15 March 2012

The Ruck-March Down Memory Lane

In literature, the story goes, every narrative can be reduced to one of two prompts:
  1. A hero goes on a journey.
  2. A stranger comes to town.
Maybe deployment counts as both. In ancient Greek mythology, when the warrior-king Odysseus returns from years of war and struggle, only his dog Argos recognizes him. In other words: The hero goes on journey, but a stranger returns. That's two for the price of one.

Vietnam War veteran Charles A. Krohn recently wrote a guest-post at Tom Ricks' "Best Defense" blog. The post was titled "Some reflections on the Vietnam War after visiting where my battalion was cut off and surrounded near Hue during Tet." In returning to the battlefields of his youth, Krohn, who also wrote 2009's "The Lost Battalion of TET: Breakout of the 2/12 Cavalry at Hue," gained insights that potentially apply as much to Afghanistan and Iraq as to Vietnam. For example:
One thing's for sure: The nuances have changed completely. Not only are there no Americans on the roads, in the air or in the fields, doing what Americans do, the Vietnamese seem perfectly in control of their own destinies. Maybe they were then too, but we were too driven to notice. Accomplishing the mission was everything.

This makes me think about the American Way of War–maybe best expressed as "you move over, we're taking over." Despite our good intentions, sometimes I think our various invasions are unwise, unproductive, and indecisive. If we had provided material assistance, I suspect the South Vietnamese would have made a good showing of themselves without our fighting the fight for them or looking over their shoulder to make sure they were following our doctrine, rather than their indigenous impulses.
Personally, I find Krohn's example as compelling as his words. (Click here for a bonus installment regarding his Vietnam travels.)

In person and in print, I've encountered occasional fellow travelers, veterans who have chosen to revisit the same ground on which they once fought, or the units with which they once served. Others may be family members. Or poets. Or bloggers. People who are attempting to make a personal connection to history.

Some of them—myself included—choose to visit active zones of conflict. Although we sometimes wear media badges, the most valuable results of such journeys are probably more personal "journal" than newspaper "journalistic." They tend to be written in first-person, not third-person. At their very best (and sometimes worst), they are mash-ups of pilgrimage, personal reflection, and privileged observation.

(Side note: If journalism is the "first rough-draft of history", I wonder how best to describe these more reflective endeavors. "Embedded journeys of self-discovery"? "Ruck-marches down memory lane"? "Armed navel-gazing expeditions"? Discuss.)

After all, one embed doesn't necessarily make you a war correspondent. Save that label for true heroes and crazies. I went to Afghanistan one time myself, and have no plans to go back. One online acquaintance of mine might call that being a "war groupie." The term is as funny as it is potentially accurate. However, I've started describing my own, Red-Bull-driven experience as war tourism. "I have seen war," I like to remind people, "but I have not seen battle." I no longer feel the need to run toward the sound of the guns. Combat is for kids. Tourism is for artful codgers like me, and the people who come after, at times and places at which festive adult beverages are, one would hope, available for purchase.

I've seen occasional travel-agent advertisements for "memorial tours," "valor tours," or "personal history tours" to places like Sicily and Saigon. Apparently, veterans and their families can load up by the busload, and take in both the night life and the battle sites. I've also seen political groups who have organized "peace tours" full of veterans seeking resolution or reconciliation. Same roads, different paths.

It's taken me a long time to realize that the soldier and the veteran face fundamentally different questions. Everybody knows why they deploy: You do it for your buddies. You do it for God and country. You do it because it's your job. You do it because you want to test yourself.

Few remain as certain, however, after the fact: War is irrational, chaotic, the wrong place to look for reason. Bad things happen to good people. Good things happen to bad people.

Everybody knows why they go, but few can say what it all meant, after it's over.

Krohn, by the way, served as public affairs advisor to the director of the infrastructure reconstruction program in Iraq, 2003-2004. In a comment made to the "Best Defense" guest-post I cited earlier, he notes:
The most flagrant thing I found was our failure to inform the Iraqis why we invaded their country, displaced their government and established an occupation authority. [...]

[F]or the first year we only broadcast our messages on a terrestrial TV system inherited from Saddam, although many/most Iraqis went to satellite reception as soon as Saddam lost control. They got their news from Al Jazzera. The message from AJ was that we invaded to steal their oil, demonstrate contempt for Islam, etc. The gist is that for a year we never really told the Iraqis why we were there or what we were doing.
So, tell me if you've heard this one before:

A government fails to tell its people exactly what's at stake overseas. The people are left to come up with their own answers.

"A hero goes on a journey." A stranger comes back.

And he spends the rest of his life trying to figure it all out.

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