[Hpn] We Are Still Paying for the Vietnam War
Sat, 15 Feb 2003 05:29:42 -0800
Iraq? We Are Still Paying for Vietnam
by Dra. Rosa Maria Pegueros
"I have watched with growing horror as the Bush administration marches
our country resolutely towards war against Iraq. Those of us who
oppose the war have been labeled as pacifists as though there were
some dishonor in opposing the inevitable slaughter. I am not a
pacifist for I would have supported a war against Hitler, Stalin,
among others, but I have my reasons for refusing to support this one.
I am of the Vietnam generation and growing up, I knew many veterans.
My father was a veteran of World War II; his best friend had been a
prisoner of war in Germany. I grew up with his stories of his ship
going down in the Pacific during the Battle of Okinawa, and the
physical evidence of his service--a strange deformity on his head
where they replaced part of his skull after he was nearly killed by a
piece of shrapnel. In his generation and class, all the young men who
could, had served including one of my professors at the University of
San Francisco who had been a prisoner of war and survived the Bataan
Death March. His body broken by torture, he died while I was in
college; he was barely fifty. Another of my professors was a Polish
paratrooper who fought for the Allies, surviving countless jumps into
Poland to work with the Resistance. Many of my classmates were
Vietnam veterans, desperately trying to make up for the years they
lost in that terrible war.
To some, war sounds romantic. In a consumerist society where most
people have all the material goods they need or could want, war is a
metaphor for purpose, valor, and manhood. There is, however, a great
hidden price to war that President Bush and the 80% of Americans who
support him turn away from when it is presented to them. It is the
cost of caring for the broken bodies and damaged minds of many of the
veterans lucky enough to come home.
Many of Vietnam's casualties survived long enough that their names
were not included when the Vietnam memorial was unveiled but died in
the years that followed from mental and physical wounds they brought
back with them. Vietnam cost us 58,196 soldiers, men and women.
Veterans groups estimate that 140,000 surviving veterans are totally
disabled and that hundreds of thousands still suffer from post-
traumatic stress disorder which results in suicides, incarcerations,
alcohol and drug abuse. Three times as many veterans have died by
their own hands as died on the field of battle. The Boston Shelter
for Homeless Veterans estimates that one-third of the homeless are
veterans; one-quarter are Vietnam veterans.
When funds are cut for homeless shelters, general assistance, and
food programs; for veterans' hospitals and other benefits, the very
people who were praised for their valor in offering their lives for
our country, are shortchanged because of what they have become:
throwaway people in a greedy culture that regards the bottom line as
the ultimate measure of value.
In the 1980s I worked with the homeless in California, almost all of
whom were Vietnam vets with serious substance abuse problems. I had
one client, "Jamal," a young black veteran of the Marine Corps. He
was exploding with anger, addicted to drugs and alcohol. He was
continually in trouble with the police for being confrontational and
for fighting with other homeless people. He hadn't always been on the
street, but in self-medicating with alcohol and street drugs, trying
to escape his nightmares, he had lost his family and his job as a
cameraman for a Hollywood studio. My job was to get him off the
street and into a substance abuse program.
One day, he came to me with a picture in his hand. "Do you wanna know
what I went through?? Look at THIS!" He held out a photo from the
movie, "Catch 22." The still showed a soldier standing in water up to
his thighs as a machine gun literally cut him in half. The upper half
of his body fell into the water.
"This is what happened to me! We were up to our waists in water; my
buddy was cut in half by machine-gun fire. His guts were floating on
the water. . .and I had to stay, crouching in the water next to him
because I was too hurt to move and they would have killed me, too.
There were leeches sucking on my legs."
I don't know what happened to Jamal; he was still on the street when
I left the job.
Our present leaders urge war but they don't have to put their lives
on the line; they can just talk about heroism and giving one's life
for one's country, and look resolute - President Bush's favorite word
without considering the cost in human suffering to our own people.
The suffering of the innocent Iraqi civilians is relegated to the
category of collateral damage, as if only buildings and vehicles
would be destroyed. President Bush speaks admiringly of the sacrifice
that they will make, but we didn't see George W. or Dick Cheney serve
in Vietnam. Bush and Cheney's daughters are too old to serve. Why is
it all right to sacrifice someone else's children?
Who is being called up right now? Largely working-class reservists
who signed up because they needed additional financial security for
their families, who never thought they'd have to actually have to
fight. Few middle- and upper-class folks join the Reserves--they
don't need the money.
I recently received a letter from one of my former students who is
now an organizer in New York. He wrote,
"I am adamantly against the war because it will only ensure another
generation of angry militant poor people of color with an easy
country to blame--ours. The best way to ensure democracy is not to
As far as I am concerned, that says it all."
Dra. Rosa Maria Pegueros is an Associate Professor in the Department
of History & Women's Studies Program at the University of Rhode Island
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