On Vietnam, again

Earlier this week, when only halfway through reading Dave Grossman’s book On Killing, I wrote a post theorizing that veteran participation in anti-war protests during the Vietnam war was a factor in losing the war – and that this veteran participation was driven by army training that intentionally programmed these soldiers to overcome their natural resistance to killing.

The day after writing that piece, I spent several hours finishing reading the book. I was especially looking forward to reading Grossman’s section that focused on killing in Vietnam. I was surprised to discover that this one section was surprisingly disjointed from the rest of the book. This one section stands apart from the others because of how little Grossman connects the killing that took place in Vietnam with the theses he develops earlier in the book (and draws together in his final section – on violent video games and other media as haphazardly programming young Americans to overcome their natural resistance to killing – without the authority structures that the military provides.)

Search and Destroy

la Drang Valley, Vietnam, 1965
army.mil photo in the public domain via Wikimedia Commons


There is a great deal of interesting, and sometimes even helpful information in the Vietnam section of the book, but in spite of his earlier warnings about the dire consequences of overcoming the natural resistance to killing, there is little in this section about the emotional consequences of this training on Vietnam vets. Grossman talks in great detail about the programming that occurred in boot camps, about how focused it was on overcoming killing resistance. He also contends that this was true to an extent that has not been matched since. (Instructing the boys to chant “kill” with every other footfall when marching together at boot camp, etc.) But he doesn’t carry his earlier concerns with the unreflective application of this policy, aside from his troubling suggestion that even those who did not kill when in Vietnam (because of their jobs, such as supply truck driver) could be plagued with guilt – because of the unprecedented certainty that they could have killed – and that they were more than ready to do so.

Instead, these sections are filled with other things that made Vietnam different – more traumatic – than other wars before it. Grossman talks about the lack of soldiers who served in other wars serving in Vietnam – so that there were no reassuring father figures in units – even the officers were young and green. He points out that the soldiers didn’t have a rear line – that there was no safe place to withdraw to for R&R – the soldiers were completely surrounded by a seemingly endless war zone. And the North Vietnamese were a cunning foe, whose leaders had made the decision to force the Americans in to atrocities – such as by training small children to throw grenades at soldiers, leaving them with the choice of losing the war to children or shooting children. Grossman writes that these methods were intended both to traumatize the soldiers and to turn public opinion against the war. Add all this to poor unit cohesion because of rotating replacements, both legal and illegal drug use (apparently the Army doctors routinely prescribed anti-anxiety meds and sent troubled soldiers back out – setting them up for more trauma later on), the lack of a decompression buffer between the war and home, and an unappreciative American public, and no wonder this was such a psychologically devastating war for so many.

All of this is important stuff to remember – doubtless any war is complicated, and any event draws together many different social and political and personal realities. There is no one answer – no pat narrative.

However –

It is very interesting to me that Grossman appears to believe that the trauma suffered by Vietnam veterans is mostly the responsibility of the average American civilian. Americans spit on returning troops, did not give them parades or a properly triumphal monument, or other celebrations. And it is because of this that we lost the war. When soldiers are made to kill, Grossman writes, the only thing that can re-integrate them into society is a ritual that recognizes their return as especially honored members of society.

Of all the people Grossman blames for the multi-faceted debacle that was Vietnam, the one group he has no harsh words for are the American military officers and other engineers of US military policy during the Vietnam era. Which is perhaps unsurprising for someone who was trained as an officer right after Vietnam (by men who had been officers in Vietnam, perhaps?) Though he does acknowledge this implicitly in a brief mention of the Weinberger doctrine, the idea that the Department of Defense was surprisingly unreflective in its direction of Vietnam goes unmentioned.

For instance – since we live in a country that values freedom of expression, if civilians celebrating the returning soldiers is critical to the success of the war, then perhaps the government is responsible for selling the war to the civilian population, and not going to war when it cannot do so. For instance, perhaps if being made to kill against one’s natural inclinations creates a need for spontaneous and genuine public approval, then high ranking army officers should think twice about making anyone kill against their natural inclinations – since sincerity is, by definition, impossible to demand.

Perhaps the chip on Grossman’s shoulder about Vietnam is equally matched by my own – as a Christian committed to non-violence, I find it deeply offensive for all anti-war protestors to be lumped together as the type of people who would spit on other people (that sort of hateful behavior is not only unloving but violent.) Furthermore, I don’t see it as my responsibility to tell someone that I am proud of them for shooting other people when I find shooting other people abhorrent. They are not suffering because I failed to be proud of them, but because they shot someone. I have a great deal of love for those men and women who have ended up in situations where they have killed another person, and this love is expressed as grief, both for and with them.

Whether or not the military chooses to recognize my freedom of conscience, God gave it to me – and I do not respond well to being told what behaviors I must celebrate. I take my orders from God, who tells me which people to love – and that would be all of them. That includes people towards whom the government would have me act unlovingly, in order that I might uncritically celebrate U.S. soldiers having killed them and their friends and family.

For me, loving people who are far away and dead or grieving is the easy part. But God help me, I am even called to love those who order “shoot!” to soldiers whose fingers tremble on their triggers, even to love those who send young men and women to far off places to kill other young people, even to love those who plot new ways to kill more people more easily. Coming from Northern Virginia, where I grew up immersed in the daily celebration of unchallenged American exceptionalism, my late childhood and adolescence was marked by disgust with that culture of war-profiteering and the people associated with it. Like anyone else, I have enemies, and loving them does not come easily to me. Thank God love does not mean unreserved approval of every bad idea a person has, or I’d be lost.

Lord, show me how I might better love my enemies. Transform me into one who is not merely wise as a serpent, nor only gentle as a dove, but both together. Amen.

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