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I dreamed kind Jesus fouled the big guns’ gears; And caused a permanent stoppage in all bolts; And with a smile Mausers and Colts;
And rusted every bayonet with His tears.
“A Soldier’s Dream”, Wilfred Owen
There weren’t a lot of guys in Vietnam who had ever heard of Wilfred Owen. So chances are there were many who had ever read the poem that begins this piece. It is not too far a reach, however, to say that every grunt in Vietnam whispered fervent, personal versions of “A Soldier’s Dream” during the first five seconds of his first firefight.
I first mumbled my own rendition of Owen’s dream on a bloody killing ground outside Phu Loi within days of arriving in the inferno. Broken bodies and detached limbs were strewn around the ground the way auto parts litter a junkyard. I’ve yet to know which was more chilling: the screaming of the wounded or the silence of the dead.
One of our victims was searched when the shooting stopped and the bleeding continued and was found to be in possession of a medal. Our interpreter told us it was for heroism at the Battle of Dien Bien Phu fourteen years previous. While we were sent to war to fight communism, he had fought his whole life for his country’s right to self-determination. We traveled 12,000 miles to kill him for that. Lying next to him was a teenager who looked even younger than most of our own troops. He carried with him a diary of his journey –all on foot –from his home near Haiphong to this bleak, unnamed battlefield where his short life ended in a firestorm of shellfire and relentless attack from my platoon.
The soldiers lying dead at our feet and by our hands had walked into an ambush. We had become murderously adept at killing from ambush under the relentless teaching of sergeants who told us “killing is our business and business is good.” Before most of the kids in my platoon had come to Vietnam, the most important decision they had made was who to take to the senior prom. Now, they were learning to pick out targets.
So it was that I learned that war is a surrealistic penal colony for the young patriots of the real world who must pay the price for the believable myths of national furors and private enterprise. I saw these young kids, just months removed from the halls of high school live in ways no one was meant to live and die in ways those back home could never even imagine. For eleven months, I would stomp through steaming rice paddies and prowl the dark and bloody jungles, sometimes looking for “enemy” to kill and others, screaming to the heavens for simple survival. We found it easier to say “I killed the enemy today” than to accept that we took the life of another human being. We’d been steeped in the fundamental beliefs of the Judeo-Christian ethic and recognized that one of the great taboos in that tradition was the taking of human life. Now, we were rewarded for becoming proficient at killing.
Before coming to Vietnam, I had been indoctrinated both my country and my church that the fight against “godless communism” was a just and moral war. But after my first taste of the sour bile of combat, I knew there would be no victor in this war, no matter how moral was our cause. I went off imbued with the belief in the righteousness of our moral war only to come home and rarely feel righteous or moral ever again.
We fought with men we didn’t hate, sent to that fight by men I didn’t trust and for more than three decades, I’ve struggled with the guilt and the isolation that is part of survival. I’ve rarely been able to shake the feeling that I had stolen something from those who died. In reality, of course, we all died there: some the swift certain death borne on a bullet; others the slower, spiritual death that comes from guilt and the liability of remembering too well.
So many believe it heroic and patriotic to send young men and women off to war and as long as they do, young men and women will be sent. Should I ever have the choice again, rather than lead a million boys to war, I would rather die alone –for peace.
That is this old soldier’s dream.
For his service in Vietnam, Steven 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, both in Buffalo and nationally. This essay originally appeared in The Buffalo Report.