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The Other Side of War: A Moment With Bill Reflection
Some Opening Thoughts
On September 9, 1943, Operation Avalanche was begun as the United States 5th Army invaded Italy at Salerno. In an attempt to achieve surprise, there was no pre-invasion bombardment of the beachhead.
There was no surprise. The enemy was waiting, heavily fortified with guns trained on the incoming amphibious landing craft.
It was a bloodbath.
I know because my father was there.
I was twelve when I first asked my dad to tell me some war stories. My experience with war, to that date, had been the standard Hollywood fare that was served up en masse after the war, with John Wayne shooting the bad guys, and red water colors splashed on the actors to signify a wound.
Dad chose the invasion at Salerno as my baptism of fire and it is one I’ll never forget. It went something like this:
The first sensation is fear. Did you know you can smell fear, Bill? Well you can, and I smelled it that day. It took about fifteen minutes to reach the beach from the ship, and during those fifteen minutes the fear grew and so did the stench. Grown men were shitting and peeing themselves as we got closer to the beach.
Suddenly your craft runs aground and the gate drops and there is screaming and bullets buzzing…it sounds like millions of pissed off hornets, the sky is filled with them, and you stagger off of the craft into chest deep water and start to push towards shore, which is really madness when you think about it because that’s where those damn hornets are coming from, and if they “sting” you then you are dead, and you are walking right at them.
I fell down a couple times, tripping over men I guess, and the water was turning red, and then shells started bursting all over, and an arm floats by and then a leg, and guys you had trained with have lifeless eyes and torn out guts and the damn screaming just won’t stop.
You finally reach shore and you fall down behind some dead guy, and duck your head down as the bullets are thumping into his body, and let me tell you, Bill, there ain’t no atheists in a foxhole, cuz we were all praying by God, just get us the hell out of there please, just give us one more chance to walk with loved ones and laugh at picnics and oh, shit, the hornets won’t stop.
And somehow, some way, we made it, and when it was over, and we were grabbing a smoke and drinking from our canteens in the trenches, there were tears and smells and moaning and damn, don’t let anyone ever tell you that war is glorious.
To the Pacific Theater We Go
My Uncle Mike, my mom’s brother, came home early from World War II. One day, during the Battle of Midway, with shells exploding and fire breathing around him, he was feeding shells into one of the big guns onboard, and suddenly he couldn’t move. His mind was sending signals but his arms wouldn’t react. He just stood there staring at the shells, and his hands, and then his knees turned to jelly and he sank right there on the ship deck. He was carried down to the infirmary, and the doc checked for wounds but none could be found. All that was left was a thousand-yard stare where once there had been life-filled eyes. My uncle had left reality and entered the safety of his own mind, a mind that could not accept the death he had seen and the fear he had tasted.
They shipped him home and after a brief stint in the base hospital he re-entered civilian life and promptly began his love affair with the bottle. For twenty years he drank to drown out the screams. For twenty years he drank to forget the horrors.
I asked him once, after the alcohol had finally been purged from his life, what it was like.
He smiled at me, but there was no warmth in that smile. He shook his head and walked away.
Summer in Southeast Asia
Ronnie was a high school classmate and friend of mine. In August of 1966, as I headed off to college, he packed his bags and headed for Fort Lewis and basic training.
For a year we traded letters on a regular basis. I told him of school dances and basketball games and baseball workouts, and he told me of fifty mile hikes with full pack, and ribbons won and finally, of orders to serve in Vietnam.
The letters came sporadically after that as I had this sense that Ronnie just couldn’t bear to write about a living nightmare. There were a few, of course, passing remarks about body bags and dismembered soldier boys, and one in detail about holding the intestines of his friend Joe in his hands and telling Joe that it would be alright, and I swear to you I saw a tear stain on that letter.
And then there were no more letters. Ronnie was out on patrol one fine August afternoon in the steaming excrement that was Vietnam, and he stepped on a landmine and that was that. He came home a month later in a shiny box with a flag draped over it, with the hopes and dreams of another soldier boy tucked safely inside the box, never to fear again.
No, War Is Not Glorious
I wonder how many of our political leaders have fought in battle. How many of them have tasted the fear, smelled the released bowels or seen their best friends shredded by hornets. I wonder how many of them have prayed for one more picnic with loved ones, or felt the life bleeding out of a comrade, desperately trying to staunch that bleeding, staunch that bleeding, staunch that god damn bleeding, and I wonder how many of them prayed to a God they never knew until their own mortality was the most precious thing on earth.
I wonder how many of them have walked the streets of Iraq, hoping to make it through one more night without a sniper shot ending all love, all dreams, all memories made or yet to make.
It is never the zealots who must fight. It is never the warmongers and Syria-haters who grab a rifle, grab a pack, and head off to the next nightmare on the globe. No, it is our cousin or nephew, our Little Johnny or Sweet Julie, fresh out of high school, a whole life of promises ahead, who do the dirty work of those who vote yes for war.
Perhaps if the politicians in their starched white shirts and their thousand dollar suits sipping martinis under the shadow of the Capitol Dome, perhaps if they tasted terror, if they had to stare down their own personal elephant, if they had to bury pieces of their best buddy….perhaps then their vote for war would be well-informed and meaningful.
Most of us have this nice, neat vision of a bullet wound. The bullet enters, the bullet expends energy, the bullet comes to rest. In truth, a high-velocity bullet is the textbook definition of kinetic energy, flipping aside tissue, bone and organs as it makes its way through the body. The track of a bullet can be thirty times larger than the bullet itself before that kinetic energy is exhausted. A reasonably small hole where it enters; a hole big enough to stick your hand in where it leaves, and the bloody spray that ensues will forever be etched in the minds of those who have seen it.
And so It Goes
I have grown tired of war. Any sane person would say the same. I have lost far too many friends and yes, family, to the insanity of it all and I am weary of it. Is there any chance…is there any hope….that we will eventually learn from the past.
Yes, bring on the politicians who would have our young men and women step to the front again. Bring on the extremists who believe that rhetorical bullshit is more important than flesh and blood. Bring on the CEO’s who would profit from the next onslaught and bring on the hate-spewing pedagogues who flood the airwaves with their trite clichés about honor and vengeance, as if those two ever belong in the same sentence.
Bring them all on and let them stand in front of a mother who has lost her baby boy in a firefight. Bring them on and let them see for themselves the aftermath of a bullet travelling at 2000 feet per second. Bring them on and ask them if they can find the life in the eyes of a veteran who has seen one too many deaths.
Yes, I have grown tired of war and I have grown tired of its aftermath. I am more than ready for some forbearance and wisdom.
September 9, 1943. It was a bloodbath.
September 9, 2013. The bloodbaths continue.
Don’t let anyone ever tell you that war is glorious, and don’t let anyone ever dehumanize war. War is all about human…human blood…human bones….human organs….human tissue….and….
2013 William D. Holland (aka billybuc)
“Helping writers to spread their wings and fly.”