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Advice from a Vietnam Vet

by Dr. Shepherd Bliss

I come from a fighting family. We gave our name to Ft. Bliss, Texas. I enlisted and became on officer in the U.S. Army during Vietnam.

When you kill someone, it is forever. They die, but the killing continues–inside you. When your nation kills people, especially innocent women and children, it is forever. The killing can continue, within you, when it is done in your name.

Our nation is still not over Vietnam, the war of my generation, or Iraq, the war of another generation. Now your generation, those of you of fighting age, has its own war.

You will be defined by that war and what you do during it, as my entire life was defined by the Vietnam War, and what I did during it. What you do in the days to come in response to this war will determine who you will become.

You can support the war, try to deny it, or work for peace with justice. Whatever you do, you will live with it for the rest of your life–your choice.

I implore you not to make the same mistake that I made and enlist in a war that kills innocent civilians. Don’t get caught up in a war hysteria that you could regret for the rest of your life. War trauma creates guilt, shame, and post traumatic stress syndrome.

At my vets group I listen to combat vets, which I am not. 30 years later, they are still trying to heal from the people they killed, still haunted by those they murdered. War wounds go deeply.

Since Sept. 11 we Americans have felt vulnerable, helpless, fearful, and angry. But America’s appropriate grief after the Sept. 11 attack was transformed into a war frenzy.

I have no sympathy for the unjustifiable Sept. 11 suicide attack, nor for the ruthless Taliban, nor for any terrorism. But I am concerned about killing innocent people. I think our focus should be on finding the perpetrators of the Sept. 11 crime and bringing them to justice.

As a young man, testosterone pumping through my body, the thought of war was exciting. It was a challenge–something big enough for my big energy. I’m an old man now, as are those who would send you into war. War is no longer exciting to me. My main message to you is simple–War is Hell.

I will be forever grateful to the Student Peace Union that finally reached this young soldier. The SPU organized me out of the army. They saved my soul, before I killed anyone, but I came so close. Don’t lose your soul.

During Vietnam the enemy was “the communists.” Now it is “Terrorism.” But terrorism is a symptom. Terrorism has no country. You cannot wage war on terrorism, because it is a methodology. Terrorism is transnational and global. You cannot use terrorism to end terrorism.

The U.S. did not win the Vietnam War and will probably not win in Afghanistan. Most scenarios would probably not lead to a moral or political victory for the U.S.

The U.S. military attack on foreign soil that has killed civilians will worsen rather than improve our national security, uniting more people against us. What we need is real defense. Our Department of Defense has too often been a War Deptartment on other people’s soil.

Lets focus on defending ourselves. Our security system failed. It is focused too much out there, rather than here at home. We need protection, not provocation.

May we mourn the innocent dead, wounded, and homeless and see beyond our borders to develop a species-wide identity that transcends narrow nationalism.

May the innocent people who happen to live in Afghanistan and the Middle East not be punished for the crimes of others.

May this tragedy open our eyes to our larger international context and our responsibilities as U.S. citizens to work for peace. May we condemn without reservation all terrorism, including that used by governments.

May this tragedy not shut us down, which terrorism too often does. A broken heart can be an open heart.

I would like to close with two brief poems–the first from Deena Metzger– “There are those who are trying to set fire to the world,/ we are in danger,/ there is time only to work slowly,/ there is no time not to love.”

The second is from Rumi, a Muslim poet who was born in what is today Afghanistan, “Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing,/ there is a field./ I’ll meet your there.”

And as the old book says, “Thou shalt not kill.” CP

Shepherd Bliss is a Vietnam Era vet and peace activist. He taught college for 20 years, is now an organic farmer, and can be reached at

Shepherd Bliss teaches college part time, farms, and has contributed to two-dozen books. He can be reached at:

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