Growing up, I had a short list of heroes. Probably because I grew up surrounded by World War II vets, a notoriously close-mouthed group of men. Men who’d lived through the hardest part of the Depression years, then fought a bloody, exhausting war on foreign soil, for people they could never know. Proud men who had been through the mill where the grind was exceedingly fine.
Then there were those who didn’t make it. My stepfather’s outfit, 3rd Armored, Patton’s boys, went through the grinder like everyone else, but they seem to have lost more men who were close to them. I didn’t know much about tankers back then when I was a short-pants kid, just that Dad was one.
He never really talked about his war, maybe a comment now and then, unless he was with other survivors of that war. It’s a truism that vets generally only share with vets, or people they really trust who are close to them. Dad and I were never close, not really. So I didn’t know much about wars and tanks and dying except what I’d seen in the movies and on TV.
After recently reading the book, “Spearhead,” by Adam Makos, I can imagine the fear biting into your gut every time the sound of those big steel tracks jolted your tank into motion. For the infantrymen assigned to the spearhead units, the sound of those rumbling tracks were probably reassuring, but the foot-soldiers still referred to the tanks as “steel coffins.”
Except for a few overly long firefights and a couple of mortar attacks that came a bit too close for comfort, my war was a cakewalk compared to Dad’s. Yet, in each war, the grim spectre of death becomes a constant as friends die and eventually, close relationships with battle buddies are avoided. Losing friends at a constant rate is just too emotionally taxing.
Point is, we both lost treasured friends, Dad and I, for seemingly no real reason except the stupidity of war. In Dad’s case, Hitler and his drugf-fueled minions started that war out of pure greed, using opposing religious beliefs and petty hatreds of ethnic minorities to inflame the anger of the masses. But it was started by Germany primarily for the acquisition of wealth and for power beyond belief over other humans. In my war, it was more about saving the French heroin trade and those invaluable Michelin rubber plantations from communist domination. Or making “Lady Bird” Johnson’s corporate buddies rich.
Early on in my tour in Vietnam, I was assigned to a 5th Special Forces base, Kham Duc, that trained indigenous troops. About 5 o’clock one afternoon, Charlie brought what must have been the entire North Vietnam Army and together, they attacked the base for the first time ever, eventually overrunning it after a 16-hour firefight.
While the fighting was getting intense, Puff and his big brother showed up around 3 a.m. and stayed till dawn. When dawn finally arrived, Marine jets provided cover fire while the A-team disappeared into the background. I jumped on a chopper that HQ had sent in and bugged out of there, leaving the Marine jets and the remnants of the local troops to sort it out with Charlie.
The next few days were kinda hazy, being tired and beat-up and all. What I remember most vividly was conning a ride on an Army jeep out to the intersection of nowhere avenue and dead-end road, Vietnam, about four hours south of Da Nang. While we were waiting for my ride to the small Marine firebase where I’d been assigned for the immediate future, a tarp-covered deuce-and-a-half rumbled up to where an ambulance was waiting. It only took a few minutes to unload the bodies and put them into the bigger truck, but it made a lasting impression on me.
While I was watching those Army grunts offload the dead, one of the body bags fell open and the dead soldier’s face was exposed. He was looking at me and I was staring at him. The soldiers re-covered his face quickly. He was the first American soldier I’d seen dead. It was kind of a shock, being unexpected and all.
About that time, the Marine jeep rumbled into the crossing (Marines never do anything with subtlety), and I climbed aboard. As we bounced down a dusty two-track that led, eventually, to their small firebase (just 19 Marines if memory serves) where I’d just been assigned. I remember thinking, “Good, now I can forget about that.” But you can’t.
Just like the rest of my senior trip, courtesy of our Uncle Sam, that brief moment comes back at odd times, sometimes in a dream, sometimes when you hear a sharp noise or a yell in the distance or see a shadow crossing behind you and you remember his face staring at you. It’s weird, but not scary. It just is.
Sometimes things you’d rather forget pop uninvited into your mind as you stare reflectively out the window at the mountains. Sometimes it’s the faces you see flickering in the flames of a lonely campfire. Less often these days it’s about the waking with a start in the middle of the night, your body covered with a cold sweat. Like your great-uncle and your stepfather and those who served before them, back to the American Revolution and even before, your war is a part of who you are and always will be. It’s the price of being for a reluctant warrior.
I think that when history looks back on any war and counts the dead, it does so with a basic indifference. The warriors who were there, the families which sent them, the women and children and yes, the parents who stayed behind, not so much. Emotionally, these people are usually very involved.
Even as we build monuments to our warrior dead, we continue to kill and destroy in the names of countless religions and in the belief that somehow, we, regardless of which side we are on, are the ones with God on our side. Along the way the opportunists of our world pillage the graves, sell their inventory, bankroll more millions and sleep soundly through the night.
There’s a country song that I like. I believe it’s by an artist named Jimmy Flowers, about his visit to the Vietnam memorial in Washington, D.C. In the song, some dead soldier’s mother is, through tear-streaked eyes, making an etching of his name and praying to God to let her son know that he’s more than just a name on a wall. Understand that regardless of when they fell, or where they fell, or whose country they were dying for, they are all more than just a name on a wall. They were all a part of someone’s family and, now, a missing piece of some family’s future.
Centuries from now, when we are gone, history being those twins of impersonal reflection and uncaring empathy, and the stone edifices commemorating the Faustian glories of war have crumbled into the soil, the flesh that supported them corrupted, and the wind singing lonely dirges to what was once the power of men, no trace will remain of what once was.
In the end, eternity decrees their fate to be nothing more than a name on a wall. And that only until the wall crumbles into dust, like those ancient warriors. Any fame or glory, if that truly exists, it exists only in the hearts of those who cared. It is for us to remember their names and, yes, their deeds, too.
God grant them the rest of the brave.