By Doug Troutman
Friday 10 November 2006
I've never dealt well with Veterans Day. Perhaps it's because I knew too many men whose names appear on a black wall in Washington D.C.
In Vietnam, letters often took weeks to arrive from home, but technology has changed much about war. My son could telephone or email me instantaneously from Baghdad.
When he came home on leave, we compared experiences, sometimes laughing about things that caused his mother to leave the room. When he came home, we sometimes spoke softly under a night sky, the Milky Way above, about how small and ignorant we humans really are.
I do not believe people should "play" war. I am upset by children with toy guns or sticks - or adults with real guns and mock uniforms who "pretend."
I've looked out across the revetments at Yorktown and can visualize more than the parade and surrender there that marked the end of the Revolutionary War. I can see the smoke, fire, and death that preceded "victory."
I've looked out across a sagebrush and rock-covered landscape in a remote desert of eastern Oregon where "bad spirits" are still in residence, because 10,000 years ago this was a place where men killed each other.
I stood before the Alamo, where Mexican General Santa Ana gathered a huge army to wage war on a small band of "rebels", and wondered: What were those fools up to? I stood on Montebello Bluffs, where a man named Pio Pico kicked Santa Ana's butt. From those bluffs he waited for the general's army, just as Sitting Bull did for Custer's troopers, then fired down on them, bloodying the rock and sand of the riverbed below.
Custer's game plan was to ride into a trap, while "all the Indians in the world" rode down on him. Santa Ana made the same gross mistake. He did not "remember the Alamo"!
I've walked the trails around Fredericksburg, stood behind the very trees where Confederate sharpshooters picked off General Burnside's bluecoats. The contours of the land and the way the trees were scattered told me the story, which I would relive a century after those guns in Virginia fell silent in another, faraway land.
The "claymore" mine that worked so effectively as a booby trap in Vietnam was named not for a person, but for a sword that, back insixteenth century Scotland, was designed and used literally to cut a man in half, top to bottom.
At Vietnam's Mang Yang Pass, I stood at the edge of a narrow, winding mountain road and looked down on those crosses in the jungle below that marked the spot where French soldiers died en masse in the war before mine. The military term was "defeat"; the reality was "slaughter."
Just a few kilometers away on the same road, I would barely escape a similar, smaller ambush. The times, they weren't a changin'.
We should not put crosses in cemeteries; we should scatter them - just as they did at Little Big Horn and Mang Yang Pass - on old battlefields where people actually fell.
The grassy fields at Gettysburg and Yorktown are too clean, too pure, too easy on the eye. An open meadow, brush field, forest, or jungle littered with crosses, or even simple white stones large enough to be seen, would tell the necessary story so much better. Maybe the crosses or the stones should be red. Blood red.
The most impressive "interpretive site" I ever saw was at Andersonville, Georgia, where the old Confederate prison (officially named Camp Sumter) once stood. There, a row of simple stakes marked the "dead line" inside its walls across which no prisoner could step without being shot down by the guards. Some POWs were pushed across that line as punishment by their peers. Others deliberately crossed to "escape" from the starvation and misery of prison life. The stockade was designed to hold 10,000 prisoners. At one time, maximum occupancy reached 32,899 and 12,919 men died there. The stench was so terrible that many prisoners began retching and vomiting as soon as they entered the gates.
Man's inhumanity to man does not end on the battlefield - or withthe battle.
America has lost its way. The proof of that lies in the Military Commissions Act of 2006. The United States has essentially declared that it will not honor the Geneva Conventions on the treatment of prisoners of war. The Act basically allows the President to decide for himself who is an "enemy" or "terrorist" and how they will be treated. That applies to both physical and psychological torture. My son has been through SERE (Survive Evade Resist Escape) school. He knows what waterboarding is like, when you're reasonably sure the "torturers" do not intend to kill you.
One does not want to be waterboarded when the captor is not concerned with your survival.
The brain is a terrible thing to waste - or wash. I had personal experience with that in Vietnam where, despite the efforts of some troops to obey the Geneva Conventions. the rules weren't always followed. When that happens and we throw away even the limited constraints that the Conventions enforce, we are no longer human.
Our troops, including my son, travel to many counties with "blood chits" in their pockets. These small documents say that, if captured, their captors will be rewarded for their safe return. The Military Commissions Act may just have rendered those chits worthless.
Back in 2001, Congress began handing a rather insane little man proof that we had learned nothing from Yorktown, the Alamo, Montebello Bluffs, Fredericksburg, Andersonville, Mang Yang, or the "Hanoi Hilton." Once again, we rode blindly to our fate, like Santa Ana or Custer, overconfident that we held power, that we were "right." And our most recent ride hasn't ended yet.
Like me, my son is now a veteran. The men and women, who hate war most, are those who were good at it. Veterans - combat veterans - recognize something that no one without personal experience can ever begin to put a "handle" on.
We should neither repeat, nor reenact and glorify, error.
Doug Troutman was with the First Cavalry Division in Vietnam in 1966/67. He was later a Park Ranger in Yosemite National Park and then a Wilderness Specialist and Outdoor Recreation Planner with the Bureau of Land Management. He lives in a small town in eastern Oregon away from the madding crowd.