Karl Marlantes fought in Vietnam, and came back to a divided America. In his book What It Is Like To Go To War he describes the reception he got:
“I was walking in uniform down M Street in our nation’s capital. I had been back perhaps a month. A group of young people, my age, began to follow me down the street on the opposite side, jeering, calling me names, chanting in unison. They were flying the flags of North Vietnam and the Viet Cong.
“I stood and looked at them across the chasm of that street, not knowing what to say or do. I tried to think of something that would allow me to make friends with them. I didn’t want to fight them too. I was sick of fighting. I wanted to come back home, to be understood, to be welcomed. I still see those flags, waving back and forth, insults in the cold wind, well-dressed people hurrying by, their heads down, eyes avoiding me, as the group continued to taunt and jeer me.
“I couldn’t get a date with any girl born north of the Mason-Dixon Line. There were signs at restaurants and bars saying “No military!” Two of my fellow lieutenants were murdered, gunned down from a passing car in their dress whites outside a hamburger joint on M Street. All this in our nation’s capital.
“Two months before I was discharged I boarded a train for New York at Union Station. Again I was in uniform, even though we’d had explicit instructions to avoid problems by not wearing our uniforms when around civilians. This put us in a bit of a bind. You could get half price on train and air fares, going standby, but only if you were in uniform, and we weren’t exactly paid like junior executives. I passed a nice-looking woman who looked up at me and quickly looked away. I sighed inwardly as I continued down the narrow aisle, too shy to sit in the empty seat next to her. I found a seat at the far end of the car and settled down to read but wished I were talking with her instead.
About five minutes later I saw her get up and come down the aisle. She was looking right at me, lips pressed tight. She stood in front of me and spit on me.
She walked back to her seat. I was trembling with shame and embarrassment, People hid behind newspapers. Some looked intently out dark windows that could only reflect their faces and the lighted interior of the car.
“I needed desperately to be accepted back in. I think I ended up assuming unconsciously that I must have done something wrong to have received all this rejection. To be sure, I had been engaged in dirty business. Somebody, usually the man, empties the garbage and turns the compost. But when he’s done, he comes back in the house, he washes his hands, and someone says thank you. War is society’s dirty work, usually done by kids cleaning up failures perpetrated by adults. What I needed upon returning, but didn’t know it, was a bath.
“(I needed to…) bring my body back from the dead.
“That body had suffered. It was covered with scars from jungle rot. It had dysentery, diarrhea, and possibly a mild case of malaria. It had gone without fresh food for months at a time. It had lived on the knife-edge of fear; constantly jerked from an aching need for sleep with all the cruel refinement of the best secret police torturer. It had pumped adrenaline until it had become addicted to it. There were scars where hot metal had gone in, searing and surprising in its pain, and scars where a corpsman had dug most of it out. There were bits of metal still in it, some pushing against the skin, itching to get out. The eyeballs were scarred where tiny bits of hand grenade had embedded themselves. The inner ears rang with a constant high-pitched whine that ceased only in sleep, when the nightmares started.”
In his book, Karl describes the various moral situations he and others were in. After you read the book, you understand the horrible situations that war puts you into – which will be the topic of my next post. But as far as the “baby killers” description goes, that is not at all the impression I get from the book.
Karl does say that there is no such thing as a “surgical strike”. At one point he describes the Vietnam war as “napalming villages to stop Communism”.
It seems to me that any war you engage in is going to kill some civilians, including babies, no matter how much you try to avoid that outcome. In fact, the killing of conscripted soldiers in the enemy army should not be an occasion for happiness either, as Karl points out. It can be a sad necessity, but not something to be overjoyed about.
The Vietnam war, which seems so unnecessary now, was fought against an enemy that deserved to lose. For instance when the Communists were forced to retreat from the city of Hue, which they had captured for four weeks, mass graves of opponents were found. These victims had been tortured (some were buried alive.) The killings were perceived as part of a large-scale purge of a whole social stratum, including anyone friendly to American forces in the region.
In the neighboring country of Cambodia, the Communists under Pol Pot killed at least 1.7 million people.
If the U.S. had won in Vietnam, those 1.7 million plus people might be alive today.
This is not to say that the war was worth it. It’s just to say that it was unfair of some in the peace movement to paint our soldiers, who did try to do the right thing, as evil. If we had won that war, South Vietnam might be like South Korea – a economically flourishing Democracy where free thought and free speech are allowed.
What It Is Like To Go To War – Karl Marlantes
(A caveat: Karl says that his friends did not report being spit at, so it may have been a fairly rare occurence.)