“War produces many euphemisms, downplaying or giving verbal respectability to savagery and slaughter.”
― Patrick Cockburn
On a recent airplane flight that Betty and I made to screen BRAVO!, I busied myself by reading an article by George Packer in THE NEW YORKER that introduced an interesting notion about violence and warriors. The article got my attention and has me still thinking.
I interpreted that notion as follows: The world offers a variety of narratives in which one can choose to participate. Some narratives are peaceful, some career minded, some offer adventure. Sometimes the adventurous narratives proffer us the opportunity to experience our own inner savagery.
As I pondered the latter idea, I thought that it was ugly. But then I thought about it some more and decided that yes, the idea that we can take the opportunity to experience our own inner savagery is ugly, but maybe not that uncommon.
I recall reading William Manchester’s book titled GOODBYE DARKNESS about his service in the Marine Corps during World War II. What stuck with me more than any other ideas and incidents he wrote about were his comments about the battles with the Japanese. Marines quite often did not take prisoners. Neither did the Japanese. In many ways, the battles in the Pacific theater were no-quarter-given affairs. Manchester intimated that even when an enemy soldier tried to surrender, you killed him.
I know there were a lot of reasons why prisoners were not taken, but as I think about it, there is an element of savagery here that would shock the folks at home who have no knowledge of war.
Various definitions of savagery speak of barbarity and violence and brutality. And of course war is all of those things, and savagery may be necessary for the warrior when locked in battle.
I was involved in a nasty battle in Vietnam in which we assaulted a trench line held by a battalion of North Vietnamese soldiers. We got them on the run and moved through their fortifications, killing every enemy soldier we came upon.
At one point in the fight, as another Marine and I advanced through the maze of trenches, I noticed a group of Marines in a deep bomb crater nearby. Among them was what looked like a North Vietnamese soldier who must have surrendered. As I watched, in just the minute it takes for you to start to breathe, a barrage of enemy mortar rounds landed in and around the bomb crater, decimating the Marines and Navy Corpsmen inside the crater. As the smoke and dust cleared, I saw a Marine take a .45 caliber pistol and shoot that NVA prisoner in the head.
For years I doubted I had really seen this event take place. Not that I couldn’t believe it happened, but on that day, so much chaos and mayhem ruled the moment that I’ve wondered if the event was a figment of my imagination or a memory based on something someone else had told me.
Several years ago, I finally did some checking around and I am now convinced that what I saw did actually happen.
I am not saying that when the Marine popped a pistol round into the prisoner’s head that it was wrong, or right for that matter. I think each of us has to decide these things for ourselves. And I would like to throw into the thinking mix the notion that the question of whether it was right or wrong wasn’t even relevant to the moment. I don’t believe any of us were pondering the finer points of morality while this battle raged.
Would I have done the same thing? Even though I was a witness, I can’t really say since I wasn’t in that exact situation and that very particular place.
I wonder what was going through that Marine’s mind as he pulled the trigger and killed his prisoner. I know he was racked with fear—we all were—and he may have been cognizant that what happened when the barrage of mortar rounds landed was a catastrophe for everyone in the bomb crater and that the NVA prisoner looking at him was an enemy combatant who, if given the opportunity, would most likely do anything he could to help kill Marines.
What I witnessed at that moment was a lot of things, including savagery.
Earlier in my tour of duty, some Marines arrived in Bravo Company from another regiment. They had been in-country for a while and were seasoned warriors. I got to know a few of them and more than once I asked how and why they ended up getting transferred to Bravo Company.
The Marines would blow me off or they’d look at each other and shrug, but finally, two of them told me they’d been involved in an operation in the mountains south of Khe Sanh. The operation, among other things, involved sweeping through a lot of rough country and a few of the local villes.
According to what these Marines told me, every time they went through one of the villes on search and destroy missions, one or more Marines would get shot, always after the Marines had left the ville. Evidently it happened so many times that one day, after several Marines were shot and killed after the company left a particular ville, the company got on line and swept back through the ville and killed everything: men, women, children, dogs, pigs.
I served with these men, some of them for quite a long time, and they were good men, so it makes me wonder if captured in a particular time and place, most of us aren’t susceptible to such momentary fits of aggression, rage or savagery.
As I compose this, I think of the incident at My Lai in 1968 where American troops slaughtered hundreds of Vietnamese people in a horror where savagery evidently got the best of a good number of the United States Army participants. I can’t imagine that all those men who were involved in that massacre are monsters now if they are still alive. They may have been monsters in that short time but then came home to not be like that at all, and when I think that, I wonder if most of us don’t have that person living inside us, that monster.
Is this kind of savagery a result of fear or is it a result of what we become in order to survive when faced with the possibility of imminent death; or is it that there is some kind of communal blood lust that happens in combat; or is it even more complicated than that? Is revenge considered savagery? A lot of questions, I think, and not a lot of answers.
Many people who read this will, without a moment’s hesitation, say, “No, people who act this way are monsters without exception.” But some of us who have been in combat won’t be so sure. We’ll think about what we saw and what it felt like to be confronted by another human intent on killing you and the person next to you, and who has the means to do so.
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