Feature Article
The Good War An Old Soldier


I'M THIS GRIZZLED OLD GUY, this retiree, sitting on his front porch, feeding the jays, trying to understand, trying to figure out what should be done, what I should do. When I moved away from the city, I didn't think that the matters of the world would be so heavy on me. But without the distractions, the traffic and all, and being worried for me and the wife all the time, it seems like here, in the mountains, in this beauty, in this quiet, the world is more with me now than it's ever been. I don't have that much to do, I guess. I watch the TV. That's how I see the world and why it's with me the way it is.

This thing in Bosnia is different. Isn't it, Jaybird? Isn't it Mr. Scrub Jay? Did we ever see such things in other wars? Did we ever see the women and children so much? I don't remember seeing the women and children so much. You turn away from the TV when you see a child all shot up. I can't look. I turn away. And my wife won't watch the news anymore. In my life I've never seen such. God help us--the children.

In other wars you'd just hear things on the radio. Or you'd read about it in the papers and it kept those horrible things separated, away from you. You never even heard about the children, much less see them. You'd hear "The allied forces established a beachhead," or "Our boys approached the such and such parallel and victory now seems certain." Or in the movie theaters in a newsreel with that music, "The Eyes and Ears of the World, The End," we were always winning it seemed. Waving soldiers. G.I. Joe smoking that cigarette and waving. And we fought on battlefields. Like there were these places that were made just for war: Battlefields. Safely away from the cities and the civilians. And you only saw women and children when there were parades when we liberated the city. They would wave, always waving. The children riding the shoulders of grateful parents. Smiling. Waving. Thanks for saving us, they were saying. Our boys were on the tanks waving back. Weren't there flowers handed up to our boys?

It seemed so clear. It was a good war. That's what we called World War Two, "the Good War." Clear objectives. We knew why we were there. The Good War.

You didn't hear about Dresden until later. I read about what happened in Dresden. Became harder to call WW Two a good war after I understood about Dresden. We firebombed Dresden, you know? And it wasn't clear that it was necessary. It wasn't a, whatchacallit? whatchacallit, Jaybird? Strategic--a strategic city. And the soldiers, German soldiers who would always go into their cities to clean things up, remove the bodies, would not remain in Dresden. Would not do their duty there. They disobeyed orders and the officers had to do it. Think of a German soldier disobeying an order. This is hard to say, what happened, but the civilians hid in basements from the fire. Horrible thing, firebombing. The city, all that beautiful city, was on fire, the sky was fire and everybody, all the women and children, old people, hid in the basements. And the soldiers who went in after the firebombing, refused their duty because of the horrors they saw. I won't tell you what they saw. No, I just can't say it.

Aren't we supposed to be better than that, Jay? Aren't we with the angels? Isn't that right? God almighty, Jay. That's what I always heard. Of the stuff of angels. Don't we leave the horrors and the violence to your kind, the animals, Jay? You in particular, Jay. You scare away the other birds from the feeders we put up. Naw. Naw, we can't blame you. We're no better. Not any more. Not after seeing what we see on TV every night. The children.

There was something else from the good war. The Saint Louis. You know about that? Nine hundred and thirty-six Jews we wouldn't let in. Refugees from Hitler's Europe aboard the Saint Louis, Hamburg-America Line's ship. And they tried to dock in Cuba and couldn't pay the bribe, weren't let in. They circled in the Atlantic off Florida and we wouldn't let them in either. The United States. The Immigration Service under the orders of the anti-Semites who ran the State Department wouldn't let them in and they had to go back to Europe. And we know what happened to most of them there. In Hitler's Europe. Nine-hundred and thirty six. Off Florida. The United States. That was 1939 but I count it with the Good War.

I'm having a little trouble with those words, putting those words together "good," and "war." I don't think they work that well together. And the railroad tracks leading into Auschwitz. We could have bombed those tracks. Didn't. Why not? I don't know. I don't know why not, Jay.

I got a little drunk the other night. I found my uniform from when I was in the peacetime service. I tried to put it on. First I just laid it on the bed, on the chenille bedspread, and looked at it and then I tried to put it on. It was funny, Jay. The pants barely got above my knees. I'd have to lose a foot or so from my gut to get those two pieces of olive drab anywhere close and zip up. Then maybe I could put on the blouse. If I lost a foot from my gut. That's what the jacket was called, a "blouse." What the hell was I thinking of? Why would I try and put that uniform on? Is there a war for me? Was I thinking about Bosnia? I weighed one-six-five when I got out. That's what the DD 214 says. I found my discharge papers in the lock box under the bed. Crawled under the bed, drunk. The metal box with the insurance, the marriage certificate-behind a suitcase and next to a lost sock and a cat toy. In the dust. Today I weigh two-thirty. I don't walk enough. Drink too much. Don't have that much to do. Just watch TV.

The DD two-fourteen says "Expert (Rifle M-1), Expert (Carbine), Good Conduct Medal" under the category of "DECORATIONS, MEDALS, BADGES, COMMENDATIONS, CITATIONS, AND CAMPAIGN RIBBONS AWARDED OR AUTHORIZED." Seems like there should have been more. But, hell, I was in the peacetime service. Drank for two years on Okinawa. I think I got that stuff out, the uniform and the DD 214 because I was thinking about going into Bosnia. That's the truth, Jaybird. Isn't that stupid? Yeah, I was thinking about Bosnia. I was thinking of calling Clinton. Do, something, boy! I'm sorry to say it about our Commander In Chief but he is one sorry excuse. He promised to do something about Bosnia, goddamnit! If he only had some character. If he would only make some noise. We're still the greatest nation. Couldn't he make some noise?

Bill! Bill Clinton! There's a boatload of Bosnians circling off the coast of Florida! Let them dock, Bill. Send out the Navy with an escort. There are railroad tracks outside of Sarajevo. Women and children on those trains being taken to their deaths. You gotta bomb those tracks, Bill. They're firebombing Srebrenica. Get the women and children out of the basements. They'll die there. Hell, I'll go. I'll help out. I'll lose weight, put my uniform on; I'll get in fighting trim. They need medicine and food there. We gotta help those children. I'll go. I'll get the medicine through. There are doctors doing amputations without anesthetics. Parachute me in with anesthetics and antibiotics and food packs. I was an expert rifleman with my carbine.

But none of that works, Jaybird. Naw, I don't think it does. What happens in war is that everything is so confused. There are no surgical strikes like they talk about on TV. It's, "Is that the target? Is that the target?" And no bomb could be "smart." In Desert Storm, not one Scud missile site was destroyed from the air. Not one. Thousands of sorties. Pentagon admitted it. Heard it on TV. Naw, we would fly in with our smart bombs and miss those railroad tracks and destroy a city block. Know what would happen? We would sink a ship from the Carnival Cruise Line trying to bring the Bosnians ashore. And they'd drop me in and I'd have my carbine and the medicine and food in a pack on my back and I'd be trying to find the clinic to give them the medicine and I would kill a house full of women and children with a grenade. I'd see a shape and I would panic and I would hit the deck and pull the pin and lob it and the shape would have been a dog with a child clutching its neck. A whole house full. That's the way it is with war. Any war.

And I'm not listening to "wars have always been and will always be" anymore. I'm tired of hearing that crap when I have to see those children on the TV for so many years now. And now they are in my dreams. The TV has given me these terrible pictures, these children in my dreams.

I don't know, Jaybird. I don't know anything, really. But I have to tell you what I keep seeing. I'd be lying to you if I didn't tell you what I keep seeing. I'd guess you'd call it a vision. It'll be crazy, but I'll tell you anyway. I see war ending. I do. No, not just the war in Bosnia. I said, I see war ending. Because of this strangest thing: the presence of...I call them "witnesses." I told you it was crazy and I don't know exactly what I mean, but I know I don't mean world leaders with their limousines in Geneva and their helicopters and conferences and studies and their politics. They are not the witnesses. Because they are not part of the war. No, they are never part of any war. People like me are part of the war, and we are the witnesses. First we're the witnesses of TV. And war is on the TV only because it's good for the ratings, and we watch the TV because we're retired and have nothing to do. But then something happens because we have seen the women and the children on the litters and in the hospitals and seen the refugees. And we see the people in the cities trying to go on with their lives, doing that low walk, hoping the snipers won't see them. And we see the farmers trying to go on with their lives, digging in the ground, continuing the planting when the bombs can be heard so near. On the TV. They don't even look up. These people. They continue their work; they defy the bombs.

And then something happens. This is my vision. The crazy vision, Jaybird. Witnesses. Not just of TV anymore. We're not just seeing it on the TV anymore. We are there. Really there. In Bosnia. We're standing in the streets. And around gun emplacements and rocket launchers. And among the soldiers. Standing all among the soldiers. And next to fighter planes. And with the generals and the other leaders. And we are protecting the women and children. And we are in the fields with the farmers. And we are silent, just standing. There's too much talk. We are silent. And by our presence and our silence we are saying, We are the witnesses and now this must end. ###

Originally published in THE VETERANS FOR PEACE JOURNAL of Spring 1994.




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