combat writing badge C O M B A T
the Literary Expression of Battlefield Touchstones
ISSN 1542-1546 Volume 05 Number 03 Summer ©Jul 2007


"WAR, hoah, good God! What is it good for? Absolutely NOTHING. Say it again!"
recorded by Edwin Starr [War by Norman Whitfield and Barrett Strong (1970)]

I was blind sided, never saw it coming. Oh, it's not like it hasn't happened to almost everyone at one time or another. You know what I mean, a sight, a sound or a smell that snatches you out of the present and plunges you full force into a pleasant memory or a cold sweat. I never expected it that night, or that it would disturb me so much.

It started out as just a light hearted play, staged by a local troupe of performers as part of a traveling Fringe Festival. The play Streakin[1] was billed as "A Musical Flashback Featuring the Hits of the 1970s" with a little gratuitous nudity thrown in for fun, thus the name. Well, having grown up in the '60s and come of age in the '70s this seemed like a chance to take a pleasant stroll down memory lane. The play was turning out to be rollicking good fun and the performers were very good. The costumes were very authentic and really brought back fond memories with more than a few laughs. Do you remember bell bottom jeans, peasant blouses, tie-dyed shirts, long hair, peace symbols, and platform shoes? Well they had them all.

Up to this point the play had all been quite cheerful. The cast belted out the tunes, from Pop to Rock and Bubble Gum to Disco. The music prompted happy memories even if some of those songs weren't really ever very good, then or now. For me, music has always had strong emotional hooks. Songs have often acted as anchors for my memories, helping to define events and milestones throughout my life. The play kept rolling along full of light hearted memories until they broke into "Tin soldiers and Nixon coming, we're finally on our own. This summer I hear the drumming, four dead in Ohio."[2] Then they went right into "WAR, hoah, Yeah! What is it good for? Absolutely NOTHING!"[3] I couldn't breath. I couldn't see. My eyes filled with tears. Every hair on my body stood on end, and my heart was in my throat. In that instant, I was eighteen again with Vietnam in the news and on my mind. I flashed back to the pictures of the war brought into our living rooms each night on the TV. The news footage of GI's taking refuge behind a wall during a fire fight and taking turns firing their M-16's over the top of the wall while others reloaded. The picture from the anti-war march on the Pentagon, showing a young marcher stopping to put flowers into the rifle barrels of the soldiers standing guard along the route. My mind's eye filled with images of the protest against the National Guard's presence on campus at Kent State; then the girl kneeling and wailing over the body of Jeffrey Miller, who was one of the students killed when that protest rally went tragically wrong. I saw the medevac helicopters racing to save the lives of wounded soldiers. I saw the little Vietnamese girl running down a road naked and screaming, her back badly burned in a napalm strike. I saw the Vietnamese policeman with his outstretched arm, holding a hammerless .38 caliber revolver, executing a bound Vietnamese prisoner on the street in Saigon. I saw the explosions cascade in a wave across the land as the bombs fell from the B-52's of an Arc Light strike. I saw the surreal rain of fire in the night sky made by the tracer rounds as an AC-130 Spectre gunship made its pass over a target. I saw the charts and the graphs of the body counts.

Then the wellspring of arguments that my dad and I had about the war started to replay. He was a World War II veteran who had enlisted in the Navy the day after Pearl Harbor was attacked. He had been a pilot, flying his TBM Avenger torpedo bomber off the pitching deck of an aircraft carrier in the Pacific. He'd seen and experienced war first hand. He'd been shot at and done his share of shooting, too. He was a "my country, right or wrong" kind of man – not so much gung ho, but more like "if our country's in a war, then it's everybody's war, and if our president thinks war is the answer, then war it is." I wasn't sure how I felt, except that I knew I didn't think this war made any sense at all. I couldn't understand how he, having seen the devastation of war, couldn't even contemplate questioning the merits of the Vietnam War. We argued about the Domino Effect, but I just couldn't buy the idea of Vietnam being the keystone to the communist takeover of the world. Sure, I'd seen Khrushchev on TV pounding his shoe on a tabletop and telling us that our children or grandchildren would live under communism. I just didn't believe that Vietnam was a logical place to stop that from happening. Dad's war was the response to a direct attack on our country and our way of life. I loved my father, I was proud of and respected his service, but I didn't think Vietnam was as clear cut and compelling as World War II. Beyond that, I was scared and confused. I didn't want to go to war, I didn't want to kill anyone, and I didn't want to be killed. I'm sure that no one who really has to do the fighting ever wants to go to war and I was no different. I was flooded with memories of all the young lives on both sides that had been lost, their promise and potential never to be realized. We fought about other things of far less importance, too, like the length of my hair and the clothes I wanted to wear. We had always been close, especially when we were building or fixing something, but the war tore at our relationship during those years in the same way it tore at our nation.

I had been awash in thoughts and emotions that I hadn't revisited in over thirty years. Meanwhile the play had gone on without me. Just about then they started to sing Who'll Stop The Rain[4] and as I slowly emerged from my memories of the past back into the present I wondered how we as a world, had come so far and changed so little.

[1]: Streakin by Jamie Rocco and Albert Evans, with Patti Wyss, Ed Cionek, and Heidi Karol Johnson (1995 - 2001)
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[2]: Ohio recorded by Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young; written by Neil Young (1970)
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[3]: War recorded by Edwin Starr; written by Norman Whitfield and Barrett Strong (1970)
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[4]: Who'll Stop The Rain recorded by Creedence Clearwater Revival; written by John Fogerty (1970)
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by Kevin L. Hoffman
... who is a professional artist, professor of art, and freelance writer, with his essays and photography appearing in national magazines and books; his writing has been previously featured in this periodical.

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C O M B A T, the Literary Expression of Battlefield Touchstones