Some readers ask me how my war novels can describe the wild adventure and heroism of combat yet end without trumpets and flags. Why so downbeat? I’ll tell you, but only if you’re a young man or woman eligible to go to war. You are my audience, not anyone else.
Point. War is a pisser. It pisses on you and you can’t piss back in self-defense. Oh, it may seem a grand heroic adventure. You may walk away from war dressed in bright ribbons and medals and praise. But when you are alone in the deepest part of night you will say to yourself, “Goddamn, what have I done? What did I do to myself? What did I do to those other people over there?” You will feel as alone in the night as any human being ever felt because your war is still pissing on you.
If what you did had to be done, you’ll get through the night okay. You’ll have in you a bitter regret that it had to be done but you’ll come out all right. If it didn’t have to be done, you’ll feel the most wretched human being on the planet.
How can you tell the difference between those two ifs? That’s easy…
Point. There are two kinds of war – good wars and bad wars. A good war is the war you can’t avoid. December 7, 1941. You have to fight back to stay alive and keep your family alive and save your country. You will do terrible things in this war but you are standing up for what is decent and true.
A bad war is a war of choice. Your country’s leaders make this war when they think they have run out of alternatives, like diplomacy, politics, threats, bribery or trying to persuade all sides, including your own, to see things with good sense and common decency. What they really have run out of is honor. Most of the wars this country fought were wars of choice. They had no honor.
You know the difference because good wars leave you frightened in the night. Bad wars poison all your life…
Point. Vietnam was a bad war. A very bad war. Worse because it was a stupid war fought by stupid people on our side – by stupid generals and stupid politicians who lacked the brains and strength of character to break out of old ways of thinking about our wielding power in the world.
What I did in Vietnam poisoned all my life. I did nothing dishonorable. I was a good soldier for my country. But I fought a war that didn’t need to be fought and killed people who should have been allowed to live and tore up someone else’s country for no good reason and left their land sick and ruined when I marched away from it. I remember all that in the darkest part of every night.
Bet you can guess what I have to say next…
Last Point. If you are a young man or woman considering going to war or caught up in war or thinking about voting for war, stop. Stop to think about the difference between a good war and a bad war. Then decide what you must do.
Your making that decision is what my war novels are all about. They want to remind you of the good advice offered by Davy Crockett, a man who knew something about war-making, when he said, “Be sure you are right and then go ahead.”
You do the same. Or you, too, will pay for it in the night.
© 2016 Steven Hardesty
Image: “Typical VC Tunnel System,” Report on the War in Vietnam (as of 30 June 1968), U.S. Military Assistance Command, Vietnam, pt. 2, p. 150.