Death with Honor

Most of the countries of Europe have experienced war firsthand. They know the grim reality of people killing each other to achieve dominance. We Americans, except for our experience of 9/11, lack those memories. That makes us more willing to consider going to war because we don’t understand how unspeakably gruesome it is.

I’m in the odd position of having survived combat not as a soldier but as a civilian. I never served on the battlefield when I was in the army, but I saw plenty of combat after I completed my military service. For thirteen years, on and off, I was a National Security Agency employee operating under cover in support of the troops fighting in Vietnam. My cover during those years was as an army soldier or a Marine.

The memories of living through combat dominate my writing. I am repeatedly struck by the blissful ignorance of the American population of the ghastliness of combat. Several passages in my novel Last of the Annamese address that gap in our understanding. Here’s one, in which the protagonist, who had been through combat himself, considers the death of his son in Vietnam:

“He died with honor.” That’s what his commanding officer had written. Sounded so dignified, so orderly. Evoked pictures of young heroes standing tall in beams of sunlight with the flag unfurled next to them while the strains of martial music swelled. Chuck could feel good about it, proud even, as long as he didn’t have to smell the burning flesh, didn’t have to hear the screams, didn’t have to see the dismembered bodies and guts spattered across the battlefield. He shook his head. The lies we tell ourselves.

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