Monday, May 30, 2011

Memorial remembrance of friendly fire

War is costing us.

Peace is priceless.

On this Memorial Day I'd like to think about a special category of armed forces killed in war--those lost to 'friendly fire," that is, those killed by their own. It is the ultimate horror for a military member, no doubt, to think in the final instant of life that one's own forces are senselessly ending one's life.

Decades ago, just after the Vietnam War ended, I was a young father and an apprentice in the carpenters' union. I had been a conscientious objector to the war in Vietnam and was a member of the working class, which was the source of most combat troops. While America was polarized about the war, the warriors weren't. They hated it even more than we peaceniks. I met one fellow in all my young years who supported that war after fighting in it. One. Of course I lived in the Upper Great Lakes region, except for one year in Boston, so it may well have been different in the South, but hatred for that war as a stupid and meaningless waste was ubiquitous in my world.

Buck was one of my journeymen as I worked through my apprenticeship. He was short, powerful, and always led with his right foot and right arm, as he had been wounded badly on his left side in Vietnam. He was not shy about expressing his agreement with me on that war, but he went further.

"I'll move my family to Canada before I let them mucky-mucks take one of my sons," he declared with absolute conviction. "Let 'em fight their own damned wars." Eventually, he told me what happened to him in Vietnam.

His unit was forward deep into the jungle, in a firefight, and they called in air support. Buck told me, "I heard them too close and took cover and they hit us, one of our planes hit us. I woke up in the hospital and found out I was the only survivor from my unit."

Imagine the deep hurt, physically and emotionally, of lifelong loss and betrayal. No one among his closest comrades survived and none were killed by 'the enemy.' During his long healing and on into a lifetime of limping and limited use of one arm and one leg, he decided that the real enemy was the class of people who would send young people to kill and die--and even kill each other--for their own financial or political gain. I am a peace worker with conviction (many convictions, actually, including peace felonies), but Buck's conviction was literally bone-deep and stone solid. He was not a pacifist--I'd feel sorry for anyone who tried to hurt his family--but he was not going to participate nor let his sons be taken to participate in war.

In the US military, friendly fire is sometimes referred to with callous gallows humor as (excuse me but this is a direct quote) "Fuck 'em if they can't take a joke." I doubt Buck ever said that, at least not after he experienced it. Now imagine the level of fatalism required to wear a uniform and use that expression. Indeed, research on deployment periods for the average soldier in combat helped lead to shorter terms, since the researchers found that past a certain number of months in combat the average soldier became completely convinced he would be killed and it was increasingly debilitating. The mental health assault of war on troops is so severe that their behavior is often simply off the charts forever, which helps foster the militarism of the culture back home and make the next war more likely. Someone like Buck is rare. A lone survivor of a fratricidal attack doesn't show up in the war box scores in a category.

We will never know how many war dead are friendly fire. We do know that we can add that to the enormous costs of war that should lead us to figure out other ways to manage our inevitable conflicts with Libyan leaders, Iraqi leaders, radical Muslims in caves and everyone else. Time to count the costs, use better methods, and stop subjecting our people, their people, our economy, our ecology and our children to friendly fire.

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