America Must Confront Reality of War: Civilians Cannot Escape Unscathed

So what’s all this hubbub about? Former Kansas Senator and two-time Kansas Governor Bob Kerrey shot some “”Vietnamese civilians”” in ‘Nam? Really … and why exactly does this surprise us? Why are we shocked? Is it the violence or the fact that these people were — wait for audience quieting — “”civilians””? (Disclaimer: I say “”civilians”” in that they were not actual Viet Cong soldiers, although they were involved in Viet Cong organization and operation).

Who are we kidding? I’m not saying that we shouldn’t mourn for the lives of the Vietnamese “”civilians”” who died, even though it was 32 years ago. War is war, and although we might not know it, war between two countries is no longer just between the two opposing armies. Civilians, no matter their degree of participation in the actual war, now have the “”privilege”” of being included. I don’t think any other country in the world would have had such a reaction to the information released about Kerrey. I will now discuss the reasons for this.

The American inability to think realistically about war and what accompanies it has been a long time in coming. We haven’t had another nation fighting against us on our continent, otherwise known as a “”land war,”” since the War of 1812. Even then the British barely made an indentation in our eastern coastline.

American civilians don’t have any knowledge of what it is like to be on both sides of the war. For the last two centuries, American civilians have seen only the escalation of manufacturing, excess of jobs and soldiers coming home during wartime. In Europe, every time there is a war, the civilians suffer intensely because of it. The European countries are so close together that wars almost indiscriminately pierce each other’s national borders. England and France starved out German civilians in World War I. All of Europe was bombed back into the stone ages during World War II. Hey, remember Hiroshima? Yeah, those were civilians.

Vietnam was a civilian war. The presiding American congressmen and presidents half-assed it the whole time we were in Vietnam. We could’ve sent in nukes or devised ground troop escalation, in which case we might even have won the war. But the powers that be couldn’t perceive the conflict as important enough to justify massive American death. Only 58,000 unnecessary American deaths would have to do. I mean, we were only trying to “”contain communism,”” not actually conquer the country. We wanted Vietnam to mimic Korea’s neat little imperialist-drawn lines. You communists get over there, and we kind-hearted, blood-sucking capitalists will stay over here. Yeah, just like that. How Manichean. Because U.S. leaders refused to use nuclear technology or major ground troops to fight, it was a civilian war. When Americans dive-bombed the Viet Cong, do you think they just killed the Viet Cong? Bombs don’t have magnets that go straight to their targets. Three million Vietnamese died in the war — it’s impossible that they were all soldiers. When one fights a war from afar, when you can’t look the enemy in the eye (he or she was also underground), it’s difficult to determine whom one is actually killing.

One question: Wasn’t Kerrey just following his orders of operation? Let us not forget that the way the Navy SEALs operate is not at all like college, where the statement of opinion and the execution of free will is central. Navy SEALs, especially under the conditions of battle, are expected to operate like machines. They are to receive and obey orders and not to provide their own opinion. Officers are supposed to assess situations, create orders and disperse them. Why is it such a scary thing that Kerrey took part in a raid operation on a Viet Cong village and killed those who lived there? Do we expect our political leaders to constantly have their heads in the clouds, politically and theoretically, not to be attached to reality at all?

Kerrey’s encounter makes him all the more real to me. He embodies someone whom I would respect — not because he killed Vietnamese “”civilians.”” God, no. It is because he was put into one of the most awful situations possible, Vietnam, and he dealt with it. Not only did he deal with it, he persevered and rode the ranks all the way to become a successful politician.

I agree with the people of Kansas. I would want a man with real-life experience in war to represent my wartime interests. I would be comfortable with a man who knows the horrors of war to be responsible for deciding whether our nation should enter another one.

What I think might really scare people about the Bob Kerrey fiasco is how closely it hits home. Is it possible that such a distinguished man could have so much in common with all those deranged homeless Vietnam veterans we see on the streets everyday? I’ve seen them in La Jolla, and they’re all over Sacramento, where I’m from. Wouldn’t we like to think that Vietnam was so bad that only more horrible things like being homeless could come out of it?

Americans are such strict manicheans. Manicheans see things as only bad or only good; there is no gray area. Our nation has been programmed to think in such a way since the turn of the century, when Woodrow Wilson made the “”world safe for democracy”” and sent our boys to the trenches. I guess one could say it is in our Protestant nature. (Disclaimer: Although not all of us are Protestant, we are all brought up with Protestant values through society and schooling). We Americans like to be firm in our thoughts, because firmness is a fertile environment for productivity.

For situations like that of Kerrey’s, I think a different kind of thinking is required. Such war-infested circumstances are not black or white; there is no obvious good and bad. It’s the execution of orders trickling down into the trenches. Nothing is clear, nothing is concrete. Everything’s gray. The cinematography in the movie “”The Thin Red Line”” depicts war perfectly. Some chaos, some order, dream-like, nightmare-like, colored, black and white. Are we really so sure about the objective of wars? The Vietnamese are not bad, right? Communism is bad, right? Right?

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