Coming Back From War
Emeritus Professor of Anthropology, IUPUI
I came back from war, but didn’t really come home. While serving in Vietnam, a bullet once clipped my ear, and I thought, “Why are they trying to kill me? Don’t they know that I’m here to help them get freedom and democracy?” Another time in a helicopter, I looked out and saw death and destruction everywhere, and I thought, “You know, if I was a Vietnamese peasant I’d be out with the Viet Cong fighting the Americans.” I was shocked … what the hell had I just thought? Eventually I realized that they were not evil “communists,” but people fighting us foreign invaders who were destroying their lives and homes … just like we would do. I realized that this war had nothing to do with freedom and democracy. After that, it was tough to get through each day.
When I came back, I was a very different person, alone, isolated … a stranger to what had once been “home.” I had discovered that the worst of human nature could exist in me. I was angry at myself for what I had done, and at my government who had misled me. My homeland seemed strange, and for the first time I really saw racism, corporate greed, and political manipulation. Life didn’t make sense any more, and I didn’t know how to resolve the core ideals of my upbringing with the new realities I now saw.
It takes a lifetime to resolve this conflict. I cannot change the past, but I can try to change the future. I got involved with many social causes. When we were preparing to invade Iraq, I started sharing my Vietnam story. After one rally, I talked with a small group of high school students who had just enlisted, and asked them to not let what happened to me happen to them. Afterwards I was depressed, because I knew that there was nothing that could be done … it would happen anyway.
A few years ago, I went back to Vietnam. Former Viet Cong and NVA soldiers came up to me, shook my hand, said that we were friends now, and bought me a drink. Vietnam is now a thriving society, and I kept thinking that if we had just left them alone they would have reached this point many years sooner. I also thought that we are doing the same damn thing all over again in Iraq.
Today, when I hear voices of fear and hate and military force, I ask what kind of Americans will we be? Will we seek to be the best we can be as a people, and search for mutually constructive options to resolve the underlying causes of conflicts? Will we question who really benefits from our policies, and who really pays the costs? It is my hope that Americans will live up to the core values which we hold for ourselves and all human beings … the home that would never send us off to a meaningless war.