An Unwinnable War

An Unwinnable War

On April 30, 1975 the last Americans were airlifted out of Vietnam. Throughout the decade that followed we college professors would find in our classes older students, veterans from Vietnam, completing their education with the GI bill.

 Aired October 1985, WPR’s Morning Edition

We had been talking in the Introduction to Philosophy class about morality. Are there universal principles to be followed regardless of any consequences as the philosopher Immanuel Kant argued? Or is morality a question of causing the least pain and the most pleasure to the greatest number of people?  After class one of my older students, a veteran of the war in Vietnam, stayed behind. He wanted, he said, to me tell a story:

”In Vietnam, you know, you had to be strong and clever  I enlisted three times, because, well I guess because it was where the action was.  This one day I was on patrol with some buddies and we came to a deserted village. No one seemed to be there, but over at the side of the road I saw a kid, a girl, about nine years old.  She was sitting behind a kind of fence so I could only see her from the shoulders up. I looked at her and she smiled at me. I took out my gun and shot her in the head. My buddies, younger guys, turned on me. “Why did you do that for?” I went over and looked behind the fence. Sure enough, she was sitting on a sachell full of explosives. A few more minutes and we would all have been dead.”

You are probably thinking: why I am repeating such a story?  Is there any point to remembering such things, going back over all of it again, just when we are beginning to forget that there are situations in which a parent can be in such extremity that they sit down their child on a satchel of explosives, how a soldier can learn to take pride in his cleverness, shooting a child who smiled at him from behind a fence?

I felt the same way that day, as my student started to go on with another story this time about a boy in a rice field with a hidden plunger. I stopped him. I said I was busy. Had to leave.

But the picture—the girl behind the fence, her flowered dress, her smile, the hush of a deserted village, the lone singing of a bird, and then the shots— would not go away. He carries it around with him. He gives it to me. I carry it around. I give it to you. But giving it away does not make it go away, that picture, and so many others.  Like some photographs I once found in a drawer in my father’s bedroom, taken in the streets of Hiroshima after the dropping of the atom bomb.

There is talk these days about whether a nuclear war can ever be won. What I wonder is whether any war can be won when it leaves behind soldiers who learn to kill a child without regret. My father said much the same to me one day when I asked him about his experiences in the Navy in World War II. . “Life is a jungle,” he said. “You learn to survive.”