Thursday, July 8, 2010

Mindset and the Reality of War

I recently viewed a news report on an internet news source. The video showed an apache helicopter attack on 8 civilians walking down a street in a city somewhere in Iraq.

The video reminded me of conversations I had with numerous Vietnam War Veterans. The hardest part for them returning to civilian life was adjusting to the no enemy mind set and how to deal with the lives that had ended by their hands.
The Veterans’ stories were personal and different, but they were the same in subject. These men had killed men, women, children, and animals. At the time and the mindset of the soldier was that these living entities were enemies. These enemies would kill them or they needed to be killed.
Some of the Veterans told me they were high on hallucinogenic drugs. Others reported a mind set of enemies. When the Veterans returned stateside and reunited with their families, the issues of what they remembered and if it was real or surreal came into a vicious tearing rendering of conscience. They dwelled on whether the life that ended by their hand was an enemy or an innocent victim. At the time of the incident they were the enemy. It was simple.
At home with their loved ones the Veterans the simplicity of it. What if their children, brothers, sisters, dogs, cats, horses, or cows were in a field where soldiers were reconnoitering? What if they as an enemy had used children, women, or animals to kill the enemy? What if these lives were simply at the wrong place at the wrong time? It wasn’t simple any more.
It is true there are battle hardened soldiers that can shut off the conscience. They walk through life accepting the kill or are killed mantra. Most of these Veterans are career soldiers and officers. The hierarchy of officers like Majors, Generals, Admirals, Lieutenants, and Commanders are war hardened and know they must make decisions that cost lives. The military must have the cold blood conscience of such leaders to send soldiers into battle. This is war.
Unfortunately it is the common man that is in the battlefield. These people are not war hardened, professional, career soldiers. These people are put in uniforms, given guns, and told to kill.

I understood why the Veterans felt comfortable sharing with me these deep and dark thoughts. They couldn’t share them with other Veterans, even the ones they served with because it might make them look weak. The Veterans couldn’t share them with their wife and families because they couldn’t understand their conflicting thoughts and conscience. The Veterans talked to me because all I did was listen to them. The Veterans didn’t want vindication, forgiveness, judgment, or even retribution. The Veterans just wanted someone to listen to these stories. The Veterans simply needed to verbalize this time period in their life.
Did it help some of the Veterans to have me listen without comment? I can only hope it did. For my own thoughts, I felt honored to share those experiences. The stories helped me to understand war and soldiers more than battles, winners, losers, heroes, or cowards. I was a stateside citizen without concept of how devastating war can be to the human psyche, beyond material or physical environments.
The old adage “War is Hell” goes far beyond the material destruction. There is a scar on the human spirit with those who serve and fight in foreign lands and wars. This is an ugly scar within that stays and never fades away.
In the incident I am referring to regarding the recent Apache helicopter attack is regarding the common soldier.

A PFC hacked the video and released it to an organization on the internet. The intent of the release was to show the world what war is really about. The video shows shooting down eight Iraqi men in a street. The audio is the talk between the copter, command, ground troops, and conversations between the soldiers in the helicopter.

I viewed the video with an image of Vietnam and the soldiers’ stories I had listened. For me the images of their Vietnam came into my mind. This is what the Vietnam Veterans did and how they talked between each other. They saw the enemy and they killed before the enemy could kill them or their friends. The soldiers saw an enemy vehicle pull up to save the enemy. The soldiers blasted the rescuers and vehicle. After their battle they did not want any enemy to escape and fight them again, possibly kill them or their friends. I saw the ground troops arrive and find children in the car. Were these innocents? These children were in a war, they must be the enemy.

I watched the video and could plainly see the two men were carrying camera bags. Those men shot down were not carrying weapons. I could see these men were civilians and camera carriers. Why did the soldiers see weapons? I saw a vehicle pull up and try to save a survivor. I saw the helicopter open fire on anyone around the vehicle and in the vehicle. I saw ground troops arrive and rescue children from the vehicle. I saw innocent victims. We have a name for it now, it is called Collateral Damage.

The answer is simple. I was safe behind a computer screen in my home. I was not under pressure of any kind. I was not filled with adrenalin of a potential battle. What I saw, was not what the soldiers in the Apache Helicopter saw. Those soldiers saw weapons and were the enemy. It is clear to me that the mind view in safety is completely different from the mind view in a battle area.

The private is being held on charges and will most likely go to prison for breaking the military censorship laws. The public isn’t supposed to see these things of war. The fact that children were possibly killed or the targeted enemy turned out to be a Reuter’s photographer is not to be public domain.

In many ways I understand keeping this knowledge from the general public. In a military movie there is a line that says, “You can’t handle the truth”. This is a factual statement. Many in the general public cannot handle the truth or reality of war. We prefer to be sterile and removed from it. How can we face such tragedies?

I believe we must start to face them, but with understanding and not judgments.

I thought about these soldiers that killed the innocent that day. How do they live with this scar once they learned their enemy was not their enemy? These are the battle scars that never fade away. These are the battle scars that live within them and cause emotional pain. If they didn’t shoot when confronted by an enemy because they were wrong in the past, would they die? Would their friends die if they hesitated?

After remembering those stories from Vietnam Veterans and watching that video I understand what we should do. We should not allow this PFC to be imprisoned for releasing a censored video because it was a mistake. Military secrets and censorship should only be for information critical deployment, troop movements, arsenals, and true secrets. Imprisonment for this video is wrong simply because the American public should see the reality of battle decisions. We the public should learn to understand the choices, actions, and even mistakes soldiers make during crisis situations.

There is no justification for war or battle decisions. There isn’t forgiveness or understanding for war and battle decisions. There is simply the reality of that time and that place.

I wish I would have told the Vietnam Veterans this: “You will live with the responsibility of your actions. You did what you did in that time, place, and situation. There is no judgment or forgiveness for you by anyone. You alone walked that path and did what you did. You may have been right and you may have been wrong. Right or wrong is not relevant to you, nor was it at that time and place. You do not have to dwell on the actions, but you know you cannot forget them. I ask that you accept that. All anyone can do in life is to accept responsibility of their actions at any time and place.

I think there is no reason to dwell in any type of guilt or justification. I believe one should accept the reality and responsibility of an action. There isn’t right or wrong decision in any action, there is the decision.

Do not censor the video of collateral damages. Educate the public to aid the soldiers on their return and salve the scars the soldier must endure. This attitude could have helped many Vietnam Veterans and Veterans of other wars heal their wounds and live with their scars.

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