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Scenes of War

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When I was in college in the ’70s, the large corporation my father worked for had a sweet summer-hire program for the kids of employees. I worked full-time in one of their warehouses each summer making just under union scale, and made enough that I didn’t have to work during the school year.

As you can imagine, I met a very wide range of personalities of all ages, shapes and descriptions, from my fellow summer-hire college students, to hard-core blue collar types, mothers and grandmothers gone back to work, white collar front-office types, and on and on.

My first summer there in ’75 a bunch of us became friendly with a young army vet just back from Vietnam who was very reticent to talk about his experiences there. Gradually he opened up, and toward the end of the summer he brought in photographs from, as he called it, “the action.”

He said, “You want to know what it was like, how we dealt with things, and why I don’t like to think or talk much about it? Look at these pictures.” They were shot after shot of him and his buddies smiling, waving and posing next to Vietnamese bodies in various states of disrepair: blown up, shot, burnt, crushed. We literally gasped out loud as we saw them.

He looked at us sheepishly, said, “Sick shit, I know, but that’s what you do when you’re in the middle of it: you’re happy as hell you got those fuckers before they got you. After a while it doesn’t even seem real.”

There was a picture of one of his friends holding a severed arm like a baseball bat, another with two bodies positioned so that it looked like they were kissing. I literally felt sick to my stomach, but I also couldn’t turn away, equally horrified and mesmerized by the show before my eyes.

One picture is lodged in my mind to this day: my young friend twisting his body and contorting his face in a remarkable bug-eyed imitation of a corpse propped up against a door frame, the living imitating the dead in an obscene parody of empathy.

“That is some sick shit, there, man,” our friend mumbled as if he were talking about someone other than himself, and in a way I guess he was. He smiled distantly, put the pictures away in his pocket and wandered back to work – the subject did not come up again.

So how much does that — from another war, in another place, 30 years ago — sound like this?

    When Pfc. Chase McCollough went home on leave in November, he brought a movie made by fellow soldiers in Iraq. On his first night back at his parents’ house in Texas, he showed the video to his fiancee, family and friends.

    This is what they saw: a handful of American soldiers filmed through the green haze of night-vision goggles. Radio communication between two soldiers crackles in the background before it’s drowned out by a heavy-metal soundtrack.

    “Don’t need your forgiveness,” the song by the band Dope begins as images unfurl: armed soldiers posing in front of Bradley fighting vehicles, two women covered in black abayas walking along a dusty road, a blue-domed mosque, a poster of radical cleric Muqtada Sadr. Then, to the fast, hard beat of the music — “Die, don’t need your resistance. Die, don’t need your prayers” — charred, decapitated and bloody corpses fill the screen.

    “It’s like a trophy, something to keep,” McCullough, 20, said back at his cramped living quarters at Camp Warhorse near Baqubah. “I was there. I did this.”

    ….McCullough was surprised that his favorite video was disturbing to his loved ones back in Texas.

    “You find out just how weird it is when you take it home,” said McCullough, whose screensaver is far more benign, showing him on his wedding day.

    Brandi McCullough, then his fiancee and now his wife, said she had walked in as he was showing the videos to friends who were “whooping and hollering.”

    The 18-year-old was shocked by images of “body parts missing, bombs going off and people getting shot.”

    “They’re terrifying,” she said by phone from Texas. “Chase never talked about anything over there, and I watch the news, but not all the time. I didn’t realize there was that much” violence.

    ….Daniel Nelson, a professor of psychiatry at the University of Cincinnati School of Medicine, said he understood the disconnect.

    “I’m not surprised about this — it’s a new consciousness that we’re beginning to see,” he said, comparing the videos to the Abu Ghraib prisoner abuse photographs. “What happens in this situation, the culture is endorsing something that would be prohibited in another context stateside.”

    What seems disrespectful or a trivialization is also a way for soldiers to distance themselves from the trauma, he said, which says: “I don’t want to see what I’ve done or experienced as real.”

    The creation of videos resembles what Nelson has seen in his work with traumatized children and Vietnam veterans, he said.

    “How do we create the story about our lives?” he asked. “Part of the healing process is for them to create a narrative, to organize an emotional story that allows them to get a handle on it.” [LA times]

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About Eric Olsen

  • SFC Ski

    Well, I can only answer for myself; war wil cause you to see things that you may not be able to deal with in a rational manner at first, it will take time to analyze them internally before you can even begin to expalin them to others.

    Unfortunately, stories like this will only provide fodder for those who see soldiers as not reflections of the society they come from, but somehow “other”.

    Sometimes, I want to get in someone’s face, tell them what I really saw and felt, but I realize that won’t really hav enay positive outcome, won’t educate anyone. Ufortunately this young soldier barely half my age, has seen some things that he and his peers have to deal with, and it will look horribly wrong to anyone who was not there.

  • SFC Ski

    I also want to say that this soldier is definitely not doing the the right thing by showing these films.

  • Eric Olsen

    thanks Ski, I wasn’t, and I don’t think the writer of the Times story was either, passing judgment. I found remarkable the similarities, down to the actual visuals, of how people dealt with this kind of experience 30 years apart. We know you can’t really understand if you weren’t there.

  • SFC Ski

    There is a writer named Colby Buzzell, he has a blog called “My War”, and he also wrote an article published in “Esquire” this month. In dealing with his Iraq experiences, especially killing, his tone is almost ambivalent. It seems like that is another defense mechanism, a lot of soldiers won’t really know what hit them until long after they return.

  • http://dumpsterbust.blogspot.com/ Eric Berlin

    It’s very much the same, only the technology is different.

    Reminds me that the generals/politicians that have seen war up close and bloody are usually the most reluctant to send a fresh batch of bodies into battle, the most willing to explore every single other option first.

    Thanks for this post, Eric — the kind of memories to stay with you a lifetime, as we all can see.

  • alienboy

    i think it is a good thing that this type of evidence comes to light.

    the only disturbing thing here is the things done and the people doing them. It might not be a bad idea if contemporary leaders put there asses on the line in future conflicts. I bet there would be a lot less war if “leaders” had to get on the frontline – and a lot more respect…

  • Tristan

    it seems to be that old “lynch-mob” Mentality—-

    when groups of men get together with heated emotions–pumped up by “leaders”–
    the “animal” arises ……..

    I’m surprised there isn’t more literature prevalent on the “best-seller” lists about this “lynch-mob” Mentality that allows the beast in man to emerge unchecked—

    we keep having these instances such as Nazi Germany, Abu Ghirag , etc., where men get “carried away” and do these insane brutalities that would never normally even be considered ……

    and in the middle of doing them—the momentum seems to build up encouraging even “worse” atrocities …..

    once the ball gets rolling ……

  • Eric Olsen

    the problem here is that soldiers have to deal with the extreme dichotomy of their own internal lives, their own sense of right and wrong, good and bad, appropriate and inappropriate behavior, that in general is EXACTLY the opposite of what they are trained to do, and must do to survive, in war.

  • http://dumpsterbust.blogspot.com/ Eric Berlin

    I think that’s the reason that the military tries as hard as it can to drum the individualism out of new recruits so that, as much as possible, they will unthinkingly carry out orders and basically do their job during combat.

    When discipline breaks down, when the rules break down, and there’s no one telling you what to do — that’s when the slide starts into this “sick shit.”

  • Eric Olsen

    that is very true, but also recall that it is a very recent phenomenon that the victors don’t place the heads of the vanquished on sticks, rape at will, pillage their towns, and enslave their women and children as a matter of official policy (and of course ALL these things still happen)

  • http://dumpsterbust.blogspot.com/ Eric Berlin

    You’re right: it’s a somewhat recent development, historically speaking, for combatants to behave civally (when not killing the enemy).

    Of course, you have medieval “chivalry” and something of a code of conduct going on from time to time, but it seems that this was never really the norm.

  • MCH

    Re comment #5;
    “Reminds me that the generals/politicians that have seen war up close and bloody are usually the most reluctant to send a fresh batch of bodies into action, the most willing to explore every single other option first.”

    Agreed, Eric B…Perhaps if a few more of the politicians at the top of this administration had actually served in combat – instead of going AWOL from the National Guard (Bush) or dodging the draft with student deferments (Cheney, Wolfowitz, Ashcroft) – they wouldn’t have been nearly so gung-ho in sending a fresh batch of bodies into this pre-emptive invasion and subsequent occupation…