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The Horror of War Can be Catnip for Young Men

By Jerry Lembcke

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Oliver Stone's film "Platoon" came out in 1986 with predictions from antiwar activists that here was a film portraying the horror of war so graphically that, at long last, Americans would turn away from it.

The expectations I took with me when I went to see the film were dashed early when I heard the oohs and ahhs normally elicited by action films. From my vantage point in the darkened theater, I could see several pairs of men and boys. Fathers and sons, I wondered. Veterans and sons?

By the end, my mind was as much on the audience as the film. As the credits rolled, I made a point to listen in on some conversations: awestruck sons asking fathers if "it was really like that"; fathers confirming that, yes, war is hell; the lesson punctuated with youthful expressions of "cool."

War is hell -- cool! Union Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman had pronounced war "hell" just before he torched Atlanta. It became an antiwar trope during the 20th century. It was as if the repetition of the phrase "War is hell," and the evermore realistic portrayals of it, from the World War I classic "All Quiet on the Western Front" through "Saving Private Ryan," which took the genre of films-to-end-all-wars into the 21st century, would banish the discord and bring the light.

But over the years, the thought congealed for me: "War is hell" isn't working as an antiwar slogan. Worse, I feared, the horror of war might be a kind of catnip for young men. The worse we make it sound and look, the more irresistible it is. Maybe it's the Calvinism engrained in American culture that calls us to duty -- the greater the risk, the greater the glory; no cost, no benefit.

When I was recently invited to speak on the cost of war at Holy Cross College, I hesitated. Sure, I could tote up the costs of the wars in dollars, lives and broken bodies, but why? Is there a tipping point at which the costs get so great that we run to the streets yelling, "No more war," and it all ends? Will a display of empty boots on the village common remind us of the living souls that used to fill them and we'll say "enough"?

Maybe. But probably not. The social chemistry joining human losses in combat with patriotism and the will to war is more complex than that. For every Gold Star mother marching with Code Pink, there is a parent seeking to avenge his or her loss through more war. An eye for an eye, you know. Continue the mission so my loss will not have been in vain.

In March, I watched the ABC special on Bob Woodruff's recovery after he suffered a head wound while reporting from Iraq. The program used Mr. Woodruff's story to raise awareness of the head-injury cases of military veterans. The distended skulls, slurred speech, the difficulties they have with basic body movement were hard to watch. The memory it evoked of my own visit to St. Albans Naval Hospital in 1970 to see my friend Denny who had had half his face ripped away by a mortar round in Vietnam didn't make it any easier.

But I also watched, mindful of what else ABC could have been showing us: hours of personal and political detail about the 1,000 GIs and Marines, still in service, who signed the Appeal for Redress opposing the war and presented it to Congress in February -- a story that got a 15-minute slot on "60 Minutes" the hour before the Academy Awards began.

Just imagine if the opening of the first GI antiwar coffeehouse near Fort Drum, N.Y., in November had been given more than a passing glance by the press, and if the names of Army Lt. Ehren Watada, prosecuted for refusing deployment to Iraq, and Marine Press Officer Josh Rushing, who went public with his objections to propaganda fed to Americans about the war, were as common in the American conversation as, say, the names of Jessica Lynch or Pat Tillman.

There's a new documentary about the GI resistance movement during the Vietnam years. Called "Sir! No Sir!" the film shows church leaders chained to men refusing deployment to Vietnam, an act that said, "Arrest them and you arrest us." It lent the legitimacy of religious authority to in-service resisters and offered civilian America a different way to support the troops. It symbolized empowerment and it emboldened more people inside and outside the military to take action to end the war.

There are two narratives about the consequences of war. One is about its losses and costs, the other about war's unintended consequences: the education and politicization of the very people sent into combat, a consequence with the capacity to stop the war.

We don't have to choose between these narratives. If the experience of Vietnam holds true, it will be the movement of a new generation of warriors turned against their war that will create the pressure to improve care for the wounded and lead the fight for reparations for the country they helped destroy. At home, where I write, Denny's picture is on the shelf by the keyboard; in front of me, beyond the monitor, is a silk-screen of the reflecting pool on the Washington Mall. It's a de Kooning, produced by the artist on the mall where in April 1971 he'd joined Vietnam Veterans Against the War to protest the war and petition Congress to end it.

There are two narratives. One tells us why we should end the war, the other how to do that. Just hours before speaking at Holy Cross, I opened an attachment sent by a new organization, Iraq Veterans Against the War, with photographs of its members reenacting their combat patrols in Iraq. They were doing this as a public demonstration against the war, on the Washington Mall, with the reflecting pool in the background.

These are the troops we sent to war. They're not victims, they're not causalities, and they're not costs. They don't want yellow ribbons. They want us to help them end the war.

Jerry Lembcke was a U.S. Army chaplain's assistant in Vietnam. He is now associate professor of sociology at Holy Cross College in Worcester, Mass., and the author of The Spitting Image: Myth, Memory, and the Legacy of Vietnam.

reprinted with permission from the author from the National Catholic Reporter, May 25, 2007


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