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Page 18
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War Really Is Hell

By Bill Leary

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An old soldier once said that "war is hell." The trouble is that most people haven't got a clue just how true that is. People who have never been in a war can only imagine what it is like and usually rely on Hollywood for their conceptions. And with noticeably rare exceptions, Hollywood doesn't come close to getting it right. If you have been in a "shoot or be shot" situation you know what can happen to your mental outlook. The first thing you learn when you are on the front line is fear. Then you get all the offshoots of that, such as paranoia, distrust and resentment. After a while you either go completely bonkers or you develop methods of shutting out or justifying your actions. First you get trigger-happy, then you become dispassionate and cold, even calculating.

Every war has produced war crimes and atrocities, but those that commit these actions are not fully at fault for their actions. It is well known that fear leads to irrational decisions. The true fault for these actions belongs in the laps of those that put the soldiers in their situation. Any time a country sends its soldiers into a hostile situation there will be uncivilized crimes committed. War is not a civilized act, and it is very difficult — if not impossible — to act civilized in an uncivilized situation. If a country is going to use force, it had better be only after very considerable thought, and the decision should not be made by those who have never been part of it and have no chance of being put in harm's way. War should never be decided by a think-tank jockey arguing the pros and cons of ideology, or by any member of the privileged class that has never been in a combat situation and will not have to risk sacrificing his or her own loved ones.

As has been stated earlier, all wars create atrocities and crimes against humanity: just how many and to what degree is determined by the numbers involved, the length of the conflict and the desperation of those involved. These atrocities have a double effect. The victims of the atrocities are the first and obvious victims, but the perpetrators also suffer later from the guilt and remorse that eventually comes after their removal from the situation. A soldier doing guard duty who hears or sees something in the dark that seems threatening shoots first and asks questions later, thinking: it is better them than me, better to be safe than sorry. When you realize that you just shot and killed an old man, woman or child, you must put it out of your mind to be able to continue functioning, but you can only do so for a short while. Sooner or later you have to deal with the guilt you must feel if you are human at all. This is where the PTSD comes in and the violence or depression it can trigger. That leads to the classic example of the vet in the bell tower with a rifle picking off people on the street, or the seemingly-incurable alcoholic or drug addict that spends the rest of his life on the edge of society or in a jail or hospital.

These are the things you don't usually see in Hollywood's accounts. These are the things most people who have never been there don't think about, but they are very real and this is the price we must pay for going to war. This is by no means the entire price tag, either. The other costs are too numerous to mention without writing an entire book.

If you do not, and will not, have to pay the price for war, then you have no right to insist on it, let alone be any part of the decision making process. No one has the right to ask others to pay for their war. The president, vice president, his cabinet and Congress — the vast majority having never served, nor any of their children — do not have the right to ask others to pay the price for war, just as the United States does not have any right to go to the United Nations and ask them to help pay for our war.

Bill Leary is a VVAW contact in Winthrop, Massachusetts.

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