Wednesday, January 4, 2012


As we retreat from our latest national misadventure, Iraq, no need to wait til Memorial Day to mourn the fallen. It’s by now a familiar story, and not just an American one. Young men (and now women as well) are sent to fight and sometimes die, or suffer grievous wounds of body or mind in faraway lands for a medley of misguided reasons. Beginning with an initial lapse of judgment, decision makers drag out the ruinous adventure for years so as not to suggest they acted in haste or on faulty intelligence. Then, after an inconclusive ending, battle-weary troops still walking the earth return home to cope with horrific images of war not easily forgotten. As an Iraq veteran recently wrote in A Letter to the War Presidents,
You have not engaged the enemy at close range,
seen the sweat and fear upon his face
before you forever erased him away.*
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:
        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.** 
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.

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:
    [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.
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.”

Other notable ex-GI chroniclers of our Vietnam experience included Tim O’Brien, John Del Vecchio, Gustav Hasford, and the poet and anthologist Jan Barry, who later became one of brother Jeff’s associate editors on his antiwar paper Vietnam GI. One would be remiss not to also mention Larry Heinemann whose fine novel qua war memoir, Close Quarters, launched a literary career which later brought him a National Book Award. A Chicago boy who came home after serving with the 25th Infantry, Larry remembered Jeff and wrote to me about him not long ago, “Among the ex-GIs around Chicago, he was, well, famous.”

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:
Tatarchenko, Igor Leonidovich
In the execution of his duty and
true to his military oath.
He … died on active service in Afghanistan.
Dearest Igor, You left this life without having known it.
Mama, Papa
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.***

Mikayla Bragg

*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)

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