A Vietnam Vet on "Supporting the Troops"


I came home from my war in 1970 with a body still riddled with shrapnel and mind still muddled with a toxic cocktail of rage and guilt and fear. I tried with every fiber of my being to become myself again but always knowing that I would never be that person again. I would never again think the world would spin off its axis if Timon lost to Canisius. Nor would I ever again believe that a beer in the South Shore Beach Club in Angola would cure everything that ailed me. As much as I wanted to be me, the face staring back at me from the mirror was someone far different from what I saw before Vietnam. Lying in a hospital bed surrounded by boys whose bodies had been broken and battered will do that. So will lying in ambush and killing unsuspecting Vietnamese. So will the constant pain and the fatigue and the filth and the loneliness of war. Once you’ve been exposed, you’re a carrier of that virus forever. Innocence gets stripped away from your soul with all the pain of skin being peeled off your body. Any inherent goodness you might have possessed leaks out of your spirit.

I tried to pray my way out of my confusion and my anger and my pain. But those prayers were more a nostalgic genuflection to simpler prayers that asked God for a new catcher’s mitt or a new pair of Converse All-Stars. I didn’t really believe God would answer a killer’s prayers. I stopped when I became terrified that deafening silence that greeted my prayers might, indeed, be the voice of God.

One day a few weeks after I returned to be a civilian, a husband and a father in one fell swoop, the mail carrier showed up at my door with a package. In it was a Silver Star. The Silver Star is the nation’s third highest award for heroism and it was awarded to me by a mail carrier. When I told my father, he was livid. If you got that in my war, he said, you’d have a parade down Main Street. But that was the kind of war we fought: individual battles where mean survival was victory. As much as I was counseled to forget about the war and get on with my life, and as much as I really want to do so, each of us who fought in Vietnam was spiritually captured by it, and most remain to this day prisoners of their own war. In my eyes, the war was over. In my mind it was over too: over and over and over again in a continuous loop.

In all that confusion, I felt a need justify what I’d done. You can’t just walk away from something like that without some sense of ratification. We looked to our peers but found none. We looked to our country and found even less. So we were left to explain our sacrifice to ourselves. In that muddle, I latched on to the immutable notion that what I did was right and just because the cause was right and just. I wrote angry essays defending American involvement in Vietnam. I castigated those who tried to cast aspersions on returning veterans. I engaged politicians who refused to vote for more jobs and more benefits for Vietnam veterans. I incurred the wrath of UB students and professors with my vigorous defense of the war. I made my support for the war literally who I was. So when public affairs television producers like Marilyn Stahlka were looking for hawks to take on the vocal left wing of the Vietnam veterans’ movement, they found me lurking at every turn–only me.

I was trotted out with maddening frequency to engage two or three anti-war veterans at least once a month. Ms. Stahlka seemed more like my agent than a producer. I would take on Gail Graham on one program and go against an old St. Bonaventure classmate, Bob Godlove on another. I would rip into them questioning everything from their fidelity to fellow veterans to their loyalty to their country to their worth as human beings. I saved my most venomous vitriol for Robert Beyer, whose son Bruce had fled to Canada to avoid the draft. Bob Beyer was one of the kindest and gentlest human beings I would ever encounter before or after Vietnam and my attacks on him remain a humiliation to me to this day. I don’t know whether I was more defeated by the simple soundness of Mr. Beyer1s arguments or his gentle demeanor in the face of my terrible personal attacks on him.

Many years later, when I admitted my alcoholism to myself and sought treatment, a psychiatrist asked me if I drank because of Vietnam or if I thought about Vietnam when I drank. Today, I ask myself a similar question: did I drink because of the guilt of surviving my war or did I drink because of the lies I was telling myself in defending the war?

Whatever the answer, sobriety and self-awareness helped me let go of my role as apologist for the Vietnam War. To accept my role in the war, I recalled those wonderful kids turned into men by war and turned into heroes in death. I recalled all the things we didn’t fight for and accepted how bravely we fought for each other. I recognized that I could hate the war and still love the warrior, even though many in my generation lacked the intellectual sophistication to do so.

I still wonder if I could have done things differently in Vietnam. I wonder if I could have been better at protecting my men. But what I also wonder is how many kids died while I was promoting their need to be in Vietnam? Three long years passed while I was locked into the sad notion that we best supported the troops by being champions of their mission and cheerleaders for their cause. How many more boys were killed from 1970 to 1973? Did I have complicity in their deaths? These questions weigh as heavily today as did memories of the war yesterday.

The rhetoric I hear today sounds like an echo from my painful past. We are being told that we have to ‘stay the course.’ It’s necessary for some Americans to die for Iraqi democracy. The biggest lie of all is that it is unpatriotic to oppose further suffering, further maiming and further death in Iraq.

We now live in a bumper sticker world where the only truths we accept are those simplistic enough to fit on an 18-inch adhesive placard. More and more I seem to be seeing ‘Support Our Troops’ stickers. That is advice well taken by me and by everyone. Support our troops indeed–bring them home now.

Stephen T. Banko III was awarded two Silver Stars, four Bronze Stars, the Air Medal and four Purple Hearts. He has long been active in veteran’s affairs. He can be reached at: banko@counterpunch.org

October 07, 2015
Nancy Scheper-Hughes
Witness to a Troubled Saint-Making: Junipero Serra and the Theology of Failure
Luciana Bohne
The Double-Speak of American Civilian Humanitarianism
Joyce Nelson
TPP: Big Pharma’s Big Deal
Jonathan Cook
Israel Lights the Touchpaper at Al-Aqsa Again
Joseph Natoli
The Wreckage in Sight We Fail To See
Piero Gleijeses
Jorge Risquet: the Brother I Never Had
Andrew Stewart
Do #BlackLivesMatter to Dunkin’ Donuts?
Rajesh Makwana
#GlobalGoals? The Truth About Poverty and How to Address It
Joan Berezin
Elections 2016: A New Opening or Business as Usual?
Dave Randle
The Man Who Sold Motown to the World
Adam Bartley
“Shameless”: Hillary Clinton, Human Rights and China
Binoy Kampmark
The Killings in Oregon: Business as Usual
Harvey Wasserman
Why Bernie and Hillary Must Address America’s Dying Nuke Reactors
Tom H. Hastings
Unarmed Cops and a Can-do Culture of Nonviolence
October 06, 2015
Vijay Prashad
Afghanistan, the Terrible War: Money for Nothing
Mike Whitney
How Putin will Win in Syria
Paul Street
Yes, There is an Imperialist Ruling Class
Paul Craig Roberts
American Vice
Kathy Kelly
Bombing Hospitals: 22 People Killed by US Airstrike on Doctors Without Borders Hospital in Kunduz, Afghanistan
Ron Jacobs
Patti Smith and the Beauty of Memory
David Macaray
Coal Executive Finally Brought Up on Criminal Charges
Norman Pollack
Cold War Rhetoric: The Kept Intelligentsia
Cecil Brown
The Firing This Time: School Shootings and James Baldwin’s Final Message
Roger Annis
The Canadian Election and the Global Climate Crisis
W. T. Whitney
Why is the US Government Persecuting IFCO/Pastors for Peace Humanitarian Organization?
Jesse Jackson
Alabama’s New Jim Crow Far From Subtle
Joe Ramsey
After Umpqua: Does America Have a Gun Problem….or a Dying Capitalist Empire Problem?
Murray Dobbin
Rise Up, Precariat! Cheap Labour is Over
October 05, 2015
Michael Hudson
Parasites in the Body Economic: the Disasters of Neoliberalism
Patrick Cockburn
Why We Should Welcome Russia’s Entry Into Syrian War
Kristine Mattis
GMO Propaganda and the Sociology of Science
Heidi Morrison
Well-Intentioned Islamophobia
Ralph Nader
Monsanto and Its Promoters vs. Freedom of Information
Arturo Desimone
Retro-Colonialism: the Exportation of Austerity as War By Other Means
Robert M. Nelson
Noted Argentine Chemist Warns of Climate Disaster
Matt Peppe
Misrepresentation of the Colombian Conflict
Barbara Dorris
Pope Sympathizes More with Bishops, Less with Victims
Clancy Sigal
I’m Not a Scientologist, But I Wish TV Shrinks Would Just Shut Up
Chris Zinda
Get Outta’ Dodge: the State of the Constitution Down in Dixie
Eileen Applebaum
Family and Medical Leave Insurance, Not Tax Credits, Will Help Families
Pierre-Damien Mvuyekure
“Boxing on Paper” for the Nation of Islam, Black Nationalism, and the Black Athlete: a Review of “The Complete Muhammad Ali” by Ishmael Reed
Lawrence Ware
Michael Vick and the Hypocrisy of NFL Fans
Gary Corseri - Charles Orloski
Poets’ Talk: Pope Francis, Masilo, Marc Beaudin, et. al.
Weekend Edition
October 2-4, 2015
Henry Giroux
Murder, USA: Why Politicians Have Blood on Their Hands
Mike Whitney
Putin’s Lightning War in Syria