Nearly 30 years ago, Greg told me how it was, cutting the ears off dead men.
I had sought out Vietnam veterans to interview for a story about a pop song that was inspired by the war — “19” by Paul Hardcastle. Greg gave me an earful.
He explained how it is when the skin rots right off your foot. How it is when children are rigged to explode, so your first instinct is to shoot them when they come running up to you. How it is when the sight of an Asian face or the sound of a helicopter is enough to flash you from city streets to Vietnamese jungles. How it is living haunted days and nightmare nights, craving suicide, but lacking “the guts.” And, yes, how it is that guys used to collect the ears from dead enemy soldiers as souvenirs, sometimes stringing them together and wearing them like grisly necklaces.
I think of Greg whenever it is time to pass judgment on the things soldiers do.
As it happens, much of the nation is now passing judgment on something a group of Marines did. In a video that has sparked international outrage, four of them are seen apparently urinating on the corpses of Taliban fighters. The White House is embarrassed, there is speculation this will derail peace talks with the Taliban, and the four Marines are being both defended and reviled by the usual media and political figures.
Here’s a newspaper editorial bemoaning the damage to U.S. interests. Here’s a radio pundit saying she would gladly do as the Marines did. Here’s the White House calling the video deplorable. Here’s a presidential candidate reminding us these Marines were kids, not criminals.
But with Greg in mind, I can say only this: Your average, well-adjusted person does not go about with a necklace made of body parts, nor urinate on corpses nor otherwise desecrate the bodies of the dead — even the dead and reviled. Your average well-adjusted person would be repelled by the thought.
The point being, war is a different universe. What seems normal there is appalling here. It is not too much to say that war is a form of madness.
This is not to suggest those Marines ought not be criticized — not only for doing an awful thing, but also, frankly, for being dumb enough to allow it to be recorded and posted online. It is not to suggest the government ought not be chagrined or that the rest of us should not be asking the White House pointed questions about indiscipline in the ranks — especially given that this comes in the wake of multiple scandals involving military mistreatment of enemy combatants, including the debacle at Abu Ghraib. It is not to suggest military service is a moral “Get Out Of Jail Free” card.
No, this is only to suggest that our judgment be tempered by a recognition that these people have been in a place where the rules are different, that not every wound you carry out of such places is visible, and that in their way, the invisible wounds may be the costliest ones.
Greg spoke to me in a voice I can still hear all too clearly: whisper soft and matter of fact as he recounted atrocities committed upon enemy soldiers — and the consequent degradation of his own soul.
I suspect he’d see this video as a reminder: War maims the body, yes. But it brutalizes conscience, too.