Sunday 21 July 2002

My military ambition

Not so long ago—in response to my throwaway remark that the German goalkeeper Oliver Kahn looks like a Panzer commander—someone commented: “Resemblance to a member of the armed forces is a good thing? Each to his own I guess.” I suspect that this attitude is not unusual, that either disdain for or ambivalence towards the military constitutes the prevailing orthodoxy in our little corner of Blogaria, though both Joseph Duemer and Steve Himmer have written honestly about their fascination with war:

About half an hour into the film, I think, comes the famous scene with Robert Duval as an Air Cav Colonel. (“I love the smell of napalm in the morning.”) I’m sitting there in the dark theater holding MK’s hand & thinking other thoughts when this pops into my mind: “I really missed out not going to Vietnam.” The particular scene burning itself into my retinas at that moment has Francis Ford Coppola himself playing a news photographer who is photographing the war going on around him, directing the soldiers so that it will play more effectively on the evening news. (Think of Conrad’s anonymous narrator’s relationship to Marlow in Heart of Darkness.) Immediately upon uttering this desire to have gone to war, even silently, I retracted it. What, are you fucking crazy? I think it is part of the genius of Apocalypse Now that it invites the viewer into the excitement & romance of war, then pulls the rug out from under him. (Yes, him.) Like Steve Himmer, I have tried to understand the romantic attractions of combat. In fifth & sixth grade I must have read 200 identically bound books for boys from my school library that detailed battles from Ticonderoga to Iwo Jima, so my psyche was saturated early with romanticism. Vietnam was still in the future—the nation’s & mine.

Joseph Duemer, reading & writing

I have a fascination with war and wartime violence that’s impossible to explain. On one hand, I abhor it and it horrifies me-violence makes me feel physically ill, especially when I’m the one being violent. At the same time, I imagine violence on the scale of battle to be something only understandable when in the midst of it, and even then all that can be understood is the tiny, tiny piece experienced by one body or mind. I guess, more than anything, I have a need to ‘understand’ war intellectually and emotionally (though I don’t expect anyone ever really has)—mostly because I’m so horribly afraid of it, and yet I’ve heard all my life that going to war is what galvanizes men. What defines a generation. What marks the occasion of capital-H History.

Steve Himmer, One Pot Meal

Reading these posts a few months ago, I immediately empathized with Joseph and Steve. I wanted to be a professional soldier when I was young, so much so that when the recruiting officer from the Royal Military College visited my high school I was one of the few to request an interview and collect a sheaf of application forms for my father to sign. He refused. “You can join the army when you turn 21,” he told me. He’d fought the Japanese in the South Pacific.

Instead I joined the Sydney University Regiment and loved it: the weapons, the cameraderie, the small arms tactics and long range patrolling that formed the foundation of Australian Army doctrine. At the end of my third year as a part-time soldier, a few of us were selected for what was seen as a prestigious assignment—acting as the enemy in an exercise for officer candidates who would eventually be assigned as platoon commanders in Vietnam. We were trucked to a rain forest a couple of hundred kilometers south of Sydney where, for the two weeks that the exercise lasted, the rain poured down relentlessly.

By that stage of my military career, I’d already begun to have misgivings about our involvement in Vietnam, particularly after learning how to search and destroy a surprisingly realistic “Vietnamese” village. And, ever the bookworm, I’d read various histories of the Indo-China War and even Mae Tse-Tung’s On Guerilla War. I would eventually reach the conclusion that in their lickspittle eagerness to please the Americans our politicians had committed the Australian Army to an unwinnable war.

With a cheerful amorality, my pals and I switched sides. We exchanged our jungle green fatigues for black pajama uniforms and applied all our skills to making life a misery for the hapless officer trainees. We harrassed them at night, laid ambushes for them by day, and melted away into the jungle when they tried to pursue us. The officers in command had done everything to ensure that, apart from not using live rounds, the conditions were as close to real combat as they could engineer. Despite being constantly cold, wet, hungry, and exhausted we had the best time. Our bodies were young, lean, and hard; our minds totally attuned to our role. Having absorbed everything the regular army instructors had taught us, we were better trained than most of the US Army troops who landed in Vietnam. We played a cat-and-mouse game that seemed utterly authentic—up until the point where we fired our blank ammunition, the designated dead and wounded fell down, and then stood up and brushed themselves off when the umpire’s whistle blew. It was real, it was a farce, and it changed me profoundly.

A few weeks later university classes started again. Though my friends happily resumed their part-time military careers, those two weeks in the rain forest had consequences for me that the Army had hardly intended. Briefly becoming a Vietcong guerilla allowed me to see the conflict from the other side. The experience crystallized all the reading and thinking I’d done. My ambition to become a soldier evaporated, as my father had no doubt hoped it would (though not for the reasons he’d anticipated).

Out of curiosity I went to an anti-war rally but the protestors were contemptible compared to my comrades in the regiment and the professional soldiers who’d trained us. Despite my belief that the war was unjust and futile, I found it impossible to discard the loyalty I felt towards the Australians fighting against the North Vietnamese Army and the Vietcong, with whom I now also identified. I’d manouvered myself into an untenable position, particularly since I was still eligible to be called up for active service.

L1A1 Self Loading Rifle

Any possible outer conflict disappeared when my letter arrived from the Army Department. The ball engraved with my birthday had not tumbled out of the barrel. I’d not been drafted. I’d “won” the lottery. My request for a discharge was granted. I never bought a lottery ticket again.

Nikon FI resolved the inner conflict by buying a camera and then another, soon handling a Nikon F with the same fluid ease with which I’d once used a 7.62 mm L1A1 self-loading rifle. I was now 21, committed to nothing other than making beautiful photographs. With cameras draped on my shoulders and around my neck, torn jeans, and shoulder-length hair, I looked just like the Dennis Hopper character in Apocalypse Now. You’d have laughed at the idea that I’d once wanted to be a soldier. But it’s true.

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A strong glimpse through the door into the person we know as Jonathon Delacour. And one of those rare instances of writing where so few words say so much.

Jonathon, please note that if I take exception to what you've written, it isn't due to the writing or to your own personal experience - the former is very strong ('beautiful' doesn't seem appropriate in this instance), while the latter is profound and complex. However, it seems to me that you're making assumptions (and I could have misread this) that deny the same level of complexity to others that you grant to yourself.

It's true - it must seem at times as if there is an orthodoxy regarding the military in this particular section of the blogging kingdom; looking at your blogroll, you are surrounded by people who have expressed anti-war and anti-military intervention sentiments. However, from your words I am reading an assumption that all those who dislike military conflict also feel "..disdain or ambivalence..." towards the military and those who serve in the military. This same assumption that also seems to play in your statement about the anti-war protestors -- that the protestors were contemptible because they discarded loyalty to the military personnel in their zeal to discard the war effort.

I can't and won't speak for anyone other than myself, but for myself you couldn't be further from the truth, at least in regards to my own protestations. And my own feelings about 'war'.

Yes, I was a protestor against the Vietnam war. In fact, I worked closely with a protest organizer who was jailed at one point. However before you think of me as a woman with long flowing hair, placing a flower into guns, singing out "Give peace a chance", with no understanding of the conflict that was occurring on the other side of the world, learn first of the event that triggered my involvement.

The war effort that I so vehemently protested resulted in sending one of my favorite cousins, Robert, home in a body bag. Robert had served his time in the Marines and had volunteered to stay a second tour of duty when he was killed by a sniper two weeks before coming home.

His funeral was my first military funeral and I remember jumping when they fired the guns. At the time thought how inappropriate it was to fire guns at the funeral of a man who had been killed by guns.

I remember the military chaplain comforting my aunt, and the stoic face of my uncle, the tears of his twin sister. But it was Robert's fiance who got me - the look of loss. In particular, I was profoundly impacted by this because I was just coming into my own womanhood, and was confused about this expression of incredible love mixed with absolute loss. So much so that Robert's brother spent most of the funeral comforting me rather than being comforted, good man that he was.

You might say that funeral crystallized my own views about 'war', and my belief that there can be no good from war. There can be no good from armed conflict. War is not a solution.

Of course, my protesting the war was complicated by the fact that my father was in Vietnam at the time, serving as an advisor to the Vietnamese civilian police. He also served in World War II, though in Europe and Africa with the 82nd Airborne.

As for the despicable behavior of the protestors: I am unsure of what the protestors were like in Australia, but I know that, unfortunately and sadly, many of the protestors here in the US were incredibly shallow, calling out "baby killers" and "stop the war and bring our boys home" with equal and hypocritical glee.

But not all protestors of the Vietnam war were that shallow. And not all condemnation of armed conflict today -- including the so-called war on terror -- is a one dimensional, sweeping, and simplistic rejection of 'war', or the military and those who serve in the military.

As for the military, when I was 24 I joined the Coast Guard, as hard as this is to believe. I had thought about joining the Army and the Navy, but the Coast Guard seemed to have the best opportunities for women. However, unfortunately due to a re-occurring physical problem I was unable to serve my full duty and was discharged, honorably. I regret to this day that this didn't work out.

The romance of war. I guess there is a beauty to war - the heroism, the friendships that form and that transcend time, the fierce passionate belief in life when you're daily faced with the possibility of death. I think that's why the Vietnam memorial is, to me, the most beautiful memorial ever created.

And no action strips a person's, or a society's, outer shell away quicker than war. To put it tritely, what you see if what you get in war.

Still, when I hear people talking about the romance of war, I keep hearing that damn tune, "I'll be with you at apple blossom time", and keep seeing Robert's fiance's face. And the sad thing is, I can't even remember her name, now.

Posted by Shelley Powers on 21 July 2002 (Comment Permalink)

It's rare for me to double-comment on a posting, one right after another. But then, this particular posting has generated a fairly strong, though, not necessarily negative reaction in me. And since I'm no longer weblogging (she says with a touch of irony) comments it is.

In Burningbird, I one wrote about a friend, 'Joan' (not her real name) and her battle with cancer. Joan was for many, many years my best friend, but she isn't my friend today. And you can say that Vietnam was the reason why our friendship had to end.

Joan's husband was a Vietnam veteran who suffered from Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome. Suffered to the point that one day he tried to kill me because, in his confused state, he mistook my and Joan's friendship as a threat to his relationship with her. (At least that was what the doctor thought.)

Thankfully two strong policemen were able to pull his hands from around my throat before they took him to the mental hospital.

Even though he did get help and did improve, the experience was so frightening for me that I just couldn't continue the association - a difficult and devastating decision as 'Joan' was my very best friend. I still miss her, very much, today.

Jonathon, excellent post; the kind that generates thought and reactions and feeling and responses.

It also generated an interesting side perspective on weblogging, in that many times we make mistaken assumptions and generalizations about people just from reading what they write in these weblogs. As you said in your posting, people will most likely be surprised that you wanted to be a soldier; yet there's nothing in any of the postings that you've written that would preclude this. Nothing at all, other than our own assumptions based on some of your expressed views about certain subjects.

Posted by Burningbird on 21 July 2002 (Comment Permalink)

My family was heavily involved in anti-Vietnam war protesters. My father was one of the first Tax Resisters here in the US. My brother was a serious political radical, who was arrested numerous times at various events and demonstrations, and was ultimately booted out of MIT for occupying the Dean's office. (He was subsequently re-admitted and graduated.) Some of the planning for the large scale Vietnam War Moratorium was planned in our living room.

I grew up amongst people deeply critical and skeptical of the military, its structure, its ethos, and its actions. And, I'm embarassed to say, I carried my prejudice pretty much unexamined into my adult life until fairly recently.

It is important to acknowledge the military is a separate, if parallel, culture to civillian culture. And that's by necessity. In fact, all the exposure I'd had to the military was negative exposure (TV news, bad behavior by military police, and so on). I didn't know anybody in the military, except for people whose sons or brothers were drafted. I grew up in the People's Republic of Massachusetts.

Belatedly, I've come to know some military folks, including one man who serves in the Navy Command center at the Pentagon which was destroyed on Sept. 11. (He lost 12 colleagues, and only escaped himself because his was the afternoon shift.) Well before September 11th, he helped me to know and understand the military outlook better, and he put a human, highly ethical, decent, and self-deprecatingly humorous face on his very serious job.

The things you describe, Jonathan, as being so rewarding about the military experience almost all be obtained through other kinds of activity, but our societies don't tend to organize, sustain, and reward them (with the possible exception of sport). God bless you for actually thinking, feeling, and internalizing the experience of your training, and using your imagination to broaden your view of the Vietnam conflict. I think few can do that.

My brother went on to become an independent diplomat-peacemaker, having lost patience with radical politics and still wanting to make a difference and save the world. He lives in Geneva with his diplomat wife.

Posted by Pascale Soleil on 21 July 2002 (Comment Permalink)

Pascale, thank you for reminding me of the most important aspect of Jonathon's statement. Jonathon, apologies for latching on to the few offhand statements and missing the essential essence of what you were saying.

Posted by Burningbird on 21 July 2002 (Comment Permalink)

Burningbird and Pascale, thank you for your comments.

I found the anti-war protestors contemptible for many reasons, but their sanctimonious, self-indulgent moralism, the mindless verbal abuse, and their practice of spitting at and pouring animal blood on returning soldiers are at the top of the list.

Both the Australian and American soldiers were sent to Vietnam by legally elected governments (in the case of the Americans, with the backing of a Joint Resolution of Congress). Yet, as usual, the politicians who were actually responsible for initiating and continuing the conflict were rarely subjected to the wrath of the protestors.

In Australia, these protestors grew up to cheer the soldiers who were sent to protect the East Timorese from Indonesian-backed terror in the lead up to the vote on self-determination. They loved the Australian Army that previously they'd vilified. Yet it was the same Army: the same traditions, the same values, the same mission, and the same tactical methods. Nothing had changed but now the former protestors lapped it up with a shovel. They were despicable 30 years ago, and they are despicable still.

Posted by Jonathon Delacour on 21 July 2002 (Comment Permalink)

Jonathon, as I said, I am unaware of what the Australian demonstrators did, and if they did what you have said, then yes, they were dispicable.

But there were those of us who conducted legitimate protests against the Vietnam war that in no way displayed anything but respect and concern for the soldiers in Vietnam. At least among the protests I attended.

Posted by Burningbird on 21 July 2002 (Comment Permalink)

The Gulf War started (and finished) in the months before my eleventh birthday. I have wispy memories of my parents being so happy when the Berlin Wall fell, about the end of something they called the Cold War—a concept not easily understood by a boy of nine. Until college, Vietnam was something my parent's older cousins did, something that made for interesting footage on the Discovery Channel. Nowhere near as interesting as laser-guided bombs falling down Iraqi ventilation shafts, shredding buildings like so many splinters.

I've always been fascinated by the military. I still am, to be honest. In college I decided that Army ROTC was the place for me. I was going to be an infantry officer, because that's where the action is. My instructors were some of the most amazing individuals I've had the pleasure to know, capable of such violence and while maintaining the rigid moral and professional integrity demanded of the modern American soldier. They taught me things about myself I didn't know. They pushed me past the physical and mental limitations I thought I had. They demanded more than I had, and I happily delivered.

I ate the training up. It was exhilarating. The feeling of an assault rifle nudged deep into the crook of your shoulder is one that cannot be duplicated in the civilian world. Like Jonathon, I enjoyed the tactics and the patrols and the days and nights in miserable conditions and the throaty rumble of artillery impacting downrange. There was a voice in the back of my head that told me that when this was all real it would be terrifying and sickening, but the rest of me was having too much fun to listen.

We were working in a Military Operations in Urban Terrain (MOUT) course, clearing a buildings one at a time, working on our urban assault tactics. It was hard, long, grinding, ugly work, done at night under the eerie glow of parachute flares. We'd been at it for most of the night, after a day's forced march to get to the course in the first place. I was exhausted—my nervous system was stuck somewhere between numb and hyperactive, having been so tense for so long.

My buddy and I spun into a room containing two of the enemy, Army ROTC people like myself that were tasked to be the bad guys that night. My buddy fired a quick burst at the person on the left, "killing" him. My weapon jammed, as it has a tendency to do when firing blanks, and in a single smooth motion I brought the rifle up over my head, preparing to use it as a bludgeon as I had so many time on bayonet assault courses. It was all muscle memory. There was no conscious decision to be made.

Lucidity kicked in before I brought the rifle down on the "enemy." Army ROTC is, of course, a co-ed organization as the Army must train male and female officers at the same time, and the "enemy" was an eighteen-year old blond girl. Her eyes were filled with the most horrible fear I had ever seen, fear that I can see and smell and feel to this day. She thought I was going to kill her, and she was nearly right.

I apologized, she cried, and it was never fun again.

I do not always respect the political leadership that issues the orders, but I am unwavering in my respect for those men and women who are tasked to carry those orders out. It takes a special, vital kind of person to be able to do what their nation calls them to do and return with body and mind intact. I couldn't do it, but I am thankful every day that there are those who can.

For my part, I am hoping to put my soon-to-be earned Political Science degree at work in international diplomacy, solving conflicts with words so that we don't have to call on our military to solve them with bullets.

Posted by John on 21 July 2002 (Comment Permalink)

There is a war in the planning and a war consciousness developing in the USA that makes me fear we, the citizenry, will be called upon to focus the lens of reality once again with analysis, organization, and protest.

As a Vietnam war protester I lacked clarity and consistency of vision. I thought perhaps armed struggle, a revolution, would be necessary to take the country back. Today, I feel that any war is inhuman and dooms the participants, whther "right" or "wrong."

There are justice issues that must be addressed, and state power is required to address them, but we are wrong if we do it in a warlike manner and frame of mind. This I believe.

Posted by Frank on 21 July 2002 (Comment Permalink)

I have known quite a few soldiers through my mountaineering experiences and, certainly in the British Army, I have been impressed by their compassion and gentleness. I've been trying to think of another word but no.. I mean gentleness. They look after those around them in way that made the rest of us look selfish. I guess this is the training which encourages them to look after their immediate group in all circumstances.

I have also found myself looking at men in their early twenties on the underground here in London ( I normally look at the women - honest) and thinking that it was men just like them who took part in the amazing scenes in Mazar-e Sharif. There must be something almost sexual about the intensity of such action. I keep imagine being shipped from the US to this strange, exotic land, plonked in the middle of a nightmare and for the first time having bits of fellow human beings disintegrating before my eyes. How the hell do you deal with that?

This sort of takes me back to my comments on your previous posts Jonathon about organisations and individuals. When I imagine the army as human beings engaged in intense life and death sitauations relying on their immediate fellow human beings I can sort of cope with it. When it is the whole military system which builds up its own momentum, like any other organisation, I feel less comfortable.

Posted by The Obvious? on 21 July 2002 (Comment Permalink)

Above, Jonathon said, "Yet, as usual, the politicians who were actually responsible for initiating and continuing the conflict were rarely subjected to the wrath of the protestors." I would like to respond that here in the USA, politicians were indeed subjected to the attention of protesters all through the Viet Nam war and the decade of social struggle that preceded it.

One of the marvelous and at the same time frustrating aspects of democracy is that people of good will and good intentions can have such a polarity of perspective when it comes to public policy. But WAR as an instrument of public policy always deserves to be questioned, just as the soldiers called to fight the war deserve to be supported. The nature of the questions and the quality of the support help to define us and delineate the personal integrity we bring to the conversation.

Posted by Frank on 22 July 2002 (Comment Permalink)

During the Vietnam War, 68-69, I was an officer cadet at the Royal Military College in Kingston Canada. I don't regret the experience because, yes, it pushed me & tested me in ways that I would never have encountered in the civilian world. That aspect of it, & the extraordinary comradeship with the 14 other guys on whom I had to rely, as they had to rely on me, were very important for me, as they obviously were to you. But I neither take nor give orders easily on a routine basis -- didn't then, don't now -- & that was one of the reasons I decided that a career in the army was not for me.

What prompts this post, though, is especially your comments about the Vietnam-era protesters. I admit that I, too, was disappointed with the anti-war movement once I began to be involved with it after I left military college & went to civvy u. One of the things that actually pushed me toward this involvement was the occasional contact I'd had at military college with American officer cadets from West Point. I found them seriously strange, almost fanatical. Maybe they had to be because they knew where they were going, I don't know. But then when I started reading more closely about how the war was being conducted, I got downright alarmed.

Yet I also remember trying to talk, at one of the university protest rallies I attended, to a young man who was almost gleefully clapping his hands & shouting one of those old slogans: "Ho Ho Ho Chi Minh, the NLF is gonna win." By this time I was feeling pretty pacific in my sentiments, & just could not relate to this sort of mindless celebration of violent victory by either side. My girl friend & I probably talked to him for about an hour, & he seemed to understand what we were getting at. But then an hour or so later, we passed the same common room rally again, & there he was, cigarette dangling from one corner of his mouth, clapping his hands, "Ho Ho Ho Chi Minh..."

I saw far too much of this sort of thing on the part of protesters. But I cite it now, too, not least on account of my much more recent, if somewhat peripheral, involvement with the so-called anti-corporate globalization movement, in the wake of the Quebec City protests, which for me as for many people made for an intense & profound experience. As with Vietnam, the cause of protest seems extremely just. But in my dealings with the "protest movement" I've often felt immersed almost in a replay of the less appealing aspects of "the movement" circa 1970: sloganeering, posturing, pettiness, procedural authoritarianism, repetitiviness, lack of imagination, worn-out (really worn-out)Marxist rhetoric... and not even the likelihood of much impact, as certainly did take place in regard to Vietnam.

I wonder if other people are experiencing a similar deja-vu?

Posted by Lear's Shadow on 5 August 2002 (Comment Permalink)

[Removed (off-topic)]

Posted by roly on 16 September 2002 (Comment Permalink)

[Removed (off-topic)]

Posted by kina on 16 September 2002 (Comment Permalink)

This discussion is now closed. My thanks to everyone who contributed.

© Copyright 2007 Jonathon Delacour