreboding. This wing consisted of a large ward with dozens of barracks style beds and a few private rooms for officers. The patients were all, essentially, healthy teenagers and young men. Walking in there was like walking into a spirited fraternity house whose members had way to much time on their hands.
Why were these fine representatives of manhood housed at Fitzsimmons Hospital? Most were missing something: legs, arms, hands, parts of this or that. Some had spinal injuries. This was an orthopedic ward and these kids were returnees from Vietnam recovering as best they could from debilitating injuries. I came to the sad realization that the macho fervor demonstrated by these guys was, in fact, a desperate effort to convince themselves that they were still whole. Once in awhile the facade would crack, exposing a scared little boy. Over the month I was there, the rows of disfigured, maimed bodies increasingly weighed on me.
One man I remember did not display any bravado. He was a new admit in a private room so he must have been an officer. Probably in his mid- twenties, he seemed quite mature by my standards. Sitting up in bed, he was naked to the waist. His chest and arms had superficial injuries on them. His dark hair was long enough to be in disarray and there was a bit of a gloss to his skin. Staring straight ahead when I entered the room, he did not acknowledge my presence. I thought he had a drop dead gorgeous body, all the way down to where it ended, right above where the knees should have been.
I began my introductions in my standard cheery manner. When asked about his vegetable preferences, he slowly turned his eyes to me: they were dark, and deep, and did a poor job of hiding a crushing sadness. He responded, very politely, “I don’t really care”. Although the voice was quiet, I had a sense that another idiotic question was going to induce serious anger. I was being summarily dismissed, and I took my exit.
There was a 19 year old who passed his days chest down on a gurney and maneuvered himself around the ward with the use of a small child’s crutch in each hand. He could only be described as insensitive and crude, making salacious comments to women and going so far as to maneuver his gurney to trap an occasional nurse or dietitian in a corner and make sexual propositions to her.
After such an encounter I complained to one of the staff nurses. Her response was brusque: “That boy may have never had sex in his life, and now he is dead from the chest down. Let’s give him a break”. Hot tears welled up in my eyes; I was surprised at the sudden painful empathy I felt. Whatever splendor I had once seen in war was dissipating rapidly.
At Fitzsimmons hospital that month I began a process of questioning that was to change my outlook on war. While our leaders squabbled for months over the shape of the negotiation table, the despair in the dark eyes of that young officer haunted me. I could not listen to the continual assurances that this “war is necessary to protect our freedoms”, or brave political declarations that we would “stick this out until we liberated the Vietnamese people,” without seeing the rows of deformed boys. The humiliating way we finally ducked out of that country was as excruciating as it had been inevitable. Nothing was gained. The losses were huge – I had been witness to some.
It was a funny thing about that war. Statistics about “casualties” – those Americans that died - were commonly available, as were the highly inflated figures of “enemy” deaths. But the injuries weren’t often reported. Death is tidy, over, done with. It is even conveniently wrapped up in boxes covered with pretty flags. Maiming isn’t tidy. The personal losses, the daily struggles, the chronic pain, and the indignities, grind on day after day, decade after decade.
War, which had always been billed to me as the way good people protect their freedoms from bad people, showed itself as archaic, bizarre, and senseless. I came to see that it has never been a way to end disputes, but a contest for power. And, as President (and General) Dwight D. Eisenhower warned, the other impetus is profit.
The profundity of the phrase “violence begets violence” is masked by its triteness. Nonetheless, centuries of experience demonstrate its validity. Ask the Irish, the Israelis and Palestinians, or any street gang. Violence only plants the seeds of more violence; it ends only when the hearts and minds of the mutual enemies are reached.
Thirty-eight years after my Colorado summer we again brandish our big stick and scoff at the idea of talking softly. Power and profit are sought for the powerful and the rich while the rest of us anesthetize ourselves with the nobility of war “for the sake of freedom”. Once again we don’t bother asking if we aren’t just making things worse. Once again we show remarkable unwillingness to put effort, and resources, into seeking mutual lasting solutions to our formidable global problems. We fall in formation as the “military-industrial complex” and the power hungry beat the drums of this barbaric custom.
Recently, my first grandchild was born: he looks into my eyes with the unquestioning trust of a newborn. For me, the thought of this perfect child, someday face down on a gurney, propelling himself with tiny crutches and dealing with unimaginable losses – because of someone else’s power trip or bottom line – is enough to remind me of what is at stake.
Margaret did not join the Army. She worked as a hospital dietitian in Sacramento, California for several years; eventually she became a high school science instructor. In June 2004 she retired and continues to live in Sacramento. She is interested in education about the toll of war on all of humankind - combatant and noncombatant alike. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org