The following was written by Douglas Cohn, a Vietnam veteran, and appeared in Jack Anderson’s column, which is distributed by United Feature Syndicate and was published in the Decatur Daily . We include it on the Alabama Veterans Museum and Archives web site because the sentiments expressed are in accordance with the philosophy of our museum.
War is tragedy. There is no place in war for gloating. Those of us who have been in war, who have shot and been shot, never gloated. If we volunteered, we volunteered out of patriotism, killing our country’s enemies if we must, capturing them if we could. This is why the soldiers, marines and pilots fighting in Iraq are not gleeful after combat. Rather, it is political leaders who have never heard shots fired in anger who thump their chests.
War should be waged as a last resort. It should be waged reluctantly and soberly. Its ultimate objective is to persuade enemies to lay down their arms, not their lives. However, killing is a reactive response when someone is trying to kill you, though the only joy in it is to survive it. Winston Churchill said, "There is nothing so exhilarating as to be shot at without effect." But survival and killing are quite different, and they evoke different emotions. Indeed, tears are more prevalent than cheers at such times.
I vividly remember an encounter with the Viet Cong in 1970. We heard noise to the front. Five of us at the point of our column quietly spread out left and right in the thick jungle, and I told them not to fire until the enemy was literally on top of us. The first of them walked right into the man next to me and froze, startled as the teenage private squeezed off a round and shot him through the head. I killed the next man behind him. My platoon had standing orders to drop their packs and race toward the sound of the guns. They did so in seconds, and we overran the enemy. There was no joy when it was over. This was fighting as close as it gets, and the man who killed the first VC broke down and cried. I told him I was proud of him, proud of his humanity, proud of his tears. Everyone who serves in combat is wounded in one way or another.
We lived in the jungle, but we were not animals. We killed the enemy, but we were not murderers. But we went on, weeks and months on end, killing and being killed, capturing when we could. There were rules of war and we obeyed them. And in the midst of it all, we never learned to hate our enemy. Soldiers tend to respect one another. It is a sentiment that does not hold for those who break the rules like Iraqi soldiers wearing civilian clothes or hiding behind noncombatants. It does not hold for terrorists and torturers. They are cowards and killers, not soldiers.
So do not look for gloating among combat veterans. The men and women fighting in Iraq are fighting heat, sand and bugs. They fight without sleep. They suffer cuts, infections and nauseating illnesses. They know the confusion of a firefight and the absence of clarity that comes with urban combat. They learn to live with fear and will not realize how intense the pressure was until they are safely out of harm’s way. Even then their memories will be permanently seared. Some of them are left with debilitating wounds and consider themselves lucky. They suffer the pain of loss when comrades die. They suffer anguish when they inspect enemy dead, whose motives or compulsory actions they cannot know. There lies someone’s loved one. Douglas Cohn, Vietnam Veteran