Cider Press Hill

Attrition

Wednesday, 8:43 pm

So the lad and I had a conversation last night, after his first day of school. A new history teacher, Dr. So-and-So, if you please. First up is the Civil War or War of Northern Aggression, depending on which point of view you take. The first assignment was to identify ten interesting facts that contributed to the start of the war. He came up with some good ones.

But then conversation veered. I mentioned how I’d done a semester-long independent research project on veterans of the Civil War, while I was in college. Northern veterans from upstate New York. I began following about 400 of them from the time they mustered in til their deaths, either in battle or from old battle wounds later in life or just from old age. What I was interested in, at the time, was how stable these vets were, as a group, compared to what I kept hearing about (and seeing of) Vietnam War veterans coming back home with some serious mental/emotional disabilities. What I learned from the research, spanning something like 60 years, was that the Civil War vets were pretty rock solid stable. Years of stable living situations, families, and stable work histories. There was only one in the bunch who re-appeared in newspaper reports, ended up married and widowed once, divorced twice, and turned up unemployed or in progressively menial positions (info from census reports), with arrests for public drunkeness and assaults over the course of his life. But then again, he had also been demoted twice while in the military. Possibly not a stable sort to begin with.

Given that the Civil War was probably the grisliest of the last 150 years, why were those vets so well adjusted while, increasingly, our veterans have been returning home with more and more mental disabilities, bouts of homelessness, spousal abuse, and incidents of suicide since Vietnam?

The lad suggested three reasons off the top of his head: 1) Civil War soldiers fought strategic engagements...pre-planned battles. They either won or lost and moved on to the next. There was down time. They knew who the enemy was. They were clearly delineated by the uniforms they wore. 2) Local boys joined regiments together...friends who joined up and served together. There was continuity in relationships and a strong support network while serving. 3) They were fighting on soil and terrain that they were familiar with. They were fighting in a country where the cultures were similar and the rules of engagement were the same. They knew what to expect.

In contrast, Vietnam was a guerrilla war. No clearly marked enemy. Few strategic engagements. Few pre-formed networks of support among the troops (the draft), and a completely foreign culture and terrain. Soldiers discovered that women and children were as liable to lob grenades at them as men.

Coming from a culture where it is deeply ingrained that women and children are supposed to be protected from violence, it must be a life-changing moment when one of our soldiers is put in the position of taking aim on a woman or child and pulling the trigger. Shoot the little kid who is threatening to throw the grenade or aiming a Kalashnikov or let him throw the grenade and shoot the Kalishnikov first? Kill or be killed. It might make a soldier a little crazy. It’s a ghost that’ll haunt him relentlessly for years to come. And it might have to be done again and maybe again. Those other guys aren’t playing by the same rules. Suddenly it occurs to the soldiers that they are fighting two different kinds of war and they aren’t winning it. Are they mentally equipped and physically prepared for the realities of guerrilla warfare?

I asked the lad what he thought of John Kerry suddenly announcing that he plans to bring the troops home from Iraq, if he’s elected.

“He’s facing reality.”

And then the lad proposed that unless we destroy everything that moves in Iraq and turn the place into a parking lot, we can’t win this war. We are fighting a guerrilla war against an unknown resistance using conventional tactics. What it amounts to is a war of attrition, he said. Who has the stronger stomach as the bodies pile up?

Good question. A 5000+ year old civilization that is no stranger to brutal warfare or the US?

A war of attrition, I thought. That’s about right, isn’t it? A war of attrition that some think may stretch for years into the future. Like Vietnam.

Bring them home. Bring them home before the parking lot option becomes a front burner issue. Bring them home while they still have life and some sanity. Even though there are not enough funds or programs within the VA to take care of their messed up heads when they get home. They’re not over there to protect our freedom. Our freedom was never at stake. They’re over there trying to survive.

George W Bush has allowed this to happen and he has campaigned on the graves of the 9/11 victims while ignoring the daily body bag counts (both sides) for which he is responsible. While pretending that Afghanistan doesn’t exist. While wanting us to never realize that he didn’t fight the war in Afghanistan as if he really meant it and he didn’t track Osama bin Laden to earth before bin Laden’s organization splintered into franchised organizations and George lost interest. While still wanting us to believe that fighting in Iraq is essential to our survival and safety because of those weapons of mass destruction that don’t exist.

Perhaps Kerry is beginning to remember that it’s smarter to cut your losses earlier rather than after we’ve buried 50,000 soldiers without having crept any closer to winning a war that has no end or victory.

Our soldiers do not deserve to be misused the way they have been by their Commander-in-Chief.

Bring them home.

Posted by KateC on 09/0804 at 08:43 PM

Wow. Well written. And a pretty smart kid ya got there.

Posted by Ro on 09/10  at  06:34 AM

Thanks Ro. We have some great conversations. He’s a lot of fun, frequently taking the devil’s advocate role with me. He’s very good at that...having mastered conservative talking points and arguments. Keeps me on my toes.

Posted by Kate on 09/10  at  11:35 AM