Killing for Honor (Feb. 17, 1999)

On X-Mas day, 1967, I went to my first and last sermon. We were guarding the perimeter of a forward artillery base carved into some nameless mountaintop in Vietnam’s Central Highlands. For once the sweet sun was out, hot chow was on the menu and I had just scored a pack of marijuana Marlboros. Stoned to the gills — and just plain curious — I drifted over to a place among the other GIs sitting on the grass above the Chaplain’s portable pulpit.

A beefy Southern Baptist with a size A haircut sitting atop his size D head, the Chaplin launched into a pep talk. He recounted all of the NVA and Viet Cong soldiers we had recently killed or captured, the weapons and supplies we had captured, the enemy base camps we had destroyed and the villages and canyons we had “cleared and secured.” He told us we should be mighty proud of ourselves and assured us that everybody back home from the President on down was mighty proud of us, too.

Then the Chaplain moved on to the Big Picture. After nearly two years of intense combat we and our Vietnamese allies had the communists on the ropes. The NVA, foot soldiers without benefit of armor, artillery or air power, were either being pounded by “harassment and interdiction” or “close fire support” bombardments or they were being chased down and killed by us. And the Viet Cong had all but been destroyed as an effective fighting force. Indeed, because of our constant forays into their jungle strongholds, most of the Viet Cong were either dead or squatting behind barbed wire or were hiding out in Laos or Cambodia. In summation the Chaplain all but promised us an end to the war perhaps by as early as Easter.

Then the Chaplain got down to the really good stuff. After nearly three months of continuously seeking and finding battle, in the middle of January our battalion was being pulled back to our base, Camp Radcliffe, for a much deserved rest. On a rotating basis, the Chaplain explained, one company would be broken up into details to guard bridges in Mang Yang and An Khe passes. Another company would stay inside the base. They would have three hots and a cot and their sole duty would be, should the occasion arise, to jump aboard assault helicopters as a Quick Reaction Force. The third company would pull sentry duty along a part of Radcliffe’s “impregnable” 27 mile long perimeter (think of the perimeter as WWI-style trench lines circled like wagons). The last company would work the Red Line, patrolling through the “pacified” villages and “secure” hills surrounding the base.

Of course the war didn’t end that Easter. Nor was my battalion pulled out of the jungle because the Brass had decided to give us some ghost time. Around midnight on January 30th, at the beginning of Tet, my company was camped on a hill maybe a mile outside of the perimeter. The hill had changed hands so many times (our base was set atop the site of an old French outpost) and the ground had been so pulverized by bombs and artillery that a guy could have gotten rich if he could have salvaged all of the scrap metal.

The attack on Camp Radcliffe began with a massive barrage of VC mortars and expanded into a mile-wide assault on the perimeter behind 1st Cav Mountain (one of my sister companies just happened to be pulling sentry duty in the crosshairs). From my hilltop perch, what with the arcing, slo-mo tracers, the aerial flares, flashing impact domes and the stirred thunder of gunships, mortars, small arms and Howitzers, I felt like I was witnessing a rock concert and lightshow organized in Hell.

Since the war was to continue to grind up lives and landscapes for another eight years, I often wondered whether the sermon I got was repeated to all of the American grunts who were in Vietnam that X-Mas morning. In other words, I wondered if that Chaplain was just reciting the “talking points” he had received from above. Maybe every line company got the same list of their accomplishments, tailored to their particulars, and the same congratulations from the President and the folks back home. Maybe we all got the same promise of peace.

My unit’s insignia consisted of a red sword carried by a white wing across a field of blue. The red symbolized blood sacrifice, the white the courage of our convictions and the blue our love of America. Although the oath we took was simply to “defend the constitution from all enemies, foreign and domestic” (no more or less), in our military minds we were fighting for God, Home and Country. Our code was Honor, Duty and Discipline. That young professional killers should be expected to embody such lofty principles is one of the more arcane ironies of war.

Nixon’s coming quest for “Peace With Honor” translated to mindless butchery on the ground. By the summer of 1968 not many grunts held to the same hope of victory. From then on out line combat was reduced to racking up body counts while keeping yourself and your buddies alive.

Maybe combat veterans — of whatever war — have nightmares because they feel they deserve them. The more intense or prolonged the combat, the more pronounced the “survivor’s guilt.” Think about that. Imagine being consumed by guilt simply because you are still alive. In the Bible it’s called the Mark of Cain.

When I returned from the war I hit the books for the first time in my life. I read everything I could about Vietnam and quickly concluded that, as young patriots, my holemates and I had been betrayed. The war was unconstitutional and counterinsurgency (as distinct from anti-communism), was a cause our revolutionary founders would have puked on. Since I had sworn an oath to defend the Constitution — and not an oath to obey Richard Nixon or Henry Kissinger — I began organizing against the war from within the ranks. That my friends and I were punished by the military authorities for exercising our constitutional rights only clinched the deal. My manly pride was in tatters, but I still had a sense of honor.

In November of 1969, while still on active duty, I attended a massive anti-war rally in Washington, DC. Afterward some friends and I wandered along the bank of the Potomac River. We came to the Jefferson Memorial and etched into the dome were the words: “On the altar of God I have sworn undying hostility to all forms of tyranny over the minds of men.”

What stuck in my craw was the phrase, “…over the minds of men.”

In my old neighborhood the most popular tattoo among the original Hell’s Angels read: “Death Before Dishonor.” They took their code from The Sons of Liberty: don’t tread on me. The authors of the Declaration of Independence wrote of pledging their “Sacred Honour” to the cause of their treason. The Boy Scouts had their code of honor and schools had honor rolls. Civil oaths were sworn before God (“Thou shall not bear false witness”) and violators of their oaths earned the scorn of the community.

Or so it seemed.

Even when a high-minded sense of honor is not confused with base pride it can still be a dangerous thing. Pride is a gift we give ourselves whether or not we deserve it. Manly pride, tribal pride, ethnic pride and national pride can all be seen in the eye of a rooster. If human virtues, like precious stones, were valued because of their rarity, then pride would fall somewhere between sand and silt. Honor, on the other hand, must be earned. It is the homage paid to worth. Individuals earn the esteem of their community either through the excellence of their character or by virtue of their accomplishments or by a blend of both. So distinct is honor from pride that those esteemed by their community are expected to “give something back” in the form of humility and “good works.” The exchange is often formalized by solemn oaths or by publicly declaring oneself to a particular code of ethics. Since the decision to swear allegiance to this or that “duty” is nearly always voluntary, those who violate their oaths are “dishonored.” The esteem once granted to the individual is replaced by scorn.

As an anti-war veteran, I got the worst of both worlds. When I and a couple of hundred others (mostly from within the 82nd Airborne Division in North Carolina) signed our names to a full-page “petition” in the New York Times calling for an immediate withdrawal of US forces from Indochina (by then Nixon had spread the American war to Laos and Cambodia), the Secretary of Defense publicly called for each of us to be court martialed for insubordination (a position he quickly backed off). Within the military and among “patriotic Americans” we were seen as subversives and enemy sympathizers and communists and — this stung — cowards. At the same time many on the Left of the anti-war movement, laboring under the illusion that because somebody is persecuted they must be saints, flew Viet Cong flags and carried portraits of Ho Chi Minh. To many of them we anti-war veterans were, at best, repentant war criminals.

During those times I learned the downside of “horror.” When the infamous Lt. Calley and others were court-martialled for murder for the slaughter of Vietnamese civilians at My Lai, the public outpouring of sympathy for Calley and his cohorts taught me that “honor” is only as good as the people who give it to you. Although Calley dishonored all of us who fought in Vietnam — most Americans saw Calley as a martyr. While my friends and I, jailed for passing petitions (what better way to “defend the constitution” than to use it?) were viewed as pariahs.

In the years to come, during my work with Vietnam Veterans Against the War, I learned something else about “honor.” What was striking was the huge percentage of VVAW members who had been grunts and volunteers and former members of elite units. I attended meetings where nearly everybody had earned a Purple Heart and where some were missing arms or were confined to wheelchairs. For every clerk or cook or mechanic there was somebody else with  a Bronze Star for Valor. Within the membership of the VVAW were individuals who had won Silver Stars and at least two others who had been awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor. 

What should have been obvious all along finally became clear. Unless somebody has pledged themselves to something beyond their own interests and appetites — unless somebody is willing to pay a price for principle — then all talk of “honor” and “dishonor” is irrelevant. Animal pride fills the vacuum and life becomes “short, stupid and brutish.”

We’re left with a world described by the scholar Erasmus in the 16th Century: “The merchants, however, are the biggest fools of all. They carry on the most sordid business and by the most corrupt methods… they will lie, perjure themselves, steal, cheat and mislead the public. Nevertheless, they are well respected because of their money. There is no lack of flattering friars to kowtow to them and call them Right Honorable in public. The motive of the friars is clear enough: they are after some of the loot.”

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