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.

I’m sorry, part 2

I’m sorry.  I misled you.  Things are seldom as straightforward as they seem, and upon reflection, I oversimplified a much more complicated story.

In a previous post, I led with a story that was totally accurate, except for one thing – it was told without the context of “what happened next.”  What happened next was not so clear cut – in fact, what happened next might undercut the black and white “just take responsibility” angle that I pursued in that post.

So, ironically, I am in the position of admitting that I made a mistake (hasty and unreflective blogging) when posting about the importance of admitting your mistakes.

So – here is, as Paul Harvey would have it, the rest of the story:

When the day finally came for me to go to court, it was snowing.  And while admittedly my flannel sheets did not make it easier for my young self to roll out of bed, the main issue was that I was driving to the Fairfax County courthouse from Richmond, which residents of Virginia can tell you involves driving on Interstate 95.  In my case, driving towards D.C. during the rush hour, now in the snow.  Given the weather, the time I had allowed was totally inadequate, even if I had not gotten lost looking for the courthouse parking deck, and then lost again looking for the appropriate courtroom in the courthouse.  All in the pre-cell phone days.

Needless to say, I was late.  I had called my father to let him know when I was leaving Richmond, and he headed straight to the courthouse to meet me there.  And so I was not in court to plead guilty, as had been my intent.

Apparently, in traffic court, they ask everyone to plea first, and then after they have sorted through everyone, sentencing the “guilty” along the way, they get around to the business of trying the “not guilty.”  So when the judge called my name, my father stood up, and explained that I was on my way, in the snow, from Richmond (in his best “please be merciful on my eldest child” tone.)  And the judge said, “That’s fine.  Let’s assume a not guilty plea.”

I got to the courtroom and found my father.  I was in a panic, because the judge was calling on someone with the last name “R_____,” and my last name began with “C.”  Dad assured me that it was alright, and the judge would talk to me later.

“Dad!” I said, “I was going to plead guilty!”

“Hush!” he said. “You’re lucky you are not in trouble for being late to court!”

Then the time came for my hearing.  I was asked to stand.  The judge called the police officer, and asked him if he had actually seen the accident take place.  He said that he had not.  The judge asked if there was anyone present that had been at the scene.  There was not.  It was then that I spoke up, and said to the judge, “Excuse me, your honor, but may I say something?” The judge replied, “It would be better for you if you didn’t!”  And then after a pause to see if I would in fact ignore his advice, he declared, “We find the defendant not guilty. You are free to go.”

Walking away from the courthouse, I did not feel “not guilty.” I felt defeated.  I confessed to Dad that I felt dishonest – I should have taken responsibility, but my general fear of authority figures kicked in, and I had been unable to keep talking after his admonishment for speaking up in the first place.  Dad’s take was that it would have been no use – I would have gotten some points on my license and paid some small fine, his insurance payments would have gone up even more – but what would be the benefit of it?

The benefit, I guess, would have been a delay in my initiation into the realm of moral ambiguity – I wasn’t equipped to know what to make of my inability, in the end, to take responsibility.  And I still am not, in some ways – I still have to tell the story in such a way as to emphasize – “If I had been there earlier, I would have plead guilty!”  But I was not, and I did not – instead, I allowed a presumed not guilty plea to become a not guilty verdict.

Which all leads to the question – if I know that God has forgiven me, why do I have such a hard time forgiving myself?  So much so that I have separated this story in my mind into two separate, unrelated stories – a story about my freshness and integrity startling a young, but already jaded police officer, and a story that really no one wants to hear, because… it’s complicated.  My shame over this incident is sufficient that I have held it apart from God, refusing to let this memory be redeemed.

What if, instead, I were to imagine God knowing exactly what I would do in that situation? What if I needed to learn what I would do in that situation?  And what if that moment were to be a moment of grace, of understanding how easy it is not to take responsibility, and finding love and forgiveness for those who cannot, or do not take responsibility, even before they can find forgiveness for themselves, even before they know they need forgiveness?  What if – what if this moment of moral failure could become a moment of redemption and reconciliation?  And what if, finally, I were brought to the realization that grace is all about learning to accept being given a not guilty verdict when you know that you deserved to be found guilty?

I’m sorry

On my 22nd birthday, I was in a car accident.  I was driving on an unfamiliar road, and I did not notice the stop sign until too late.  Swerving to avoid running into the side of a van, I was unable to turn back into my lane in time to avoid oncoming traffic.  The total force of the front-impact collision was in the ball park of 60mph.  My car was totaled, the other young woman’s car was totaled, and traffic was backed up in both directions for a very long time.  Thankfully, no one was injured.

When the police officer arrived and began taking statements, I started by saying, “It’s my fault.  I ran the stop sign…”

He was flabbergasted.  “You’ve just made my job so much easier,” he said.

“Well,” I replied, “there’s no denying it.  It would be obvious to anyone that I’m to blame – there’s my car on the wrong side of the road.”

“Still,” he said, “you didn’t have to admit it to me.  I am going to be sure to mention in my report how cooperative you have been.”

Now it was my turn to be dumbstruck.  I didn’t have to admit that I was to blame?  Why wouldn’t I? When the officer asked me what happened, how could I possibly have told the story in a truthful way without admitting fault?  I guess I could have refused to comment on the accident, but to what end?

At the time I was still in college, so my parents were paying for my insurance.  When I was older, and began receiving my own insurance bills, I began receiving the semi-annual reminders to “never admit you are at fault at the scene of an accident.”  The insurance companies are protecting themselves from lawsuits – they want to string along the injured parties as long as they can, refusing to pay their claims.  It is harder to do that if there is a police statement saying that one or another party admitted fault at the scene.  No wonder the police officer had so rarely heard someone take responsibility for their mistake at the scene of an accident – usually people are following the orders of their insurance companies – admit no fault.

This seems to be an ingrained part of our culture – in order to (possibly) avoid having to make some sort of financial or other restitution down the road, it is vital to never ever admit that you are wrong.  And some people take their constitutional right not to incriminate themselves (in part meant to be a protection against being tortured or otherwise coerced into making a false confession) as a positive responsibility.  Very philanthropic of them – they are doing it for the Constitution!

It is hard to raise children to take responsibility for their actions in this kind of environment.  Whose orders shall we follow?  Those given to us by the legal department of our car insurance agency?  Taking responsibility means admitting when we are wrong, and being specific as to how and what we did wrong, to the best of our ability.  Taking responsibility means being clear about the extent to which we are in fact responsible for wrongdoing we have been involved in.

I caught about 5 minutes of the Diane Rehm show this morning on NPR – it was about apologies – I am guessing in the context of the rather unsatisfying buck passing that has constituted most of the oil spill related communications from BP.  (Note: they care about the little people.)  Though they may also have been inspired by various spokesmen (using the gendered version of the word advisedly) for the Catholic Church, who – though they have made many gestures and statements that go in the right direction – have made too many remarks suggesting that those who are concerned about child sexual abuse by priests are over-reacting.  And while Diane and her guests were talking about apologies from individuals speaking on behalf of corporate entities (governments, companies, churches, and the like), a lot of what they said was good general advice for making an apology: use strong, direct language, cite specific damages, say “I’m sorry” (without the next word being “but”), and include at least a suggestion that you intend to do better next time, and are in a position to do so.

We are given many opportunities to take responsibility for our actions.  Our Jewish sisters and brothers are encouraged to make amends with those they have injured over the past year in the days leading up to Yom Kippur.  Those in 12 step programs know that steps 8, 9, and 10 are all about making amends and taking responsibility.  And for us Christians, there is the passing of the peace.

The passing of the peace? Really? That interruption to the service where we get into a little chat with our neighbor, and desperately descend upon newcomers?  Yes, that’s the one i mean:

“So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there at the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift.” – Matthew 5:23-24 (NRSV)

The passing of the peace is meant (in part) to be a last minute opportunity before offering, before eucharist, to reconcile ourselves to anyone from whom we are estranged within the fellowship.  So next time the pastor invites you to share “signs of peace and reconciliation with your neighbor…” remember Jesus’ broad interpretation of that word “neighbor” – not necessarily the person nearest us in the pew.  Instead, cross the sanctuary if you have to – step out and call someone on your cell phone if you have to – reach out to one you have been reluctant to embrace, to one you have wronged in thought, word, or deed.  (Admittedly, I have not been in the business of doing this myself.  Perhaps we can all try something new this Sunday.)

Not sure where to start?  Perhaps it is best to begin with that word that we love to say when we are announcing our accomplishments, and that we avoid whenever there is a question of who to blame for a breach – “I” – a word that begins those difficult phrases, “I am to blame…” “I am sorry…” “I was inconsiderate…”  “I failed to…”

One thing that makes all of this easier is the assurance of love and forgiveness.  God loves us so much that Christ died for us while we were yet sinners!  We do not need to be mortified by our every mistake to the extent that we try to hide what we have done wrong.  God is not an abuser, and we are not playing some twisted, life-long game of “gotcha!” We are loved intimately by a God who knows every hair on our head and every thought inside of it.  Being so deeply and intimately loved is what gives us our freedom in Christ – freedom to admit our wrongdoing, and thus freedom to be reconciled to those whom we have wronged.

I wish that I could say that I have always admitted my mistakes as unselfconsciously as I did on my 22nd birthday, the day I totaled my beloved white manual transmission Mazda 626 with a moonroof.  (RIP, sweet Mazda.  Alas, I was her undoing!)   Too often I have tried to avoid taking responsibility for myself and my actions.  I’m sorry that I have tried to deflect blame, that I have fallen into the habit of first offering my excuses before even uttering the words, “I’m sorry.”  I hope that, as I come to more deeply and fully embrace God’s love and forgiveness for me, I will better be able to fearlessly admit my mistakes without trying to find someone else to blame for having made my mistake possible.  I want to do better – I hope I do better next time.