Stories of War | Letters | Chicago Reader

Stories of War 

Sign up for our newsletters Subscribe

To the editors:

As a Marine who served in the same regiment as John M. and his cohorts, I would like to rebut J.E. Geovanis's article [January 17]. The point of the article I take to be that the war, the Marine Corps, and American society has harmed these Marines, not just materially by taking them from their jobs and families, but by affecting their psyches and robbing them of their mental health and happiness.

I do not doubt the sincerity of these Marines and the emotions they felt in the gulf and back home. Certainly fighting in a war is a generally harmful and negative experience, and although these Marines did not actually fight, this does not mean that the war was pleasant or easy for them. I question, though, how much their problems are tied to the war and the Marine Corps, and how much they stem from difficulties which existed before or apart from the war, and which under the stress of the war flowered.

John M. returned home to find his employer had gone out of business and he was out of a job. I cannot say (and I doubt economists can say at this point) what impact the Gulf war had on the recession. Geovanis does not explain that John's unemployment is tied to the war in any way, and I assume that he would have been out of a job regardless of his service in the Gulf. It is sad and unfortunate that a veteran should return home to such depressing circumstances, but that is a comment on our economy and perhaps capitalism, not the Gulf policy.

Roberto S. returned home to find he had lost his happiness. The oppressive horror of war had robbed him of his smile, of his dream of teaching, of his ability to express his emotions. And if people doubt Roberto, he has four pages of photographs he took of dead bodies and various war souvenirs he collected to prove how traumatic his experience was. I believe Roberto does have a problem. Anyone besides a press photographer who would take four pages of photos of dead bodies from a battlefield he did not fight on, and was merely passing through like a tourist, has a problem. Geovanis does not state whether Roberto is still in the Marine Corps, but he should no doubt be disqualified for military service and receive therapy at Government expense. Is it the fault of the war and the Marine Corps that Roberto turned into such a callous person? More on this later.

Jim M. returned home to a broken marriage. He readily admits that his marriage had been empty and meaningless for years, but when Geovanis asks, "Would he have realized all of this had he not been called to war?" Jim replies bitterly, "No." Geovanis wants you to believe the war has done Jim a disservice, but this is not clear at all. Most people these days believe that it is a lesser evil to divorce than to stay in an unhappy marriage. If the war acted as a catalyst, making Jim and Keoko face their ruined marriage honestly, then this is arguably a good result.

But Geovanis wants to argue that Jim's marriage was destroyed to begin with by the Marine Corp's heavy emotional demands on him. Like with Roberto, I will address this issue below.

William J. returned home with his ideals crushed by latent and open racism within his unit. Open racism showed itself in the battalion commander's Saint Pat's day order to wear green, and the assignment of only whites to the Alpha command, where everyone is apparently safe. By Saint Pat's day the war was over, and the Colonel gave his order no doubt as a way of relaxing and improving morale, just as the Mayor Daley has the Chicago River turned green each year. Is this open, malicious racism? William points out that nothing was done to celebrate black history month. Perhaps that was because in February the unit was intensely involved in a war. As far as assignments to Alpha command, anyone with more than a rudimentary understanding of desert warfare and electronic direction finding realizes the most dangerous place on the battlefield is in the command vehicle with the commander. Perhaps William's platoon commander was practicing racism, but it was to the apparent detriment of his own race, a strange sort of racism.

William does make some legitimate comments about latent racism within the Marine Corps specifically and the military as a whole. Minorities are disproportionately overrepresented within the enlisted ranks, and are almost nonexistent in the officer ranks. This is racism, and it is a result of a racist society. Minorities from the inner cities have few options available to them to escape the ghetto. College is not generally an option because they receive such poor public educations. As a result, they cannot become officers. Since they have limited economic opportunities, many join the military as a way of escaping the city and improving their lives. This is ashamedly the result of racism, but the military is not to blame. In fact, the military accepts minorities gladly, and promotes them fairly based on performance. In my five years in the Marine Corps most of the noncommissioned officers I worked with were black, and they served the Corps loyally. William is right about latent racism, but the finger should be pointed at the society the military serves.

Geovanis points out that there is a potential for long-term health problems from drugs taken while in the Gulf and from exposure to indigenous diseases. Concerning the antinerve drugs, at the time it seemed a good risk to take the drug rather than to face certain and horrible death from nerve gas. Whether this was right remains to be seen. As far as disease, westerners and western armies have passed in and out of the middle east with great regularity throughout this century and with little apparent trouble.

Finally, a last comment about the dehumanizing hate Roberto and Jim felt while serving in the Gulf, and still are suffering from. Geovanis ends his article by stating that the hatred towards Iraqis that was burned into these Marines is perhaps the greatest cost of the war. They gave up something intangible, and woefully human, about themselves when the Marine Corps trained them to hate Iraqis. First, a simple point of fact. I went through the same training as these Marines and there never was a class on hating Iraqis. No doubt I am being simplistic, Geovanis would say. The debasement of Iraqis was subtle, perhaps subliminal. An officer calls Arabs ragheads in passing, and then an instructor uses the term "liquidate the target," and pretty soon everyone has become brainwashed murder machines who can't help but kill and kill again. It's great Hollywood stuff, but the actual logistics of brainwashing half a million people make it impractical.

Was Jim and the rest of the nation socialized into viewing Iraq as the enemy, and thus eligible for bombing? Yes. Is this dehumanizing? Yes. This is a sad fact of war, and is the reason why there shouldn't be wars. But this is a long way from brainwashing people so they will kill. The men and women who actually fight in wars experience this dehumanizing hatred less than the rest of society. Studies on combat troops since WW II indicate that the reason troops fight on the battlefield is not a burning desire to kill, but out of a sense of obligation to their friends in the squad. In combat, deep relationships are formed quickly, and these relationships become the basis of a soldier's willingness to fight. The further you get away from the battlefield, the more prevalent becomes the dehumanizing hatred of the enemy. Combat troops fight out of love for one another, not out of any hatred for the enemy. In fact, these combat troops often express respect for the enemy, who they view as having suffered through a common horror.

Soldiers fight, Plato pointed out in the Symposium, out of love and duty. If Jim and Roberto lost themselves to hatred during the war, it is because they fell victim to mindless propaganda here in the States, and their suffering is no different from someone who never got near the front. Perhaps if they had actually been involved in combat, and if the war had been longer and costlier for the Americans, then their own feelings and emotions towards the Iraqis would have focused more. I am not saying that it is impossible for combat troops to hate the enemy, but that that hatred does not provide a motivation to fight, and professional armies, including the Marine Corps, do not teach hatred.

Geovanis is right that the war caused this dehumanizing hatred to enter Jim and Roberto's hearts, but the source of that hatred is not to be found in the Arabian desert. Geovanis may as well have interviewed himself to understand that hatred, and I think laying it on the Marine Corps and the soldiers who fought is shallow and disingenuous.

Every rational person, especially those who must fight, hates war. I do not fault Geovanis this. But I think he has fallen into the cliche that there are no winners in war. This cliche is true in that there is always intense suffering on both sides of any war, even the winners'. But this does not mean everyone suffers, and suffers equally, or that defeating evils, such as fascism, even at great cost, is not a good. The virtues of the Gulf war are certainly arguable, but the argument is not to be won with Geovanis's subjects. Their travails, although serious, do not relate to the war as much as they relate to deeper problems within their own hearts and our society. That is an important story. But the story of the war lies elsewhere.

John Hennelly

N. Seminary

J.E. Geovanis replies:

The story of war lies nowhere else but within our hearts and our society. While I understand Mr. Hennelly's need to frame his participation in the war in altruistic terms, he forgets that ultimately soldiers are always used for a country's political and economic purposes. Oil, not the prevention of evil, is the reason we liberated Kuwait, restored a tyrant to his throne, and left Saddam Hussein ruling Iraq. As columnist Molly Ivins put it, if Kuwait had been the capital of squash, we wouldn't have gone there.

War affects its practitioners psychologically, and no amount of encouragement or brainwashing allays the effects of what has variously been called shell shock, battle fatigue, and posttraumatic stress disorder. To one degree or another--regardless of external factors like unemployment, marital difficulties, and racism--all of these soldiers were experiencing a response to stress levels that American civilians who have no experience of war cannot imagine. Mr. Hennelly is deeply misguided to construe my reporting of these men's honesty as criticism of the corps or of American society. They simply expressed their feelings.

As for the experimental anti-nerve-agent drugs, we ignore at our peril the Defense Department's long history of experimenting on its own troops, dating from the mushroom-cloud observers of the 40s to today's slowly dying Agent Orange victims. The ways the DOD has treated these soldiers is a well-known horror story.

Plato notwithstanding, soldiers rarely fight out of duty. They do fight for each other. Stalingrad proved that, as did Vietnam, where units suffered when soldiers went home after finishing their tours. It is also true that the detachment soldiers need to develop often turns into depersonalization. I refer Mr. Hennelly to the classic work on military training and war, and their effects on soldiers and societies, The Warriors by World War II veteran and philosopher J. Glenn Gray. Moreover, the ease with which we now dispatch the enemy, and the tremendous psychological and physical distance from which we do it, prevent us from grasping the full consequences of our own handiwork. Military historian Richard Holmes points this out in Acts of War: The Behavior of Men in Battle. William, Roberto, and Jim were among the very few of the 500,000 Americans in Saudi Arabia who saw it.

The story of war does lie within our global society. And as part of that global society, we must seek ways to live cooperatively. That means realizing that however different from us our neighbors may be, we must recognize in them our own humanity and understand that our desires--health, shelter, food, meaningful lives--are theirs as well. To their credit, Roberto, Jim, and other reservists grappled with this recognition.

The ancient Chinese philosopher/warrior Sun Tzu wrote 2,500 years ago that "the true object of war is peace," and George Bush repeatedly echoed that before, during, and after the gulf war. But with the onset of truly "modern" warfare in World War I and the development of weapons of mass destruction, that has not been a viable strategy for 80 years. If there is to be a peaceful new world order, it must be based on an equitable distribution of the world's resources, not on a "winner takes all" economic philosophy. If we do not reach for a solution, then warfare that beggars our minds will reach for us. "It could have been me, it could have been us," Roberto said.

These reservists recalled General George Patton's remark a little more than 24 hours before they left Chicago: "Soldiers are the greatest pacifists of all." These are men we should respect and learn from. They have much to teach us about our own behavior and capabilities. Even given their experiences in the gulf war, they said that if called up again, they would go "for the guy next to me." Perhaps they have something to teach us about love too.

Comments

Subscribe to this thread:

Add a comment

Tabbed Event Search

Popular Stories