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Vietnam Syndrome
by J. F. Kelly, Jr. [writer] 6/6/06


“In war, you win or loose, live or die-- and the difference is just an eyelash.”
-Gen. Douglas MacArthur

Whoever first said that war is hell was no doubt referring to conventional war wherein uniformed armies fought each other and the Geneva Conventions applied. It was hell not only for the soldiers but, as well, for the civilians who were caught up in it. Hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians were killed in air raids and the fires which followed during WW II, regarded as collateral casualties and accepted as part of the inevitable fallout of war.

Unconventional wars, such as the ongoing war against terrorism, are no less hellish. In this war, only our own combatants are clearly identified as such by uniforms and insignia. The enemy wears civilian clothes, hides in homes and places of worship and blends in with women and children, some innocent and passive, others less so. Indeed, he recruits many of them to do the fighting and teaches them that it pleases Allah to blow themselves up in the process of killing western infidels.

J.F. Kelly, Jr.

J.F. Kelly, Jr. is a retired Navy Captain and bank executive who writes on current events and military subjects. He is a resident of Coronado, California. [go to Kelly index]

Most American civilians, having been largely shielded from the horrors of war by the world’s strongest and finest military forces, have no accurate concept of what it is like to actually fight such a war. Few can imagine what it is like to conduct a patrol in a hostile neighborhood or village, knowing that they may be in the gun sight of a terrorist’s rifle, not knowing whether the figure who suddenly appears in a doorway, window or alley is going to kill him and his buddies or is just trying to stay out of the way.

These are the worse kinds of wars for us to fight because we are at a huge disadvantage. The enemy knows who we are and sees us clearly. He will not hesitate before killing us and any innocent civilians who have the misfortune to be in the way. We, on the other hand, often don’t know who the enemy is and we must always hesitate until we are reasonably certain. Moreover, we must avoid harming innocent civilians, even though it may be impossible to distinguish them from the terrorists, perhaps until one of them detonates the bomb he or she may be carrying.

To fight these wretched wars, we send the cream of our youth, fresh off the high school campuses. Many are too young to vote or drink alcoholic beverages. Many are still forming values and developing judgment skills. We teach them to be warriors and then demand of them high standards of maturity, excellence and judgment and the ability to make split second, life or death decisions in door-to-door searches and patrols, surrounded by people who, at best, barely tolerate our temporary presence and, at worse hate us and wish to see us killed.

He who hesitates may well be lost. But he who acts with too much alacrity to defend himself and his buddies may be charged with a war crime, especially if second-guessed by an embedded reporter and photographer. Does anyone reading this care to volunteer for such duty? The pay isn’t much but there are plenty of travel opportunities, real life action adventures and good medical coverage, which you will probably need.

They are all volunteers. When they aren’t fighting, they often volunteer to rebuild schools, hospitals and bridges. They volunteer to befriend children, uprooted by violence. They volunteer to respond to natural disasters. They are the most compassionate warriors in the world. They are patriots and heroes, too. But sometimes, under the terrible stresses of war, even heroes make mistakes and overreact. It has happened in every war and will undoubtedly happen again, which, of course doesn’t mean that it’s right. It only means that war is hell on earth and, like sausage-making, not pleasant to watch up close. For those who screw up under these stressful circumstance, military justice is harsh and, unlike civilian justice, relatively swift and devoid of theatrics and frivolous defenses.

The Manual of the Judge Advocate General provides for grand jury-like investigations designed to determine if the facts support trials by courts-martial.

If war crimes were indeed committed by our troops at Kalitha or elsewhere, military investigations will report the evidence obtained and, if appropriate, recommend trials by general courts-martial for violations of the Uniform Code of Military Justice. A separate investigation should then inquire into the involvement of the chain of command.

The investigations and any resultant trials must not be influenced by anti-war hysteria or by politically motivated attempts to exploit this incident of war as was done in the case of the events at Abu Gharaib.

It is distressing, though, to witness so many sources rushing to judgment, voicing their outrage and demanding that heads roll, even before the investigations had barely convened. Civilian defendants are considered innocent until proven guilty. They are given every benefit of the doubt and mitigating circumstances are taken under consideration. Any troops implicated in the reported killings of civilians deserve no less.

Unfortunately, though, many opponents of the war and the administration will exploit this incident as an argument against the war and the conduct of it. They are, of course, hoping that the buck will not stop until it reaches Donald Rumsfeld’s desk or perhaps even the president’s. The rush to judgment must surely be demoralizing to our troops who are attempting to accomplish a difficult mission in spite of a growing segment of the folks back home who say they support the troops but oppose their mission. That kind of support is hardly reassuring or conducive to good morale. The overall effect is another moral victory for the enemy who delights in watching America’s will to win this war deteriorate almost daily. Less than five years after the air attacks on New York and Washington, the Vietnam Syndrome appears to have returned. CRO

copyright 2006 J. F. Kelly, Jr.



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