Posted December 17th. 2011

Personal Legacy of War

As the old men played Briscola, a card game of Sicilian origin, they smoked DiNobli cigars and drank Caffe’ Corretto, a grappa laced espresso, in small cups. The cigar smoke lay heavy in the room, dispersing the glow of the single light bulb that hung precariously over the table. They spoke in broken English of coming to America. Some came illegally, most flirted a bit with the mafia, and all worked hard to support their families in a difficult job market for laborers. Nervous and excited, I listened attentively, from a safe distance, hidden behind the old green sofa. On most occasions I was quickly discovered and after a good natured reprimand and a gentle “boot in the ass,” I was sent on my way. On a few occasions, however, my perseverance was greatly rewarded. For reasons I can only speculate, no one seemed to notice my presence. Even as a ten-year-old, I realized that this was a special place and I had no business eavesdropping on such privileged conversation.

As they consumed the potent coffee, barriers lowered and the discussion, at least as I remember it, turned invariably to their experiences during the Second World War and the Korean Conflict. Despite being immigrants, all were drafted into the American military. I listened intently as my father, while contemplating his next discard, recalled his experiences as a U.S. Army interpreter fighting through the villages and countryside of Sicily, the land of his birth. Somberly, he described in great detail how American artillery and bombing had devastated his hometown. How he had been torn between strong feelings of patriotism for his adopted homeland and the deep sense of shame and guilt he felt for the deaths of innocent villagers, some of whom had been his neighbors. I learned also that my Uncle Gasper, a SeaBee, had narrowly escaped being killed by a Japanese sniper while building an airfield on Guadalcanal. How Uncle Tony, nicknamed “Squint Eye,” but only addressed as such by a few of his closest friends, had nearly been blinded by shrapnel during a kamikaze attack against his minesweeper in the South Pacific. What impressed me most, I think, was hearing my Uncle Joe relate, with great emotion, the heroic last stand of the Marines at the frozen Chosin Reservoir in Korea. I was amazed to see this very strong, austere, and stoic man, cry as he described gently holding a fellow Marine in his arms as the dying man gasped his last breath. As I listened to their stories, despite my young age, I empathized with their obvious pain and grief. 
Peace Vet
The Memories, Flashbacks, Nightmares, and Cynical Rantings of a Vietnam Survivor
Surely, the Old Ones were aware of my presence behind the green sofa.  I often wondered why, on those few occasions, I was allowed to remain and witness such intensely personal discussions of aspects of their lives they kept so well hidden from all except those who shared similar experiences. Perhaps they thought it important that I know the family history. In my more whimsical moments, however, I fancy that  they were trying to educate me, make me aware of war’s realities, and to spare me its inevitable consequences.  

I was born in Brooklyn, New York. My parents, like most immigrants of the time, were grateful to be living in this land
of “unlimited opportunity.” Influenced by Catholic school education, John Wayne movies, and John F. Kennedy’s admonishment to “ask what you could do for your Country,” I grew up stridently patriotic with a strong sense of duty to God and to Country. In my youth, I was fascinated and exhilarated by war. Because of what I had learned from my hiding place behind the green sofa, however, I was also wary of its devastating effects upon those it touches. War was an enigma I wished I could have discussed with the Old Ones. My concerns could never be addressed, however, as I realized the inappropriateness of discussing such matters outside the sanctuary of “the warrior’s circle.”

In 1968, America was at war. Communism was the menace. Vietnam the focal point of the confrontation between good and evil. The domino of choice that must, at all costs, remain standing. To the Vietnamese, however, it was a continuing struggle against another in a seemingly endless series of colonial or occupying powers intent upon denying them independence, national unity, and self-determination. To the Americans, it was portrayed as a grass roots struggle between north and south, a noble and necessary intervention to exorcize a pervasive evil seeking world domination. Ultimately, however, it proved a morally ambiguous and divisive war few chose to fight, so many were conscripted. 

“The unwilling doing the unnecessary for the indifferent and the ungrateful.”

As a consequence of the draft, many young Americans who questioned the justness and necessity of the war, were confronted with a profound moral dilemma. Whether to shame oneself and one’s family by expatriating – fleeing to Canada – or risk injury or death by becoming, in their view, a murderer, or an accessory to murder that disguised itself as national defense. I had an additional option, however.  Upon graduating college, I was offered a position at the school where I had student-taught. Consequently, I could have availed myself, quite rightly my parents believed, of the deferment from military service that was available to teachers at the time. A testimony, I guess, to the importance of education in creating the “Great Society” that Lyndon Johnson had hoped would be the legacy of his Administration. Further, since the teaching position was at an “inner-city school,” the social importance of such an undertaking justified accepting the deferment. In truth, such rationalization was unnecessary, as avoiding military service was quite common, especially for the wealthy and the influential. For me, however, staying at home while others fought and died in my place was cowardice. More importantly, it was an affront to the parents of my childhood friend Ralphie who, a few months earlier, had dutifully, albeit reluctantly, sent their son to war. All they received in return were fragments of bone and sinew and a form letter from the President of the United States expressing the nation’s regrets and gratitude for Ralphie’s heroic sacrifice in behalf of freedom and democracy. Code words for a mistake, a paranoia-driven crusade against contrived evil that demanded the life of their only child.

As I watched the drama of Ralphie’s funeral unfold, I remembered, not many years before, playing stickball on East 87th Street. I smiled, recalling how a foul ball had broken Eddie’s mother’s window and how Ralphie had quickly handed me the bat before shrewdly escaping to the sanctuary of Anthony’s garage. No one believed I wasn’t the culprit, until Ralphie abandoned his hiding place, and, with cobwebs hanging from his forehead, bravely admitted to the deed. As they lowered Ralphie’s casket into the ground, I drifted among a tangle of childhood memories – Ring-a-levio,  kick-the-can on humid summer nights, and riding our bikes down “suicide hill.”  Ralphie was nineteen years, eight months, and fourteen days old when war ended his life. The lesson I learned from Ralphie’s death was that in war young people die and old people grieve. The rational response would probably have been to put the tragedy behind me, to accept the deferment, and go on with my life. But those were not rational times. Rather, I enlisted in the Marine Corps understanding full well that doing so would guarantee me a trip to Vietnam. 

I was excited and could not wait to tell my Uncle Joe. I thought for sure he would be pleased, proud that his nephew chose to emulate him and become a Marine. As I gave him the good news, I studied his time-worn face for approval. Instead, I sensed, perhaps for the first time, an uncharacteristic vulnerability, even frailty. He seemed much older than his years. “Why you do that?” he said as our eyes finally met. Without waiting for a response, he kissed me on both cheeks. “Dio vi benedica,” were his last words to me as he turned and walked away. Rendered speechless by what had occurred, I didn’t even think to return the blessing, or to say goodbye. It was soon after I had arrived in Vietnam that I learned my Uncle Joe had died.

In retrospect, I’m not really certain why I decided not to accept the deferment. Perhaps, it was out of patriotism, or bravado, or even to avenge my friend’s death. Or perhaps it was just to fulfill my destiny as a warrior, a victim, and heir apparent to the legacy of the Old Ones. I left on July 5, 1968, for the Marine Corps Officer Candidate School at Quantico, Virginia. What I failed to realize at the time, however, was that I was leaving behind, forever, all that I had cherished and held sacred for the past twenty-one years. Most tragically, I was leaving behind the innocence of my youth.

Marine Corps training was truly a life altering experience. What ultimately enables a Marine to ignore the ethical limits normally placed on the use of violence – to kill and to die in battle - -  is not abstract ideology, but a personal code of honor, self-respect, loyalty and accountability to one’s comrades. I learned my lessons well and readily embraced the mythology of the warrior. Upon completion of my training, I became part of a proud and chivalrous tradition, a select brotherhood of noble and courageous knights, empowered by God and Country to exorcize the demonic agents of evil. I was prepared to kill and to selflessly sacrifice my life, if need be, for right and for good. After Ralphie’s death and the sacrifices of the Old Ones, how could I do anything less? Soon after arriving in Vietnam, however, it became very clear that no one is truly prepared for the actual horrors, the inhumanity and destruction of “demythologized” war. Fear, inevitably, is the myth breaker, restoring to war a reality that is bleak, uncompromising, and hellish

“My first experience of war was not auspicious. As mortar rounds walked-in upon us, like giant steps of death and destruction, I was mesmerized by excitement and fear. Frozen in place, gauging the next footfall, I was pushed, rather unceremoniously, into a sandbagged bunker, more to clear the escape route than from a concern for my well-being. Overwhelmed by fear, all that I had learned forgotten, I burrowed, wormlike, into the muddy bottom, seeking sanctuary, cursing my humanity, and my inability to disappear into the earthen mother’s womb.” (War Journals, Bica, C.C., 1969)

Despite my childhood fascination and Marine Corps indoctrination, I was never enthusiastic about war. Even those more motivated than I, those who viewed war as a means for advancement, lacked fervor for this particular endeavor. Yet, even in such a war, men turned easily into killers, shedding a young lifetime of humanity and compassion. In a brief moment of frenzy, killing became orgasmic, and death performance art.

“A body of a dead Viet Cong sapper stood upright, impaled in layers of concertina wire marking the no-man’s land that surrounds the perimeter of a firebase north of Danang. Killed trying to breech the base’s defenses, his catatonic body had been adorned by holiday revelers with Christmas decorations and a sign, soiled with blood and entrails, wishing all peace and good will from the 26th Marines. As we passed and entered the base, few even took notice. I heard one young Marine, newly arrived in country, whisper to no one in particular, “Ho, fucking ho, fucking ho.” The innocence of youth dies quickly when killing becomes a right of passage.”(War Journals, Bica, C.C., 1969)

The reality of the situation on the ground failed to match the rhetoric of our leaders. I felt a moral uneasiness with both the purpose of the war and the manner in which it was conducted. Because attrition became the strategy and the goal, seemingly the only strategy and goal, and identification of the enemy problematic, killing became indiscriminate, and all too easy. Dying became routine, purposeless, and seemingly inevitable . . . and Ralphie’s death all the more tragic. 

“With the Marine Corps Hymn lingering in the background of my mind, I  persevered, like Sergeant Stryker charging valiantly up Suribachi, dying quickly, quietly, gently, and without pain or regret. In truth, most linger, scream for their mothers like children, first imploring God to let their lives continue, then begging for death to end their suffering. Final glances exchanged eyes burned deeply into my soul, faces of the soon to be dead, I will remember for the rest of my life.”  (War Journals, Bica, C.C., 1969)

Patriotic hymns and anthems quickly fade amidst the screams of the mutilated and the dying. As the warrior’s mythology crumbled, I felt an overwhelming burden of responsibility, no longer to Corps and Country, but to those whose lives depended upon my abilities and decisions. I saw Ralphie in each of their young faces, made empty and hardened by war, and was deafened by the heartbreaking and poignant cries of parents pleading for the lives of their children. Survival was all that really mattered. What I failed to realize at the time, however, was that, at least in spirit, we were all dead already.

It was up to me to decide who would be killed and who would die. War usurps the omnipotence of god and makes it anathema. Some find such power exhilarating. I knew a few people like that, didn’t like them much. Thought they were lucky, though, because killing and dying “meant nothing.” In a perverse way, they enjoyed it, enjoyed the jazz, the excitement, the power. Intoxicated by war, such men hated to see it end. For me, the war never ends.

For the remainder of my time in country, I struggled with the conflicting responsibilities of an officer of Marines in war and of safeguarding the lives of those entrusted to my care. Sometimes it became impossible to do both. Tragically, what mattered least in this moral equation were those we were allegedly there to protect and to liberate. They became expendable and their deaths proved a practical solution to our dilemma, as dead Vietnamese posed no threat to our survival and satisfied the military demand for body count. Like most, I did what “had to be done” and this is something I will live with for the rest of my life. Atrocity? All war is atrocity.

We often hear our military and political leaders speak of our nation’s uncompromising commitment to the tenets of a just was and rules of engagement. Such talk, however, is, in reality, part of the mythology, necessary to maintain a guise of morality and allow our national conscience to remain clean. As is clear from history, moral rules as they apply to war, are merely a tactic of advantage, having relevance and application only should belligerent nations find such rules and restrictions advantageous to the achievement of some important national goal or purpose. But when political or military interest comes in conflict with moral principles, it is inevitably the former that prevails. How else could one morally explain the systematic incineration of hundreds of thousands of innocent men, women, and children, as a consequence of the saturation and nuclear bombing of cities during World War II, while, at the same time condemning the genocide of Nazi death camps.

Make no mistake, however. Few if any go to war to murder innocent people. Most exert great effort, often at considerable personal risk, to protect the innocent and conduct themselves with decency and integrity. Unfortunately, either under the rubric of “supreme emergency,” as was the case in World War II, or due to the morally untenable conditions of guerrilla/counterinsurgency warfare as in Vietnam and Iraq, soldiers inevitably are positioned to become the unwitting instruments of slaughter. Such occurrences are always tragic and regrettable, but never more so than when war is misguided and unnecessary. Those removed from the chaos and confusion of combat are understandably appalled by what, from their perspective, constitutes  brutality and murder. When public outrage demands justice, it is invariably the warrior who is held accountable, while those who initiated the war, formulated an incoherent  strategy, devised questionable tactics, supported the war or did nothing or little to stop it, are themselves absolved of responsibility and permitted to continue their charade of moral awareness and concern as they sit in judgment of our actions. We are the victims of their hypocrisy, the scapegoats for the inevitable affront to the national conscience, and the sacrificial lambs sent to slaughter in retribution for our collective guilt and inadequacies. In fact, no one knows the sacrilege of war better than we who must fight it and then have to live with the memories of what we have done and what we have become.  

"The monster and I are one. I have feasted upon the flesh of decaying corpses and with their blood have quenched my thirst. The transformation is complete and I can never return. Mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa.” (War Journals, Bica, C.C., 1969)

All who are touched by war are tainted. Upon my return to the world (the United States), I felt like a stranger in my own home, disoriented and adrift between the world I recognized as my place of origin – though now quite alien – and the world of killing and destruction of which I was a part. 

“Things were different . . . or maybe I was different. As much as I had come to hate the war, there at least I felt I belonged. I knew what was expected of me, and I had become ruthlessly proficient at fulfilling those expectations. Here I am a misfit, an aberration, isolated and alone.” (Post War Journals, Bica, C.C., 1970)

Vietnam was the defining experience of my life. Though physical wounds may heal, the emotional, psychological, and moral injuries of war linger and fester. Vietnam forever pervades my existence, condemning me to continually relive and question the past. “Did I do enough?” “Could I have done better?” “Did I make the correct decisions?” Inevitable concerns of those who must take life and whose decisions cause others to die. Despite the urging of well-meaning friends and loved ones, I can never forget Vietnam nor put it behind me. No one truly “recovers” from war. No one is ever made whole again. The best that can be hoped, I think, is to achieve a degree of benign acceptance. To that end, I strive each day to forgive and absolve myself of guilt, and to live with the wounds of war that will never heal.

“The endless screams of the dying forever echo in my mind. A sacrificial offering of virgins to placate the angry elder gods. I’ve become an atheist.” (Post War Journals, Bica, C.C., 1971)

Of late, I think often of Ralphie and his parents, of ring-o-levio, and bike rides down suicide hill. I think often too of the Old Ones, and sometimes, while deep in thought, or, perhaps, lost in a daydream, I can almost smell the faint aroma of DiNobili cigars and alcohol-tinged espresso. For a fleeting moment, I am ten years old again, watching and listening from behind the old green sofa. But now the exhilaration, awe, and wonder I enjoyed as a child is gone as I have learned the reality of war. I think of the Old Ones still with admiration, but now tempered by understanding and sadness for all they had endured. I know now the true cost of war and the burden of life in its aftermath. I realize as well, that all war is profane, and unnecessary war is sacrilege. And perhaps worst of all, I know the frustration of having to sit idly by, helpless, as it all happens again. I mourn lives devastated by war. I see Ralphie in each of their faces and am deafened by the screams of devastated loved ones. Never had I missed the Old Ones more, especially my father. Never was my Uncle Joe and the Marine that died in his arms at the Chosin more clearly in my mind.

Copyright © Camillo C. Bica 2011

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