This I Believe
In 1970 I stood on the shore of the South China Sea aiming my M-16 rifle at a flotilla of sampans full of unarmed Vietnamese men, women and children. When the Lance Corporal shouted “Fire!” I lowered my sites and discharged my weapon into the surf. Others, right and left, did not.
I grew up in a small town in upstate New York having learned well the commandment not to kill. But at nineteen, I was still uncertain enough of what my family, community and church had taught me that I was willing to allow the Marines to tell me that there were moral reasons for killing. The Marines took my nineteen year old beliefs, bent, hammered and forged them into a weapon. The Marines drilled into me that in war one should “Kill or be killed.” I took this as a survival truth and, frankly, I still believe it.
What I didn’t know until after the war is that the sampan incident had set up a camp of shame and guilt in my heart, despite the fact that I did not shoot at the anyone. I tortured myself again and again with the knowledge that I should have stopped the shooting. I knew that my nineteen year old self had known right from wrong. Thus I believed that I had failed a moral test, and would pay for it through the rest of my life.
What I did not know was that my plea to my fellow soldiers to stop shooting needed to be a screamed; and if that didn’t work, perhaps I should have even turned my weapon on them. But I was too enmeshed in the band of brothers to step fully away from them. Maybe the older man I am today would have been able to stop them, but the truth is I am not even certain of that.
After years of torment, and therapy of every sort, I have found some relief in recognizing the harsh judgment I have aimed at the younger man–the boy–that I was in 1970. As an older man I have begun to see how that judgment is keeping my own cycle of self hatred alive.
So what I have come to believe is that my story must be told, and my voice must be loud enough for others to hear. If I leave it buried under the black marble slab in DC along with the millions of other war stores waiting to be exhumed, it will continue killing me. With these stories secreted in veteran’s memories, society remains in denial that their freedoms have been paid for with the taking of human life. The buried pain, shame, guilt and grief needs to be told so everyone man, woman and child’s soul in our country can help lift the burden off the hearts and minds of the soldiers who have fought for them. Our soldiers coming home from Iraq and Afghanistan need to recognize that most soldiers are not heroes. When they look down at their own trembling hands and their own half whispered complaints to stop the killing, they desperately need to know that there are many of us who have been there. They are not alone.
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