FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

I Was a Soldier Once

by STEPHEN BANKO III

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

 

More articles by:
February 19, 2018
Rob Urie
Mueller, Russia and Oil Politics
Richard Moser
Mueller the Politician
Robert Hunziker
There Is No Time Left
Nino Pagliccia
Venezuela Decides to Hold Presidential Elections, the Opposition Chooses to Boycott Democracy
Daniel Warner
Parkland Florida: Revisiting Michael Fields
Sheldon Richman
‘Peace Through Strength’ is a Racket
Wilfred Burchett
Vietnam Will Win: Taking on the Pentagon
Patrick Cockburn
People Care More About the OXFAM Scandal Than the Cholera Epidemic
Ted Rall
On Gun Violence and Control, a Political Gordian Knot
Binoy Kampmark
Making Mugs of Voters: Mueller’s Russia Indictments
Dave Lindorff
Mass Killers Abetted by Nutjobs
Myles Hoenig
A Response to David Axelrod
Colin Todhunter
The Royal Society and the GMO-Agrochemical Sector
Cesar Chelala
A Student’s Message to Politicians about the Florida Massacre
Weekend Edition
February 16, 2018
Friday - Sunday
Jeffrey St. Clair
American Carnage
Paul Street
Michael Wolff, Class Rule, and the Madness of King Don
Andrew Levine
Had Hillary Won: What Now?
David Rosen
Donald Trump’s Pathetic Sex Life
Susan Roberts
Are Modern Cities Sustainable?
Joyce Nelson
Canada vs. Venezuela: Have the Koch Brothers Captured Canada’s Left?
Geoff Dutton
America Loves Islamic Terrorists (Abroad): ISIS as Proxy US Mercenaries
Mike Whitney
The Obnoxious Pence Shows Why Korea Must End US Occupation
Joseph Natoli
In the Post-Truth Classroom
John Eskow
One More Slaughter, One More Piece of Evidence: Racism is a Terminal Mental Disease
John W. Whitehead
War Spending Will Bankrupt America
Robert Fantina
Guns, Violence and the United States
Dave Lindorff
Trump’s Latest Insulting Proposal: Converting SNAP into a Canned Goods Distribution Program
Robert Hunziker
Global Warming Zaps Oxygen
John Laforge
$1.74 Trillion for H-bomb Profiteers and “Fake” Cleanups
CJ Hopkins
The War on Dissent: the Specter of Divisiveness
Peter A. Coclanis
Chipotle Bell
Anders Sandström – Joona-Hermanni Mäkinen
Ways Forward for the Left
Wilfred Burchett
Vietnam Will Win: Winning Hearts and Minds
Tommy Raskin
Syrian Quicksand
Martha Rosenberg
Big Pharma Still Tries to Push Dangerous Drug Class
Jill Richardson
The Attorney General Thinks Aspirin Helps Severe Pain – He’s Wrong
Mike Miller
Herb March: a Legend Deserved
Ann Garrison
If the Democrats Were Decent
Renee Parsons
The Times, They are a-Changing
Howard Gregory
The Democrats Must Campaign to End Trickle-Down Economics
Sean Keller
Agriculture and Autonomy in the Middle East
Ron Jacobs
Re-Visiting Gonzo
Eileen Appelbaum
Rapid Job Growth, More Education Fail to Translate into Higher Wages for Health Care Workers
Ralph Nader
Shernoff, Bidart, and Echeverria—Wide-Ranging Lawyers for the People
Chris Zinda
The Meaning of Virginia Park
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail