And let us not forget the parents of the dead, predeceased by a child, a terrible fate, left only with memories and framed photos as they grow old. As an ‘Afgantsi’, a Russian veteran of their Afghanistan War raged:You have not engaged the enemy at close range,
seen the sweat and fear upon his face
before you forever erased him away.*
My brother Jeff Sharlet’s war, the Vietnam War, is now distant enough that the raw emotions and rough edges of memory are somewhat softened, the pain of loss somewhat requited by time. But lest we forget in the midst of our present war woes, veterans of that conflict have written a body of literature sufficient to immunize all but the most unfeeling from forgetting that tragic misadventure.My best friend, he was like a brother to me. I
brought him back from a raid in a plastic bag.
His head cut off, and his arms and legs ….
He used to play the violin and write poetry.
His mother went mad two days after the
funeral. She ran to the cemetery at night and
tried to lie down with him.**
One of the first and still among the finest memoirs of battle was A Rumor of War. Philip Caputo, a Marine platoon leader, went into Vietnam with the first combat units to go ashore at Danang in early ’65 when the US significantly escalated the war. In the space of six months he experienced a roller coaster ride from adventure to survival:
Later, amidst the ambiguity of fighting in a civilian environment where the VC often blended in with the local population, the so-called ‘fog of war’, Lt Caputo, furious at the death of some of his men, ordered the kidnapping of two South Vietnamese civilians he mistook for the enemy. In the process, the two innocent men were killed and Caputo brought up on charges of ‘murder’ of which he was eventually exonerated. As the voice-over in the film Apocalypse Now put it, “charging a man with murder in this place was like handing out speeding tickets at the Indy 500.”[W]hen we marched into the rice paddies on that damp
March afternoon, we carried along with our packs and
rifles, the implicit convictions that the Viet Cong [VC]
would be quickly beaten and that we were doing some-
thing altogether noble and good. We kept the packs and
rifles; the convictions, we lost. …By autumn, what had begun
as an adventurous expedition had turned into an exhausting,
indecisive war of attrition in which we fought for no cause
other than our own survival.
Unfortunately people don’t seem to learn from the past and continue to send the young to die. Witness the inscription on a tombstone in a Russian cemetery:
And now it’s our sad turn. As we blindly followed the defeated French into Vietnam, we absurdly presume to achieve in Afghanistan what the Soviets, in spite of their utter ruthlessness, failed to accomplish. And every day our dead are body bagged for the journey homeward like the soldier below, a promising young woman from a small river town in Washington State’s timber country, shot and killed in Afghanistan just days before Christmas 2011; Mikayla was the first battle casualty in her home county since the Vietnam War.***Tatarchenko, Igor Leonidovich
(1961-1981)In the execution of his duty andtrue to his military oath.He … died on active service in Afghanistan.Dearest Igor, You left this life without having known it.Mama, Papa
*R Camper in After Action Review, a Warrior Writers publication, (2011)
**S Alexievich, Zinky Boys: Soviet Voices from the Afghanistan War (1992)
***Military Resistance, #9L19 (12/23/11)