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I Was a Soldier Once

I was a soldier once, although I would like to believe that only my imagination could have created anything as horrific as war. Vietnam is a continuing nightmare in my life, a nightmare from which I have never been able to awaken.

I was also young once, although I never felt young after Vietnam. Bullets and shrapnel can make you feel a lot older than your years, and turning teenagers into killers really sucks the youth and innocence out of you. Before my “men” came to me, the biggest decision they’d ever made was who to ask to the senior prom. I taught them how to decide in which order we would kill from ambush.

There are scars where I once had feelings. There are voids were I once had emotions. The viciousness and the violence of combat have to be experienced to be understood. The shrill, desperate cries of the wounded echo incessantly. But the silence of the dead resonates with equal clarity and the hardest lessons were taught in that deafening silence.

I learned such a lesson standing in half-darkness on a dirt path that the map said was “Highway 13”. It was the start of another day, and that meant another night of praying that Vietnam was just a bad dream had gone unanswered. The still water in front of me caught the first faint fingers of morning light and the rising sun revealed a swathe of rice paddies stretched to a thick tree line a mile away. The enemy, we were told, was in the tree line. Our mission for this new day was to go there and kill them. As far as I could see, men and machines were poised to execute the mission.

The sight of the paddies helped me deny my fear. Each paddy brimmed with muddy brown water, but there wasn’t a pump or a hose or a mechanical sprinkler system anywhere in sight. In Vietnam, bamboo “pipes” and gravity spill water from one paddy to the next in a continuing cycle of life. The system was stunning in its simplicity and hypnotic in its beauty.

As light turned to heat, our line of tanks and tracks started their engines, belching exhaust and noise. The rising roar of the engines made pebbles dance in the dusty road. An unseen voice bellowed “Lock and load!” and the slide of every heavy machine gun clicked as a signal that the .50 caliber rounds were chambered and ready to kill the enemy.

While we prepared to take the tree line from the enemy, an old, gnarled farmer came down the path, herding a giant water buffalo with a slender, bamboo reed. He stopped not far from me and, as he must have done everyday for decades, rolled up the legs of his pants, threw a burlap bag of rice over his shoulder, and waded into the water to plant his crop. If he noticed that his world was vibrating under the firepower massed on the road that morning, he didn’t let on. Armies could waste time on the business of death, but he had the work of life to do.

A green flare shot up over the rice paddy and the tanks and trucks and boots started toward the tree line and the enemy. Wading through knee-deep water and scrambling over dikes was tough going for us, but it was easy going for the tanks. They just crushed everything in their way: rice, dikes, bamboo–everything. I sloshed past the old farmer. I saw him watching helplessly as the work of generations was destroyed before his eyes. I saw a tear in his eye and I was saddened. I saw the hatred in his face and I was stunned. I didn’t understand. We were the good guys–we were on his side. We risked our lives and killed “the enemy” for him. Yet he knew we were killing him, too. We were killing the crop that would feed his family. The only difference between a bullet and starvation was speed. That was when I knew that we could never win the war.

When I was a soldier, and when I was young, I saw war and I learned that no one ever wins a war, because war does not win peace. Today, as the tocsins sound and the forces prepare to kill, we should remember that when armies fight, people die: friend and foe, soldier and civilian. They die in terrible, twisted ways. The lucky die by bombs and bullets. The less fortunate die from disease, despair and starvation. They die on the battlefield and on the streets. They die in their homes and they die in their hearts.

War is indiscriminate and gluttonous. When the killing starts, it is hard to control and even harder to stop. War is an evil genie that doesn’t want to be put back in the bottle. It ravages combatants and civilians alike, because it kills all it touches. Being killed destroys the body. Killing destroys the mind and the spirit of everyone, not just “the enemy.”

The Roman poet Horace once romanticized war when he said: “it is sweet and fitting to die for one’s country.” In World War I, Wilfred Owen, a poet and platoon leader, called that notion “the old lie.” Ernest Hemingway, who also knew war, re-defined Horace again when he wrote: “In modern war, there’s nothing sweet or fitting. You die like a dog for no good reason.”

All that I know of war and the little I know of peace convince me the only sure path to victory is the path to peace.

Steven 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, both in Buffalo and nationally. He can be reached at: mailto:stbanko3@adelphia.net

 

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