(lifted from fhblack comments and front-paged by Anglico)
I hate war, I hate talking about war, and I hate writing about it almost as much. I was raised in an Army family but believe me that for me made me hate it even more. My Grandfather and father were both in WWII, my Grandfather as a sergeant and my Dad as a lieutenant. When the war was over, Granddad returned to the railroad and Dad decided to stay in as a regular Army officer because he believed that the US would honor its promise of equality.
Neither of them ever talked about their war days and any references were usually about people or places, but never the war itself. Interestingly enough, they were in both North Africa and Sicily at the same time but didn’t know it. Letters were censored and my Grandmother didn’t even know where they were. Such was the way things were in the 1940s.
For us kids, it was a good life living all over the US and the world. I had lived in Japan, France and Liberia and by the time I started college, more of my time had been spent out of the US than in. I had lived in seven states and attended nine schools in my 12 years, including three high schools. We thought that was normal.
I took ROTC in college because I figured that if I had to serve, being an officer was better than not. I always felt that I was held to a higher standard than others in the program because by that time my dad was one of the highest ranking black officers in the Army. Naturally, my entire cadre was aware of who I was related to.
My first assignment was the 82d Airborne Division at Fort Bragg. After my infantry training, airborne school, Ranger training and Jungle Expert School, I spent the remainder of my first year learning my job with real soldiers. At the end of that first year, it was off to Vietnam.
Before going to RVN, I asked my combat infantryman dad who had seen combat in both WWII and Korea what advice he could give me about war. His response is as clear today as it was 38 years ago: nobody’s war is ever the same as someone else’s. War is a personal experience and don’t try to make it something it isn’t. He then asked me if I knew my job, had the confidence to do it, and respected soldiers as America’s treasures. I replied yes to all and he said good, do the right thing and never surrender your honor or integrity.
I then asked my infantry captain brother who had returned from RVN the prior year if he had talked to Dad about war before he left. Turned out that he got the same answer and indicated that he found it to be the truth; your war is your war and it’s still not the same war even for those you served with.
I joined a brigade of the 82d Airborne in Vietnam, took command of my unit one morning, and was on patrol three hours later. As the days passed, I came to know a group of guys in a very special way. Fifty-five percent of my guys were volunteers and the others were draftees. We continued to receive jump pay even though we never jumped and that tended to make us special. Being “elite” makes people act a certain way and my guys lived it for all it’s worth; they were paratroopers and proud of it.
We were from all over, all races, and had a range of education. I had high school dropouts and a radio operator who had a Ph.D. in English literature from UMass. He was called “Prof.” instead of “Doc” because doc was the medic, a west Texas kid who took every medical case as a personal test. Our “Prof” would tell anybody willing to listen that he got drafted because he jilted the daughter of a draft board member from home. When you get a story like that, someone else has to top it, so in short order, it’s impossible to separate the “why I’m here” BS from reality. But our reality was that we had each other and that’s who you depended on.
What I also came to understand was that my war was about my people, not the politicians, not the politics behind why we were there, nor the anti-war movement back at home; it was simply about us at that time and in our place. It is true that it was not about fighting for flag or country, it was about fighting for each other, and for me as leader, getting every man home. We, to the surprise of most civilians, spent time training and practicing our skills. As a result, we who came as individuals thrown together into the same unit forged the bonds necessary to ensure our success. In no time at all, you come to share this experience as a team and know the joys and heartaches each man carries. And we didn’t see ourselves as heroes, just people doing what it took.
When John Stuart Mill says, “War is ugly, but not the ugliest of things” he is right. War in a sad way brought people together who would have probably hated each other anywhere else. War caused them to come together and give their all. The worst day for all of us was when we lost someone, and especially if it was because of a mistake that they made instead of the skill of the enemy. That’s what hurts and you take it personally because it is a sign of your failure, or least that’s what you believe at the time.
William Tecumseh Sherman is often quoted as saying, "Some of you young men think that war is all glamour and glory, but let me tell you, boys, it is all hell!" He’s right, it’s hell! It smells, it’s loud, it’s so sad, and it hurts. But in a perverse way, men for centuries have seen it as a test of their manhood and the gut check on their ability to do what others can’t. As an officer, I found that I indeed wanted to know if I could do what I was trained to do, do it right and bring my guys back home.
Once you learn your answer, it’s still hell, it still stinks, it’s still loud, it’s still so sad, and it still hurts. And when my captain son on his way to Iraq the first time asked me what I had asked all those years before, I gave him the answer that I had received. My now-major son just went back again and didn’t bother to ask anything this time; he knew war was hell.
War is still ugly, but it still isn’t the ugliest of things.