When I Stopped Believing in War
I grew up in Oklahoma. If you find that remarkable then you have never heard me speak when angry or after my third scotch. I was swaddled in the land of the T-formation and that favorite hunting ground of military recruiters. There is a common belief in the military that “Okies” make the best soldiers. Later, as a draftee medic in Vietnam, I tried my best to dispel that myth to little avail.
As a child of the “Ozzie and Harriet” fifties, I used to hurry home from church (Southern Baptist of course) to watch “Victory At Sea” on our black and white TV. This is a multi-part documentary about naval operations during World War II using film footage from the actual battles. I had books on my shelf about all branches of the military. By the age of eleven, I knew the difference between a mortar and a howitzer. I was a fair shot with a bow and arrow. I considered my parents to be unreasonable because I was never allowed to have a BB gun, but I was a crack shot with those which belonged to my friends. My goal in life was to attend the Naval Academy. For some reason this is a common condition of little boys who grow up 1500 miles from the nearest ocean. I even knew all the words to the Navy Hymn.
I watched every documentary on every battle ever fought in WWII and Korea. I had, at that time, only recently discarded my toy soldiers. These were not those puny little Christmas ornament Napoleonic fantasies one sees in the “Nutcracker”. Oh no, these were modern warriors posed charging with automatic rifles, or crouched behind a machine gun, or throwing a grenade. Looking back, I think that perhaps their major virtue was that, like real soldiers, they were breakable. If you threw pebbles at them, sometimes they would lose an arm, or a leg, or even a head. When this happened, you just threw them away. Quite an allegory! But that was lost on me at the time. I was eleven years old and not a prodigy.
It was summer, June, I think. We had just gotten home from church, and I ran into the living room just in time to turn on that stirring Richard Rodgers theme music for “Victory At Sea”. Mom started frying chicken for Sunday dinner. It was a beautiful day. I had managed not to get into big trouble in Sunday school, there was the smell of my favorite meal wafting in from the kitchen, and my favorite TV show was coming on. I was very content.
The episode was one about the war in the Pacific. The Marines had landed on a small island held by the Japanese and had taken it away from them. I think the name of the island was Tarawa. There was a reporter standing on the beach just out of the surf talking about courage and sacrifice. There was bombed out and wrecked equipment strewn up and down the beach. And then it happened. Just for a few seconds, not more than 2 or 3, there was the body of a young Marine floating face down in the surf. As if someone had thrown water in my face, I suddenly realized that this was not just a story. He would not get up after the program was over. He would not jump up and grin exclaiming, “Ya missed me”! , like Charlie Tucker, my buddy, whose hair looked the same as that of the dead Marine. Shaken, I stood up, turned off the TV, and went outside. However, I could still see, in my mind’s eye, that boy’s curly blond hair floating in the water, his body sliding in and being drawn back out by the ocean. That image is with me still
I stood outside for a few moments thinking. When that young man stepped into the water there was no orchestral theme music in the background. I know that there must have been an amazing amount of noise; explosions, the crack of gunfire, and men yelling, but whenever I think about it, there is only silence. I went into my room and took all my books about all the branches of the military and dropped them quietly into the wastebasket. I never discussed it with my parents or with anyone else. I cannot say that I became a pacifist on that day, but I never again mentioned joining the military, nor did I ever again consider it. I understood then what our leaders do not. War is not a parade, nor is it a hymn. It is not a story nor is it a game. It is the end of life that should have continued. It is the destruction of all virtue.
War’s impact is routinely cushioned by the use of impersonal numbers. However, for me, war contains only the number one; one boy floating face down in the surf, one friend whose eyes I have just watched flicker and die out, one forever empty space in a circle of friends. It is one person with dreams and ambitions that will never come to pass. There is that one person on the “other” side who is so much like you that it would be almost like talking to yourself should you meet him. It is one person who cannot be summed up by the word casualty, who cannot be replaced by a medal or a folded flag. It is also one person who pulls a trigger in his dreams over and over ten thousand times. War eats up people like a computer eats up information. But in the end, they’re both all about ones…..and zeros.