Capturing War


I grew up during the Vietnam era. This conflict in Southeast Asia officially began in 1959, and officially ended with the Paris Peace Accords in 1973. I was a four-year-old baby when Ike first sent advisers over, and a high school graduate when the boys came home under Nixon.

An opinion has grown among historians that the unpopularity of the Vietnam War came about because of particularly intense television coverage. Some claim that support for this “police action” shifted when the draft expanded to include middle class, college-bound boys. Mothers across the country grew alienated, and distressed by the relentless coverage flickering across all three networks; images of  Vietcong ambushes, exploding fire fights, and mounting body counts, soon drained any support women felt for the war.

I recall in particular doing dishes after dinner watching a little black and white Sony portable on the kitchen counter. It didn’t matter which network I switched to, the same footage blended into a mingled blur . . . jungle, fear, wounds, and an odometer-like graphic, tallying up the day’s body count.

The Vietnam War didn’t come to us through paintings, or photographs, or movie house newsreels. Instead the American public, including this growing girl from Spokane, viewed the unfolding drama as a grim reality program, years before that term was coined. And that little 10 inch window to the war told me, as young and unsophisticated as I was, that this involvement was awful. That war is an awful event.

CBS, in particular, ran special reports highlighting varying aspects of that endless nightmare. News cameras exposed the jarring horror of  surgical personnel–doctors and nurses splattered with blood–and set out with nervous reconnaissance patrols edging through deadly elephant grass, and huddled with desperate Marines battling at a stone wall in the ancient Vietnamese capitol of Hue. All of it awful.

So many years have flown by, and I find this little girl is now officially middle aged. Yet, as I type my graphic recollections from fifty years ago, I know that, at this very moment, young people in battle zones face the exact same hell as the lethal jungles of Vietnam. The human cost of war has not changed–not one bit. And though the American public isn’t quite as riled as 1970, nor as focused, the price of overseas conflicts remain the same for those beautiful young souls now in harms way.

In the spirit of comforting the disturbed, and disturbing the comfortable, I would like to finish this piece by reprinting a poem by WWI soldier and poet, Siegfried Sassoon. With words alone, Sassoon captured the true awful, using no film crew, or photographer, or painter.


By Siegfried Sassoon

Soldiers are citizens of death’s grey land,
Drawing no dividend from time’s to-morrows.
In the great hour of destiny they stand,
Each with his feuds, and jealousies, and sorrows.
Soldiers are sworn to action; they must win
Some flaming, fatal climax with their lives.
Soldiers are dreamers; when the guns begin
They think of firelit homes, clean beds and wives.
I see them in foul dug-outs, gnawed by rats,
And in the ruined trenches, lashed with rain,
Dreaming of things they did with balls and bats,
And mocked by hopeless longing to regain
Bank-holidays, and picture shows, and spats,
And going to the office in the train.
Have a safe weekend, and accent the memory in Memorial Day.
Gail Chumbley is the author of the non-fiction memoir, River of January

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