Saturday, July 19, 2014

Study Guide for ‘Breaker’ Morant

Breaker’ Morant, the 1980 film about a war crime and the subsequent court martial during the British war against the Afrikaans settlers in South Africa, is a story for our time at least as much as it was for the time it was first released. The questions it raises would have been especially relevant during Operation Desert Storm, when the West banded together to drive the army of Saddam’s Iraq from Kuwait. One image that endures from that war is of the Highway of Death, where Saddam’s troops were mowed down in Iraq, after they had given up the fight and left Kuwait, as they were retreating full speed to Baghdad. Casualties also included civilians who happened to be nearby at the time. Another memorable image is of the civilians killed in hotels and hospitals by US bombs intended, according to the US, for the military targets Saddam had placed underneath them.
I was out of the country until Desert Storm was all but forgotten, so I may have missed a heated national debate, but I never remember hearing of anyone (least of all me) asking such questions as these:
  • Were those soldiers and civilians killed legitimate targets, were they murdered, or were they “only” collateral damage?
  • If they were murdered, who is responsible for their murder?
  • Who is responsible to deal with the murderers?
  • If they were collateral damage, whom does God charge with determining how much collateral damage is permissible?
  • What criteria would that person or group use to make their determination?
I find these questions branches off of questions that go to the heart of what it means to be a Christian neighbor.
  • Under what conditions are we no longer commanded to love our neighbors as ourselves?
  • Under what conditions are we no longer commanded to do for our neighbors what we would have them do for us?
  • Under what conditions are we no longer commanded to love our enemies, do good to those who hate us, bless those who curse us, and pray for those who mistreat us?
  • Under what conditions does the end justify the means?
Today, a dozen years after the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, these questions are still relevant.
Breaker’ Morant is based on the account of the lone survivor of the court martial, so it may safely be considered biased, but the characterizations of both protagonists and antagonists are sophisticated enough to be worth pondering.
Before continuing, the reader would do well to be familiar with the Boer Wars; the Wikipedia entry is as good a place to start as any. There we find that these were wars between two colonial powers fighting over land and resources stolen from the original black inhabitants. As in Iraq and Afghanistan, and as in Vietnam, the enemy of the soldier protagonists, the Boers of the British in this case, was nameless and perfidious, and even more so because they spoke an unintelligible language and engaged in guerrilla warfare.
A Brief Synopsis of the Plot (Spoiler Alert)
The incident that triggers the plot is a nighttime raid by a British platoon on a Boer guerrilla camp. Assured that they will be taking the Boers by surprise, the British attack in plain sight, and many of them are killed by the Boers, including Captain Smith, the father of Morant’s intended bride. Morant later learns that Captain Smith was not killed in the original fusillade but captured and tortured to death. Soon after that a group of Boers, starving because the British have imprisoned all the Boer farmers in the area and commandeered the entire food supply, surrenders. Morant, convinced that they are the ones who killed Captain Smith, has them shot by a firing squad, and he has a buddy execute the local German clergyman whom he suspects of having alerted the Boers to the impending attack.
As the court martial progresses, we find that the activities for which Morant and his friends are being tried as murderers are common practice, engaged in by even the judges, who are themselves soldiers. Further, the government in London is especially interested in seeing the conviction not because of concern for the Boers but because it will strengthen the British case in negotiations of a treaty that could grant them access to lands rich in exploitable resources.
The three men are found guilty. Morant and one of his friends are shot by a firing squad; the third man spends ten years in prison, and it is in the closing credits that the film is based on his account of the ordeal.
The verbal exchange that prompts this post takes place on the way to the firing squad. The chaplain asks Morant if he can pray for him. Morant says no, he’s an atheist. The chaplain then asks the companion the same question. The companion asks Morant what an atheist is, to which Morant replies that an atheist doesn’t believe that there is a good supreme being who works to bring justice to the world. The companion at that point says he’s an atheist also.
Study Questions (Relevant even if you haven’t seen the film)
  1. In what way did the protagonists (Morant and his two friends) reflect the image of God? In what ways were they trying to love their neighbors as they loved themselves?
  2. In what ways did they show that the image of God in them was fallen? In what ways were they “looking out for Number One”?
  3. How did they view their own morality?
  4. If Morant had been an evangelical Christian, how would Jesus have guided him to deal with the Boers after Captain Smith’s death?
  5. What justification was there for the British to invade the Boer territory? For the Boers to fight the British? For the Boers to colonize Africa? In short, who was in the right in this situation?
  6. If no one was in the right, under what conditions should evangelicals put themselves in situations where everyone is doing wrong?
  7. Morant was Australian, not British. Had he been evangelical, should he have enlisted to fight?
  8. In what way did the antagonists (the court martial) reflect the image of God? In what way did they show that the image of God in them was fallen? How did they view their own morality?
  9. How would the court martial have ruled had those on it been evangelical Christians?
  10. The chaplain was clearly a one-dimensional character, probably meant to be Catholic or Anglican. His job was to serve God and serve his “country” (i.e., his government). Would you say that in his interactions with the three protagonists he served both equally, or did he put his country’s interests before those of God, or did he put the interests of God before those of his country?
  11. How would he have acted differently had he been evangelical?
  12. There are two firing squads in the story: the one that executes the Boers captured after the Captain Smith’s death, and the one at the end of the movie. How should a Christian have responded when ordered to be part of those firing squads?
  13. Given what he has experienced at the hands of the powers that be, ordained of God, what evidence would you present to Morant that there is a loving supreme being who dispenses divine justice?
I submit that the wrongs done by the Boers to the original black inhabitants of the territories were made possible by the state, specifically the mentality that grants the state legitimacy. Without the power to tax and the influence that comes from a Romans 13 view of government power, individual Boers would have had to negotiate with the local African clans for land and either acted honorably or faced the Africans’ wrath. They could not have relied on the Dutch guns to defend and advance their cause. The same can be said of the British vis à vis the Boers. Both the British and the Boers wanted the rules of engagement to favor them: the British were heavily armed and wore uniforms, so they considered it unfair of the Boers to use stealth. The Boers considered stealth legitimate because they could not hope to outgun the British; they were not about to line up in the open and let the British gun them down.
I think it safe to assume that the Africans would have viewed themselves as in the right because it was their land to begin with. The Boers would have viewed themselves as in the right because they were civilized “Christians” appropriating God’s earth for God’s, not demons’, purposes. The British would have considered themselves in the right because – well, because the British have always considered themselves God’s chosen people, I guess.
In the same way, US evangelicals considered themselves justified in bombing Iraq and killing both retreating soldiers in their own country and civilians during Desert Storm and again during Iraqi Freedom, as well as Afghanistan after 9/11, for some combination of pretty much the same reasons: the Iraqis and Afghans were simply the Boers and Africans, respectively, to Uncle Sam’s Brits.
Please, somebody, find me the good guy in ‘Breaker’ Morant. Find me the character that an evangelical can be, who “needeth not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth.” If none can be found, I suggest that no evangelical could please God by participating in Uncle Sam’s wars in the Middle East.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

World War II: Just Another Government SNAFU

I claim in an earlier post that World War II, like every other government program, accomplished “the exact opposite of its stated intention,” and I will here defend my claim.
To make my case I need to specify who it was who stated the intention, what that stated intention was, and that the actual result was the opposite of the stated intention.
Since Franklin Roosevelt stood head and shoulders above all other US political figures on December 7, 1941, I believe he should be my source for the stated intention. From his speech to the Congress: “The Japanese government has deliberately sought to deceive the United States by false statements and expressions of hope for continued peace. … Japan has … undertaken a surprise offensive extending throughout the Pacific area. … As commander in chief of the Army and Navy, I have directed that all measures be taken for our defense.”
As a result of World War II, Japan ceased to be a military threat, as did Germany and Italy. The war accomplished its stated goals. The Quill Pig is wrong. Court is adjourned.
Mr. Security Guard, before you throw me out of the empty courtroom, please let me whisper some words to the fly buzzing around the light above me.
According to Woodrow Wilson, World War I—which was not called that at the time, of course—was being fought “to make the world safe for democracy.” Yet it didn’t. As it raged it literally turned much of Europe into rubble. The treaty that ended the war starved Germany—hardly a safe situation—and made a prophet of David Lloyd George, who predicted that England would “fight another war again in 25 years time.” During those years the Germans sharpened their war-making skills in Spain bringing Franco to power. The world was not made safe for democracy.
That was World War I, not World War II. The job was not done completely the first time, which necessitated a second war. The second war did the job. What’s your problem?
What if World War II were a pyrrhic victory, “a victory with such a devastating cost that it is tantamount to defeat”? Would it still be considered a success? Would a program that accomplishes its goals as stated but not the goals as understood by the hearers be moral?
As an example of the last, consider the American Revolution. It was sold to the patriots with such slogans as “no taxation without representation.” Most patriots hearing the slogan would have thought that by being represented they would be able to keep their taxes low, don’t you think? But after the war was won and the patriots were represented in their federal government—surprise!—their taxes were higher than those in Great Britain. Stated goal reached: expected result not.
Or another example: The enslavement of the blacks in the US was an abomination. Emancipation was supposed to be a good thing because freedom is a good thing. Yet the post-emancipation Jim Crow era was worse than slavery for so many blacks that the song “Sometimes I Feel like a Motherless Child” composed in those days became an instant hit. Stated goal reached: expected result not.
Were the losses from World War II so great that winning was tantamount to defeat? Did the government deliver on what those who believed the rhetoric were expecting?
I would suggest that the first loss in World War II was freedom, the very thing the citizenry understood Roosevelt’s request for a declaration of war as a call to defend. One of the first actions the government undertook was to institute military conscription. Conscription by definition puts those conscripted under the control of the government. It is the most lethal form of state slavery. Compared with literally dodging bullets and bombs, a 95% tax rate in peacetime looks like freedom.
Does slavery have to be called slavery to be slavery? Or can de facto slavery be sold as something else? Is a mugging only a mugging, or to the degree that the mugger has control over the actions and resources of the muggee is it not a form of slavery? If it is, the same is true of military conscription: it is slavery by another name.
Wilson conscripted soldiers for World War I, so you can’t blame that on World War II.
Sure I can. By your own admission, World War I was incomplete: World War II finished the unfinished business of World War I. They are in essence one war.
Sneaky. Besides, Lincoln conscripted soldiers for the Civil War, so you can’t pin conscription on World War II.
Only if I can’t call a burglary on Wednesday a robbery because the same guy mugged the same guy on Tuesday. Lincoln conscripted soldiers to kill, if necessary, their fellow citizens to prevent them from getting out from under his rule. Funny that US government propaganda these days tells us the conquest of the Confederacy was about ending black slavery when Lincoln not only said in his first inaugural address that he had no intention of interfering with black slavery but he also enslaved white boys to go fight. Between conscription and Jim Crow, I see a difference between what the government advertises and what it delivers.
Yes, but if we hadn’t gone to war against Germany and Japan, European Jews would all have been killed, and the Japanese would still be using Korean women as sex toys and treating all of China the way they raped Nanking.
I see no mention of Jews, Koreans, or Chinese in Roosevelt’s speech. As president he swore to protect and defend the Constitution against all enemies foreign and domestic. Period. And we know he hated the Constitution. He began the War on Drugs, though again not by that name, by making marijuana illegal without amending the Constitution. (As bad as the alcohol prohibitionists were, they at least got an amendment passed.) Roosevelt also openly flouted the Constitution when he tried to increase the number of Supreme Court justices so he could get the majority needed to vote down objections to his welfare state measures. In the same way, to the degree he was fighting the war to protect Jews, Koreans, and Chinese, he was violating the Constitution.
But the war saved innocent lives and preserved freedom!
Lenin is quoted as saying, “Politics is all about who does what to whom.” It makes all the difference in the world whether you’re one of the “who” or one of the “whom.” Innocent lives were indeed saved, but it’s also true that innocent people were killed. The carpet bombings of Dresden and other German cities, the firebombing of Tokyo, and the two atomic bombs all targeted civilians. And yes, US soldiers had targeted civilians previously: Indians in the Southeast before the conquest of the Confederacy, whites in the Confederacy during the conquest, Plains Indians, Hawaiians, and Filipinos. To quote a term paper I just edited,
In one incident [in Dicken’s Hard Times], Mr. M’choakumchild, a teacher in Gradgrind School, … tries to convince [a student] that a city of a million inhabitants in which only twenty-five starve to death is prosperous. Sissy responds that [and here’s the quote I want you to see] the deaths must be just as hard on the families of the twenty-five when the survival rate is high as it is when it is low.
In the same way, the death of the innocent civilians who opposed Hitler and Hirohito but happened to be where the bombs fell is as horrible as the death of the the innocents from the buzz bombs and the Holocaust. The moral logic of killing innocent people to save innocent people escapes me. And, of course, anyone today who questions the current zeal (there’s no other word for it) for collateral damage, whether by the Clinton sanctions or the Bush-Obama military, is referred back to—Ta daaah!—Dresden and Hiroshima.
Since World War II we as a nation consider ourselves just that much more justified in killing innocent people in the pursuit of our interests than we did before. I call that a pyrrhic victory at best.
As for preserving freedom, I’m not sure the Eastern Europeans, whom (there’s that word again) Stalin and Hitler took turns pillaging and slaughtering, would say their freedom was preserved. Nor would the Chinese, who were given the choice between a seriously flawed US puppet and a Communist butcher. To say lives were saved and freedom preserved is to echo the sentiments stated so well by Randy Newman:
Brother Gene
Was big and mean
And he didn’t have much to say.
He had a little woman that he whupped each day,
But now she’s gone away.
He got drunk last night and pushed Mama down the stairs,
But I’m all right, so I don’t care.
And finally, there’s the question whether the war was necessary to begin with. I see no compelling reason for England, let alone the US, to have entered World War I. The best explanation for England’s involvement is their desire to take over Germany’s colonies, as they did in New Guinea. We got in because the Germans sank a passenger ship that our government knew was carrying war materiel to England and because Wilson wanted to have leverage in creating the League of Nations. We got into World War II because the Japanese bombed the base of operations for the sanctions we were applying to Japan because we wanted their colonies in China.
We went to war to rescue the Jews? Don’t make me laugh. The Final Solution wouldn’t have been needed if Roosevelt had let Europe’s Jews immigrate, but he shut the door on them. To rescue the Koreans? We told the Japanese when we took over the Philippines that we’d keep mum about their treatment of the Koreans if they’d keep mum about our treatment of the Filipinos. The Chinese? Tell me they weren’t gooks twenty years before the term was coined.
“War is the health of the state.” War stimulates government spending. Read any social studies textbook and they’ll tell you that it was wartime spending that ended the Depression. Do you think no one in power expected that to be the case (or at least that once the fighting was over they’d be able to make the case successfully)? The Keynesians who ran the government wanted war so it would end the Depression. They took tax money and gave it to the armaments manufacturers: tax money for politically connected businesses is the textbook definition of fascism. Uncle Sam instituted slavery to fight slavery and fascism to fight fascism. In enriching politically connected industrialists he succeeded marvelously, and he set the stage for wars ever since, where the object has been to start them and prolong them, not to win them, as winning them would mean mothballing the gravy train.
Death, rubble, taxes, and cronyism: Situation Normal: All “Fouled” Up.
Japan and Germany ceased to be military threats. The war delivered precisely what the government promised. It accomplished the stated goals. You have failed to prove your point.
You’re right. So shoot me.
Up against the wall, mother-“fouler.”

Monday, July 7, 2014

Walk a Mile in a Soldier’s Boots: A Review of Vietnam – Perkasie, by William Ehrhart

“We’re over here getting our asses shot off defending them, and what do we get for it? G*dd*amned traitors. I ever run into any of ‘em when I get back, it’ll be kick-*ss-and-take-name time. F*ckin’ parasites.” – William Ehrhart, Hoi An, South Vietnam, May 1967
“What the hell do these f*ckin’ people know anyway?” I thought, addressing myself to the hippies in particular and to everyone else in general. “What right do they have?” Immediately, the other side of the question popped into my head: What right did I have? What had I done in the past thirteen months to be proud of? – William Ehrhart, San Francisco, April 1968
The war in Vietnam – Uncle Sam, showing himself to be a true son of the Father of Lies, called it a “police action” or “conflict” – permeated my growing-up years like cigarette smoke. It affected the economy, the arts, and, of course, the lives of those who fought in it. William Ehrhart had the courage to do what I was never asked to do and probably could never do: he voluntarily put himself in mortal danger and held his ground once the killing began.
As a hippie-background believer,i I could not pass up the opportunity to see the war from the standpoint of one who would have hated me had we met at the time, especially as I occupy the same position today as an opponent of today’s wars. Like one of Ehrhart’s friends, “I’m not a conscientious objector. I’ll fight for my country; it’s just that bullsh*t [overseas] I object to.” But questions about the morality of today’s wars are hard to sell to today’s evangelicals. As “we were attacked” in the Gulf of Tonkin and so supposedly needed to send William Ehrhart and so many others to “defend ourselves,” so “we were attacked” on 9/11 and so supposedly need to devote thousands of soldiers and trillions of dollars to “defend ourselves” now.
Though published in 1983, by which time the war had been pretty well forgotten, Vietnam – Perkasie refrains from passing judgment on the war’s usefulness. It chronicles Ehrhart’s observations from his decision to enlist until his stateside posting a few weeks after his return from Vietnam. How fresh and accurate the accounts are, I have no way of telling – I thought I read that he smuggled in a notebook, but I can’t find it to double check – but either he is a convincing liar or he has done his best to put together a truthful account of the disillusionment of the idealistic, patriotic young man who used to live next door.
More importantly, it also chronicles the degradation of a human being, a destruction of the soul every bit as deplorable as that of teenage girls brought into the sex trade by kidnap or hoodwink. With suicides currently exceeding combat deaths in today’s military, the question needs to be asked if the same thing is happening today, and if so, why evangelicals are abetting the process by standing with the government and against those who protest today’s wars the way they stood with the government that degraded William Ehrhart and against those who rightly claimed that the Vietnam war was not about defending our freedom.
According to the Vietnam vet I spoke to last summer, the government has learned the lesson of Vietnam. He told me again recently that while he was greeted on his return from Vietnam with taunts of “baby killer!” today’s returning vets are treated right: parades, applause in airports, overwhelmingly positive spin in the mainstream media, the whole nine yards. However, babies are still being killed in combat, and the wars have not secured our freedom. If anything, the extra security measures by those sending the soldiers overseas taken since “we were attacked” on 9/11 have robbed us of our freedom. Even so, though, they are still dying by their own hands faster than “the enemy” can kill them.
Are the soldiers over there really concerned with our freedom? Or are they just doing their jobs? I know a soldier who said in as many words that he enlisted because it was the only way he could learn to fly. He eventually got around to saying he wanted to “serve [his] country,” but the short answer was that he wanted the benefits that came with enlisting. So was he out for my freedom, or for my tax money?
“Stop being willfully ignorant,” I hear you say, “their job is to defend our freedom.” One of Ehrhart’s heroes believed that also:
The next afternoon, Amagasu and I were sitting in the S-2 shop when a bunch of strangers walked into the COC through the door down at the operations end of the bunker. Most of them were wearing green utilities, but a few were in civilian clothing.
“Hey!” I said to Amagasu, “I know that man.”
“Down there. The Negro. That’s Floyd Patterson. … Former heavyweight boxing champion of the world.” …
“You’re Floyd Patterson, aren’t you?” I said when he reached us.
“That’s right,” he said, extending his hand. …
“What are you doin’ here, Mr. Patterson?” I asked.
“Floyd,” he said. “I just wanted to come over here and thank you boys for what you’re doing. I’m proud to be an American, and I just wanted you fellas to know that. How are things going?”
“Oh, not too bad,” I said. “We’re hangin’ in there. Say, Champ, I saw you beat Johanssen on television when you won the title back. I was just little then, but I still remember it. That was a great fight, Champ.”
“Well, thank you, Corporal. … “ …
“Say, Champ, can I ask you something while you’re here?”
“Sure. Shoot.”
“What do you think of this Cassius Clay business? You think he should be allowed to keep the title?”
“Well, I’ll tell you,” he said, his whole body shifting slightly, “Clay—you know, he likes to be called Mohammed Ali now; says he’s a Black Muslim——he’s a heck of a good fighter. Maybe one of the best. But he’s an American, too, and I think he’s forgotten that. Even a Champion’s not above the law and the responsibilities of being a citizen. If he won’t defend his country, he shouldn’t be allowed to defend his title. It’s not fair to you boys.”
Was sending Ehrhart and the others to fight a war they knew they wouldn’t win and had no intention of winning “fair to [those] boys”? Why do evangelicals continue to side with those who sent and against those who said they shouldn’t go? While Floyd Patterson’s intentions were faultless, in the end he was less a friend to Ehrhart and the boys than Mohammed Ali was.
We know war kills soldiers’ bodies. What we push under the rug is that it also kills them spiritually. Their very survival often depends on their ruthlessness.
As we walked toward the COC in the late afternoon heat, the Vietnamese from the gook shop were all standing up near the front gate—three men and five women. Three armed Marines stood around them.
“What’s that all about?” Rowe [a new arrival] asked.
“They work in the gook shop. We don’t have a PX or anything like that, but we got a gook shop where you can get a haircut, buy souvenirs and stuff. They do laundry, too; that’s what’s in those big bags. They take stuff home overnight and bring it back in the morning. Stuff comes back smelling like paddy water and buffalo sh*t, but I guess it’s better than nothing.”
“What’s this here, honey?” we could hear one of the guards saying. He had his hand up the front of a young woman’s pajama top. He laughed as she flinched and drew away.
“Cheap way to get a feel,” said Rowe. “What’s he gotta do that for?”
“He’s searching her. Well, anyway, he’s supposed to be searching her. All the gooks at the shop get searched on the way in and going back out again at night. They could be carrying grenades, who knows what?”
“What do we let ’em in here for if we can’t trust ’em?”
“I wouldn’t trust Nguyen Cao Ky if he showed up here,” I said.
“Who’s that?”
“The premier of South Vietnam. Listen, that’s just the way it is. There’s Vietnamese around here, and there’s VC. And most of the time, you don’t know which is which until it’s too late. You want one of those ladies to lob a stick of dynamite under your cot?”
“It is that bad?”
“It’s worse,” I replied. “Two weeks ago, Saunders and I were driving through Hoi An, right through the middle of town, and a g*dd*mned kid maybe eight or nine years old runs up and tries to flip a grenade into the jeep. A grenade! I had to blow ’im away. A little kid. It was really bad, you know. My kid brother's only twelve. And you know — the grenade went off and killed a couple of gooks — so you know what? Some guy shows up here the next day and wants the civil affairs officer to pay him compensation for his dead wife. I couldn’t believe it! The g*dd*mned kid tries to kill us, and they want money. Like I don’t feel bad enough already, you know?”
And this was in a comparatively peaceful part of the country. What is house-to-house combat like?
After nearly a year in rural areas – never even entering a city except on rare and brief official business – we were faced with dislodging an obviously well-prepared enemy from a built-up urban community of considerable size. We had no experience at this kind of fighting, and the on-the-job training cost us heavily. A great many civilians must have died in the fighting. If you saw or heard – or thought you saw or heard – movement in the house next door, you didn’t stop to knock; you just tossed in a grenade.
And I fought back passionately, in blind rage and pain, without remorse or conscience or deliberation. I fought back at the mud of Con Thien, and the burning sand of Hoi An, and the alien blank faces in the market place at Dien Ba; at the Pentagon generals, and the Congress of the United States, and the New York Times; at the Iron Butterfly, and the draft-card burners, and the Daughters of the American Revolution; at the murderer of [his girlfriend in Hong Kong], and the son-of-a-bitch who had taken [the girl who jilted him] flying in his private airplane; at the teachers who had taught me that America always had God on our side and always wore white hats and always won; at the Memorial Day parades and the daily Pledge of Allegiance and the constant rumors of peace talks and the constant absence of peace; at the movies of John Wayne and Audie Murphy, and the solemn statements of Dean Rusk and Robert McNamara; at the ghosts of [his friends he had watched die]; at freedom and democracy and communism and the monumental stupidity with which I had delivered myself into the hands of the nightmare; at the small boy with the terrible grenade in his hand, cocked and ready to be delivered into my lap. … It was a pure and simple purgation of the soul. A sacred rite. A necessity. I had no idea – had not the slightest inkling – what I was fighting for or against. I was terrified.
“A great many civilians must have died in the fighting.” Then the US military withdraws, “the enemy” wins, and The End of the World as We Know It that men like Ehrhart were told would arrive if “the enemy” won doesn’t arrive. It was all a lie. What do you do when you find that out?
Long before he was thrown into the worst of the fighting, Ehrhart knew he had been lied to and was now part of the lie himself.
“What’s this?” Rowe asked the next morning, pointing to the piece of paper tacked to the wall above my field desk in the COC.
“Read it,” I said. On the paper were pasted an article from the daily military newspaper, Stars ’n’ Stripes, and four entries clipped from our battalion’s I-Sums [intelligence summaries]. All five items were dated within a few days of each other and arranged in chronological order with the newspaper story first. It detailed how a platoon from Bravo Company had captured a cache of Vietcong supplies during a firefight in which three VC were killed; the take included several bolt-action rifles, a few cases of Chinese-made grenades, some explosives, ammunition and rice. The article concluded with a quote from some general up at Division that we’d set the VC war effort back in our battalion’s area by at least four months. The excerpts from the I-Sums included: amtrac loaded with grunts from the Horseshoe hits fifty-pound box mine, five dead, eleven wounded; Delta Company patrol ambushed near Phuoc Trac bridge in broad daylight, two dead, six wounded; bridge on Highway 28, 500 meters north of battalion command post, blown up by VC sappers; Charlie Company platoon commander wounded by sniper. At the bottom of the page, I’d typed in: “If you can’t trust your local general, who can you trust?”
“Are you kidding me?” asked Rowe when he’d finished reading.
“There it is,” I said, “in black and white. Lyndon Johnson says we’re winning the war because Lyndon Johnson’s generals tell him we’re winning the war. You figure it out.”
“That g*dd*mned piece of paper is seditious, Ehrhart,” said Lieutenant Roberts, entering the S-2 shop in the middle of our conversation.
“Oh, good morning, sir. I can't help it, sir; it’s the funniest thing I’ve ever seen in my life. You could order me to take it down, sir.”
“I can’t. It’s the funniest g*dd*mned thing I’ve ever seen in my life.”
“I don’t think it’s funny at all,” said Rowe.
“You just got here,” said the Lieutenant.
And later:
“Who says we’re supposed to control infiltration?” I replied. “We’re just target practice for the gooks. Uncle Ho and LBJ got a deal between ’em: we supply the targets; they supply the artillery. Gives everybody jobs. In ain’t infiltration we’re supposed to be controlling; it’s inflation.”
That “the enemy” ended up winning bothers my Vietnam vet acquaintance not a bit, at least not in comparison to the reception he got when he got home. Ehrhart explains his view: “How do you go through things like that, and then tell yourself it wasn’t worth it?”
I’ll close with what was for me the most heartrending passage in the book. It puts a human soul, if not a face, on the twenty casualties the Vietnamese suffered during the war for every US casualty. I’m sure Sergeant Trinh’s story can be repeated many times mutatis mutandis not only in Vietnam but in Iraq and Afghanistan. This is why Christians in the US should consider armed force the last, not the first, resort for solving the problem of evil. Like every other government program, war, the ultimate government program, accomplishes the exact opposite of its stated intention.ii If you can read this without choking, you might seriously question your own humanity.
Sergeant Trinh was a Vietnamese adjunct to Ehrhart’s unit. The excerpt begins when Ehrhart hears that Trinh is being disciplined and sent away, and comes to visit him. He offers him some licorice:
Why do you offer with both hands?” Trinh responded. The sudden sense that I had somehow accidentally insulted Trinh seized me by the throat. I wanted to bolt and run.
I—I don’t know,” I stammered. “I didn’t mean anything. I’m sorry.”
Do not be sorry,” he smiled wanly. “That is the way you are supposed to offer a gift. We always offer with both hands. It means sincerity, good feelings. You Americans hold something out with one hand only. To us, that is an insult—like offering scraps to a dog. You surprised me, that is all. It was nice. Sit down.” He took a piece of licorice and began chewing on it thoughtfully. “I am used to being insulted by you Americans. So many little things. You do not know. That store—the laundry and barbershop—you call it the ‘gook’ shop; where did you ever get that word? The other day, Corporal Walters asked me to go with him to the gook shop to offer money to one of the laundry girls. ‘I do not know gook talk,’ he said to me—and he smiled like a big dumb puppy. I did not know if I should hit him or pat him on the head.”
Come on, he didn’t mean any harm. He just didn’t think.”
Yes, I know, he just did not think,” Trinh said wearily. “That is what is so sad—none of you mean any harm; you just do not think. Corporal Ehrhart, I have seen you taunt Vietnamese men in the market for holding hands. You call them ‘homos.’ Did you know that is our custom? It means only friendship. If a woman held hands with a man in public, that would be something bad.”
I didn’t know that, no,” I said, feeling my face flush with embarrassment. “In America, it means ——”
In America, in America,” Trinh laughed softly. “This is not America, Corporal Ehrhart. Such simple things, yet none of you ever bother to ask. Every day, you are losing the war in a thousand little ways, and none of you see it. The gook shop,” he snorted. “What do you think the laundry girls tell their friends when they go home at night? Is every young woman in America a prostitute? Why do you think our women are?” He reached for another piece of licorice. “Your parents must miss you very much. They send you good things to eat all the time. Perhaps they have heard about Marine Corps chow," he laughed.
I laughed, too, relieved to be off the hook. “Yeh, I guess so," I said.
Well, if you are lucky, you will be going home soon.”
Seems like forever sometimes,” I said.
Trinh laughed again, though it didn’t sound like a laugh. “Yes, forever,” he said. I grasped for something to say.
Do you have a family, Sergeant Trinh?”
I have one sister left. She is a nurse. She lives—she lived with my mother in a village south of Saigon. Perhaps she will be dead, too, before long. My family has not been lucky. We Vietnamese have not been lucky.”
It hurt to see Trinh so sad and subdued— and it made me very uncomfortable. I thrashed around in my head, trying to think of some safe question to ask.
My father was killed by the Japanese when I was very little,” Trinh continued in a monotone. “I never knew him. We were living in the Red River delta then, not far from Haiphong. When the communists took over the north, my mother was afraid. She thought the communists would kill us because my father once worked for the French, in the post office. That is what people were saying. So we fled to the south. My oldest sister died along the way. She stepped on a mine. I do not know if it was a Viet Minh mine or a French one. It does not matter.” After another silence, he reached into a box by his feet and pulled out a letter. “It is from my sister,” he said. “My mother has been killed by American artillery. I did not even get to bury her.”
The mother and child I’d seen on Barrier Island back in August leaped into my head; my stomach buckled and I dropped the bag of licorice. “I’m sorry, Sergeant Trinh,” I stammered. “Jesus. Jesus, I’m sorry, Trinh.”
So am I.” He picked up the bag slowly and handed it to me. I am going to miss your red licorice,” he said. The six eight-inch guns in the compound roared, shaking the hooch and sending a trail of invisible whistling steel down the long corridor of the night.
Is that what happened this morning, Trinh? Is it because of your mother?”
That is only the end of it,” he said. “What is your expression?”
The last straw?”
Yes. The last straw on the camel. How old are you?”
Eighteen. I’ll be nineteen the end of this month.”
Do you know how long I have been fighting? I was drafted when you were twelve years old; I have been fighting for six and one half years, and there is no end in sight. Every year it gets worse. Every year, the Vietcong grow stronger. When I was drafted, the VC fought us with sharpened bamboo sticks and Japanese rifles and French rifles. Now they fight us with Russian rockets and Chinese grenades and American machine guns. You are their best recruiters. You Americans come with your tanks and your jets and your helicopters, and everywhere you go, the VC grow like new rice in the fields. You do not understand Vietnam. You have never bothered to understand us, and you never will bother because you think you have all the answers. Do you know what Uncle Ho says? ‘You Americans will tire of killing us before we tire of dying.’ Sometimes I think he is right—and sometimes, I think you Americans will never grow tired of killing.”
That’s not true, Trinh! What do you think I’m doing here? I didn't have to come here. I wasn’t drafted. I could’ve stayed home where it was safe, and so could the rest of us. A lot of good people have died trying to help you—and you know it, Trinh. You’ve known a lot of them. You people asked for our help, for chrissake.”
I did not ask you for anything!” he responded sharply. “Ky and Thieu and the rest of those fat, bloated bandits who are getting filthy rich from this war—they asked for help. They do not speak for the Vietnamese. They do not speak for me. Your President Johnson is too ignorant or too arrogant to understand such a simple truth. You help the whores and the pimps, and you take the people from the land where their ancestors are buried and put them in tin cages where they cannot fish or grow rice or do anything but hate and die—and if they do not want to leave the bones of their ancestors, you call them communists and beat them and put them in prison and kill them. You Americans are worse than the VC. ”
Wait a minute, g*dd*mn it! Don’t tell me it’s all our f*cking fault. What about those f*cking national policemen yesterday? We didn’t beat up on that kid. They did!”
If the people ruled Vietnam, those dogs would be cut by a thousand knives!” Trinh nearly shouted. “They are exactly the kind of pigs and vermin you Americans like because they do not argue with you and they grin like fools while you and your friends destroy a Buddhist temple [as Erhart's patrol had done “just in case – ha, ha” a few days before]. Your father is a priest, Corporal Ehrhart. How would you feel if I came to your father’s church and broke it down? You don’t understand anything, do you? Do you think I voted for Thieu last week? Did you know that a Buddhist asking for peace almost won the election, even though no newspaper in Vietnam was allowed to tell his story? Did you know that Thieu has already thrown him in prison?! And you Americans praise Thieu, and tell yourselves you are helping us. Sometimes I think you are the most evil nation on earth.”
I don’t have to take this sh*t!” I shouted. “I come over here because I’m feeling bad for you, and you sh*t all over me.”
No, Corporal Ehrhart! You and your friends come over here and sh*t all over my country, and I will not take it anymore.”
F*ck you, man,” I said, getting up quickly and turning toward the door.
Wait!” Trinh shouted. “Wait! Don’t go. Please.” I stopped, but didn’t turn around. My whole body shook, my lips biting down hard against tears. “Sit down, please.” I walked back slowly and sat down across from Trinh, but I couldn’t look at him. “I’m sorry, Corporal Ehrhart. I do not mean to accuse you. I know you are not a bad man. You are just very young.” He paused. “You are very young, and you do not know. Armies are always made of the young.” Trinh took hold of my hand and pressed it between both of his. He lifted all three hands between us. “It means friendship,” he said. “Do not be angry with me. It is all so sad.” His voice broke. The 155s across the compound punched a volley of steel into the night, a ripple of air and echoing sound filling the vacuum left in their wake. “My country is bleeding to death, Corporal Ehrhart. My beloved Vietnam is dying. I have fought hard. I am tired. Someday, perhaps, you will understand.”
What’ll they do to you, Trinh?” I asked after a long silence.
I do not know. Make me a private and send me back to an ARVN battalion, I think. Send me where there is heavy fighting. At least I will die among my own people.”
We sat in silence for a very long time. I felt numb, dizzy and sick to my stomach. Trinh’s hands surrounded mine with a pocket of warmth.
I guess I’d better go, Sergeant Trinh,” I finally said.
Yes, it is late. Thank you for coming.”
Trinh, I don’t know what to say. You know, I mean, I just—I’m sorry, Trinh.”
It is not your fault,” said Trinh. “You are very young.”
We both stood up. “Good luck, Sergeant Trinh,” I croaked. “Here.” I handed him the bag of red licorice, and turned to leave.
Good luck to you,” Trinh said softly. And then in a voice even softer, he added, “I hope you make it, little brother.”
Early the next morning, an ARVN major and two ARVN enlisted men arrived at the command post in a jeep, and took Sergeant Trinh away with them.
Sergeant Trinh was trying to be a good neighbor. How good a neighbor did he consider even well-intentioned American soldiers? How likely would he have been to listen to the gospel from a pro-war American?

i OK, I’m exaggerating here. I was a rising ninth-grader during 1967’s Summer of Love. While it was then that I first kissed a girl on the lips, I didn’t lose my virginity until my honeymoon. The closest I’ve come to consuming illegal drugs would have been one can of beer with my father and one of his friends, but then only if Massachusetts’ drinking age was over 18 at the time. So my claim to hippiedom is mostly wishful thinking. But I came to Christ and free enterprise because I saw them as fighting the respectable establishment and fulfilling the hippie dream that went sour. Though Jesus is the ultimate critic of hippiedom, my emotions see him as the fulfillment of what was good about it; I leave it to others to portray him as the fulfillment of establishment aspirations.
ii “What about World War II?” you ask. That’s as close as can be gotten to an exception to my rule. It will be the subject of another blog post. Stay tuned.