We hear a lot these days about the trauma suffered by soldiers who go to war, but is it possible for a soldier to be traumatized by not going to war? If you think about it, there was a period between the end of the Vietnam Conflict and the Operation Desert Storm that was virtually conflict free (if you don’t include limited military actions like Grenada, Panama, and Somalia). For those of us who grew up with Vietnam playing in the background of our lives, the expectation of the draft was considered almost inevitable. And that sense of inevitability provided four basic options― enlist, serve when called, apply for a deferment, or run to Canada. Each of us knew that when the time came, we would have to make a fateful decision.
Then suddenly it was over. Diplomacy ended twenty years of conflict. It ended without victory, without parades, without real closure.
I grew up with Vietnam. The nightly news reports were part of the soundtrack of my childhood. The year I was born, 1954, was highlighted by the French defeat at Dienbienphu. Two years later the U.S. Military Assistance Advisor Group (M.A.A.G.) assumed responsibility for training the South Vietnamese army. By the time I entered Elementary school in 1960, nine Americans had died in Vietnam. The year I entered junior high in 1966, the toll rose to 8,407. Just two years later I entered high school and the toll was 36,152. In my first year of college a cumulative 56,847 Americans had made the ultimate sacrifice. (More) The average age of the dead was 23.
I remember hearing those statistics and, quite honestly, for me the dead were just statistics. I had no personal connection with the military and the few veterans I did encounter said nothing about what they had endured. For me the statistics were from somewhere “over there”, not here with me. And there were other statistics, of course. This, after all, was a conflict in which victory wasn’t measured in ground gained, but in the daily body count. The daily body count was something young men could understand. The daily body count helped to dehumanize the enemy, to make them just a statistic. The daily body count fit nicely for a generation that grew up with John Wayne, G.I Joe, Sgt. Rock, and Twelve O’Clock High― all of which extolled the virtues of patriotism, war, and self-sacrifice.
And I guess this is where the real conflict comes in. What is the impact of not going to war on someone raised with the expectancy of proving his patriotism by sacrificing himself in combat as his father’s generation had and as his own generation had? As I’ve gotten older I’ve been giving that a lot of thought. As I learn more about Vietnam, as the numbers become faces with lives and stories, I reconsider my decisions and wonder how I missed my opportunity to contribute, to participate, to perhaps save or be saved, and, most importantly, to be one with those who went to war. Vietnam was my generation’s war and I am forever excluded from that brotherhood of warriors.
As many readers of this blog know, I spent twenty years in the Air Force and have often mentioned the almost immediate sense of comradeship and connectedness I have experienced when I meet other veterans. And it is true that for the most part that within a few minutes after meeting we can find some commonality of experience. That is often true, but not always. There are groups of veterans I find it very difficult, even uncomfortable to be around― combat veterans. No matter what anyone says, preparing for war, being part of support staff― no matter how important your contributions are ―is not the equivalent of participating in combat. Combat veterans share something that I never had, nor ever will have, the opportunity to experience. And that something, that warrior’s badge is essential to the definition of manhood.
Now to be quite honest, I can claim that I served in the Cold War.
Cold War: noun, a conflict over ideological differences carried on by methods short of sustained overt military action and usually without breaking off diplomatic relations. (More)
I even have a certificate that proclaims me as a “Cold Warrior”, but the Cold War wasn’t war in the traditional sense, it was more like spy vs. spy. I watch you, you watch me with neither side escalating to the level of actual war. Full out war between the United States and the Soviet Union was held in check by the doctrine of mutually assured destruction (MAD) through unrelenting nuclear retaliation. The Cold War ended officially with the fall of the Soviet Union, but history has yet to declare if that was a victory.
Despite everything, the years I spent in the Air Force were good years, make no mistake. For most of us there was no hostility to become involved in, but there was always the threat. The stress of watching and waiting was incredible at times. But that’s all there was, all preparation and no mobilization. War did finally come in 1990 in the form of Desert Storm. High tech, surgically executed, short, and indecisive, a conflict stopped short of total victory. Stopping short of total victory is not victory. This was war, but it wasn’t my war. When news of deployments to support the war came, everyone jumped at the chance to support the effort, but I was selected to remain. I was told that someone had to mind the rest of the world while everyone else deployed. I wanted to go, but I knew that this kind of war wasn’t my war.
There is one important lesson I learned during that brief conflict. If you are in the military and come home unexpectedly during the middle of the day, don’t come up to your wife and say, “Honey, we have to talk.” Your children will catch on even before your wife. Your kids will know from talking to their friends whose daddies are deployed, that those words are code for “I am going to war.”
This post began by asking if it is possible for a soldier to be traumatized by not going to war. After many years of reflection, I’m not sure that I know the answer. But I will say this, if you are a writer, questions like this are essential to understanding your character as fully three dimensional, to understand the forces that have molded his or her psyche and make them who they are. That is to say, to understand who you are, because we are the characters we create. That truth is almost inescapable. Whether you’re writing about a titmouse or a serial killer, the personality of the author is invariably embedded in that of the character.
Taking the time to really analyze the factors that impacted your development, to separate them from your emotions, and consider them objectively is difficult and the process may be life-long, but the result will help you to better understand what and why you write.
If you have would like to share your ideas about what I’ve written, feel free to contact me either on the blog or using other social media. Thanks.