The Ghastliness of Combat

A reader reacted to my blogs of the last two days asking just what memories we Vietnam veterans share. The answer is all the things we experienced. But the worst is combat.

No one who hasn’t lived through it can appreciate the grisliness of combat. Men doing all they can to kill one another is more ghastly than I have words for. I still have memories as vivid today as they were fifty years ago that I can’t talk about. Anyone who has survived combat is permanently changed by the experience. I’m persuaded that all suffer to some degree from Post-Traumatic Stress Injury.

I’ve talked before about why I call it “injury” and not “disorder.” My point is that the condition is a wound to the psyche inflicted from without, not an internal mental malady. The writers I most respect call it a wound to the soul. It’s permanent. It never fades. It’s with us always.

I’m grimly vindicated to note that contemporary writers are willing to describe in detail the horrors of the battlefield. They no longer avoid depicting broken bodies, severed limbs, and men engulfed in flame. The almost universal preference for emphasis on the glory and honor of the fighting man to the detriment of dealing with his physical suffering is more and more a thing of the past. Writers like Doug Stanton and Lucia Viti don’t hesitate to tell us what really happens. I’ve just begun Grossman’s On Combat (Warrior Science Publications, 2004) in hopes that it will help me come to terms with my own memories.

Why do I care? Because I want people to know. I want my fellow Americans to understand what we veterans have gone through, just as I want the facts about the Vietnam war to be public knowledge. When the truth is before us, we Americans can make informed decisions about avoiding or engaging in warfare.

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