Sunday, November 13, 2005

A Military Perspective: Soldiers looking back.

Soldier at a West Point Reunion Looks Back at Conflicts of the Heart
By Gordon S. Livingston
The San Francisco Chronicle

Sunday 06 November 2005

Recently, I went back to West Point for my 45th reunion. We members of the class of 1960 are 67 years old now. We have lived through a lot: the decade of the moon landing and the war in Vietnam, the end of the Cold War in which we enlisted in 1956, the advent of the Internet, and the conflicts in the desert.

We're a surprisingly varied group. Only about half of us finished 20- or 30-year careers in the Army. The rest chose civilian vocations as businessmen, engineers, lawyers, even a poet or two.

Out of the 550 of us that graduated, 82 are now dead. We lost our first classmate to an auto accident one week after graduation; our most recent death, from lung cancer, came two weeks before the reunion. In between, 12 were killed in Vietnam. We are, as expected, dying more rapidly now.

It was good to go back to that citadel of our youth and strength for the first time in many years.

It looks much the same. The Gothic granite barracks have been expanded to accommodate more cadets. The Protestant chapel still dominates on the hillside. There are new buildings and the football stadium has been improved even as the team has grown worse. On parade the Corps of Cadets still looks to be the best close-order drill unit in the world, though the sight of women marching, even leading companies and battalions, is difficult to absorb for older graduates, steeped in the monastic masculinity of outdated tradition.

The real evidence that the place has changed, however, came on Friday night when the entertainment in Eisenhower Hall consisted of Jon Stewart doing a stand-up routine in front of hundreds of cadets. They loved him.

The department of history is compiling oral histories from graduates who have served in combat, apparently in an effort to impart to the cadets of today some lessons they can use in wars of the future. This is how I came to be interviewed by an earnest young major about my experiences as the regimental surgeon of the 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment in Vietnam.

He sent me some questions ahead of time ("How can current cadets best prepare for their roles as officers in an unconventional environment?") I wanted to talk about something else: What does a soldier do when he discovers that the rationale for the war he has been sent to fight bears no relationship to what is happening on the ground?

What I found In Vietnam was that in spite of our protestations about "winning hearts and minds" we treated the Vietnamese with contempt. They were commonly referred to as "gooks" and "dinks."

As a doctor, I was required to provide medical care to wounded prisoners who were tortured during questioning. I was asked by the regimental intelligence officer if I would administer succinyl choline to temporarily paralyze the muscles of respiration of POWs as an aid to interrogation. I could not abide it and after six months I registered a public protest during a change-of-command ceremony for my commanding officer. I was arrested for "conduct unbecoming an officer" and my career in military medicine was over.

The reunion was the first time since I returned from Vietnam 36 years ago that West Point has shown an interest in what happened to me there. So into that video camera I poured everything I could say in an hour about what I had seen and done and learned.

I didn't have much advice to offer cadets. I just told my story and asked them to think about who they are and where their core identities fit with their duty as soldiers, what they stand for, and what they cannot. I have no idea whether any cadet will ever see this tape, but it was an important moment for me nonetheless, the confession of a man once faced with an irresolvable conflict between my loyalty to the Army and to my deepest convictions about what it means to be a physician, a patriotic American and a free man upon the Earth.

And through it all ran my love for West Point, which had brought me back one more time to celebrate my connection with the place that had taught me the values of honor and obligation that I tried to reify, even at the cost of all that I had aspired to be.

On the afternoon I left home for my reunion I received an e-mail from the mother of a young West Point graduate recently killed in Afghanistan. She had read a book of mine and wanted something that might comfort her in her mourning. I sent her a prayer I had composed for bereaved parents after the death of my 6-year-old son:

May we all find peace in the shared hope that our children who brought us such joy with their short lives are now a host of angels, loving us still, feeling our love for them, awaiting our coming, and knowing that they are safely locked forever in our hearts.

During our reunion we had a memorial service for our departed classmates in which each of their names was called out by someone who had been his friend. We prayed for their eternal rest and sang the alma mater. We listened to a retired general evoke their memories with cliches about honor and duty and freedom that are as inevitable as they are irrelevant to men who died in ways heroic and prosaic, with thoughts and fears likely unrelated to the mantle of patriotism in which we would now wrap their souls.

In the chapel at West Point as before the black granite wall in Washington, I remember my classmates dead in Vietnam, eternally young, immortal in my mortal mind. They will not grow old and frail like the rest of us. They will not linger on beds of pain. Perhaps, after all, they are the lucky ones. But what of the songs unsung, the children and grandchildren unborn, the peaceful pleasures of longtime love? These things they were denied.

The circle, it seems, is never closed. I fear that young men and women are still dying for reasons that 45 years from now will cause another group of old graduates to honor their memories, as did we, with devotion and regret.

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Gordon S. Livingston, a psychiatrist in Columbia, Md., is the author of Too Soon Old, Too Late Smart. Contact us at insight@sfchronicle.com.

3 Comments:

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At 9:53 AM, Blogger Kao Fisher said...

I think it is rather unfortunate that those people higher up in government don't listen closer to the soldiers and other persons who are up close and personal with the conflicts, especially if the conflicts are started for the wrong reasons. You would think that since they are where the action is, they would know a lot of the gruesome details, even if they don't know all of the facts behind them. Their voices are probably not heard because the administration knows that they are doing wrong and do not want to hear more about it than they have to.
~Kao Fisher, number 15

 
At 2:08 PM, Blogger ElizabethR5 said...

I agree with Kao...people should listen to those individuals directly involved before making serious decisions that are going to affect people but won't directly affect those making the decisions.

 

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