The Pain of War Never Goes Away
by David Antoon
My memories of Vietnam, as with most veterans of that war, remain vivid, as if they happened yesterday. As an Air Force Academy cadet in the sixties, I still remember roll call at noonday mess when Academy graduates were announced, almost daily, as missing or killed in action in that far away place. Those were solemn and agonizing times but I never questioned the need to serve my country.
In the early part of my three decades of service, I spent two tours in Vietnam flying C-130s and took part in many operations including those illegal ones in Cambodia where our country denied its participation. The C-130 is a very noisy airplane and on the ground one wouldn't prudently get near this machine when its engines were running because of the deafening, almost painful, engine noise. When we off-loaded pallets containing tons of rice, we kept the engines running to minimize our exposure time on the ground. Battles were being fought on the perimeter of Phnom Penh and, as my cargo was put on waiting trucks, I could watch ordnance being dropped from other aircraft, visually following them to their ultimate explosion. As the food was being taken off, elderly women would run up to the cargo ramp and try to retrieve loose grains of rice, one-by-one, from the dirt. The city's population was starving but this rice was bound for the loyalist troops of the Cambodian government. I felt compassion for these old and hungry women but did not readily "connect the dots" then. What was the cause for the starvation of the people in this once beautiful and thriving city? Our military operations, to "bring democracy" to Vietnam, had extended into Cambodia and were now destabilizing the entire region.
I lost many classmates and comrades in the pursuit of that war. Many were lost in combat, and others suffered for following their convictions. One of my fellow pilots, after spending several months carpet-bombing from a B-52, walked into his commander's office and exclaimed, "I can't do this anymore! I know I'm killing innocent people!" I visited him while he was incarcerated and admired his courage for following his conscience, regardless of the consequences. After a year under house arrest, a Jack Anderson column brought his plight to national attention. To minimize political embarrassment, the Air Force quickly discharged him from the service under less than honorable conditions. This young, brave pilot suffered greatly as a result of his principles. He lost his career, his marriage and many of his friends.
Some of my comrades never came home. But one, who remained anonymous for several years because of political expediency, came back not too long ago. A few years ago, when my daughter was planning a visit to the tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Washington with her schoolmates, I reflexively said to her, "Say hi to Mike for me." I then had to explain that I knew one of the veterans entombed there and, therefore, he was not really unknown. Because President Reagan wanted the remains of a Vietnam veteran expeditiously interred there, officials sent those of Mike Blassie, a pilot who had been shot down years before, even though his ID was in the wreckage where the remains were found. Mike, a classmate at the Academy, who also went on to pilot training with me, finally came home after DNA conclusively proved what we all knew; he was not unknown.
I still have fond memories of Mike sitting in his convertible on warm summer days, top down with his sweetheart beside him. Even though his fiancée did not want to wait, Mike decided to delay marriage until he returned from Vietnam. Six months after graduating from pilot training, Mike's A-37 was shot down and he was listed as missing. Mike Blassie's remains have been disinterred from the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, reclaimed by his family, and reburied in St. Louis, his hometown. His fiancée of 30 years ago attended the services.
I was notified recently that the remains of another classmate, Fran Towsend, an F-4 pilot shot down in 1972, were recently identified and returned home from Vietnam. Mike and Fran are but two of thousands of Americans lost in what has become known as that "senseless war."
As I look back at these pointless losses with the benefit of 30 years hindsight, I wonder how this could have happened. I gaze at my children and I think about the dreams of some 60,000 young men that were never realized. I also think about the 3.8 million Vietnamese casualties and what their unrealized dreams might have been. The millions of deaths that most like to ignore in the "killing fields" of Cambodia must also be laid at the door of America's involvement in Southeast Asia. Even today, the casualties from that war continue to mount in the form of birth defects from groundwater contaminated with Agent Orange. Former Defense Secretary Robert McNamara now says America's involvement in Vietnam was a mistake. A mistake? It was more than a mistake. The Gulf of Tonkin incident was a hoax perpetrated on the American people and the world to justify a war that cost millions of unnecessary deaths. What hoaxes are being perpetrated on the American people today to justify war and how many lives will they cost?
In the first Gulf War, our Air Force incinerated retreating Iraqi troops on what became known as the "Highway of Death." American pilots described it as a "turkey shoot." Some criticize it as unnecessary, mindless carnage of an already defeated and retreating army and consider it a war crime. The depleted uranium we used to destroy thousands of fleeing vehicles and these young men in Iraq has resulted in untold numbers of birth defects in innocent children, just as Agent Orange continues to do in Vietnam. Future generations will continue to suffer from the wanton use of these carcinogens. Have we not learned from these mistakes?
George W. Bush had often said that Iraq has repeatedly ignored U.N. Resolution 1441 and should, therefore, be brought to task, with or without the international community. Hypocritically, he fails to mention that the United States has used its veto 41 times in the last three decades to thwart attempts by the United Nations to sanction Israel for its violations against the Palestinian people. In particular, Israel's defiance of U.N. Resolution 242 has gone on for over thirty-five years. It is easy to understand why America is becoming the most hated country in the world. As a result of this foreign policy, nearly every country in the world is protesting in anger against the United States.
Defying world opinion and a majority in the United Nations, we have marched off to war again. Colin Powell, the Army major who did the initial investigation and whitewash of the My Lai massacre, presented to the United Nations a student's dissertation (as an intelligence report) and a forged document as proof of the need to go to war. President Bush, who conveniently disappeared from his Guard Unit when the Air Force began mandatory drug screening, has now launched a war to create a "New World Order," under the guise of removing weapons of mass destruction, or regime change, or democratization -- all debunked by the CIA. Our government is "dissing" France because of their disagreement with our policies and determination to stop an unnecessary war. This administration conveniently forgets to mention that we owe a large debt to France for our national independence.
When I visited the Vietnam Memorial several years ago, I came across the names of friends from high school, college, and military service etched one hundred times over in that granite monolith. I realized then that the pain of each wasted life never goes away and perhaps this is the real message behind the thousands of names on that stark, black wall. But as I poured over those names, I could not dwell only on the loss of my comrades without also reflecting on the deaths of the innocent victims of all our past wars and the children, who are and will be, deformed as the dividend of America's deposits of war.
My journey, one that has taken me full circle from dutiful warrior to questioning and concerned patriot, was made with a great deal of thought and pain. Thus, it is with anguish that I watch as we are bombarded daily with the images and discussions of war, along with accompanying background music. All of the attendant hoopla and iconography trivializes this tragedy, making it look like a sporting event. President Bush and his circle of hawkish advisors promote war like cheerleaders at a football game. It is understandable why those relatively few in Washington who know first hand the experiences of war wish to avoid it. Unfortunately, they are too few, and the people in power, who have never experienced those horrors, promote war with reckless naiveté.
I have been moved by Ralph Chaplin's words:
Mourn not the dead.
But rather mourn the apathetic throng ---
The cowed and meek
Who see the world's great anguish and its wrong,
And dare not speak.
Those "who see the world's great anguish and its wrong," must speak out. I can no longer remain silent because for me the pain of war never really goes away.
This article originally appeared on the YellowTimes.org website. It is reprinted here with the kind permission of David Antoon and YellowTimes. David Antoon can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.