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Destroying the Village . . .

by G. Patrick Callahan, Prisoner of War in America

My cellie came dragging in the other day and tossed the latest issue of "Vietnam" down on my bunk. This is one of those gungie war magazines. "Thought you might like to check it out," he said, "isn't that what you did over there?" He pointed to the cover story, an article about mortars in Vietnam. I grunted in the affirmative and, tired of watching the sunslants move the bars along the wall, I opened up the magazine. It was about the Marines, my old alma mater, and the 60mm mortar, my Military Occupational Specialty. A floodtide of memory took me back to 1967, very coincidentally the same year the article covered.

I went to Vietnam in a little black and white cluster of newbies -- called FNGs in the vernacular, you figure it out -- totalling fourteen. I was tempted to say "young men," but the truth is that not one of us was over 19 years old and when I look at a 19 year old face now I'm amazed at how boyish we were. I'm also amazed that a country could be so profligate and careless of its youth; but then again, this is the U.S.A. and we were the lower class, not a college deferment in the lot. Of the fourteen of us, seven managed to get themselves killed in a variety of unpleasant ways and another five were sent home fairly well shot to pieces. My partner and I --he was also a mortarman -- walked out with two Purple Hearts apiece. When we left that mortar section of thirteen men, it had twenty-one Purple Hearts and not one was caused by a cut from a c-ration opener.

All of that effort and sacrifice, not to mention expense and good will. I watched it after my return: the ever widening quagmire, the destructive futility of it and, near, the end, the frenzied, desperate pace when we knew it was a lost cause: the intensified bombing, the massed operations, the frantically stacked mountains of munitions and supplies -- the border crossing spread of the war, drawing more and more people into it. It was a civil war, one borne of many causes and some of them even noble, but all good intentions bound to fail: a recipe for disaster as civil war, and wars in general are wont to be. It is such utter folly to fight a civil war.

I sat the magazine down, the times and faces fading, and I pondered upon the nature of war, of civil war, and wondered how they evolve. We are in one now, you know... Or do you? It is the war on (some) drugs and from behind the wire it often seems that the rest of you go blithely on, totally unaware. You all ought to take a look around. Don't you have that South American feeling? Los Desaparecidos -- the disappeared ones -- they call 'em down there, when people just vanish. Surely by now most of you must have relatives or friends or acquaintances who have disappeared, are now in the gulag?

The war on (some) drugs has wiped out a few million people by now, we are rapidly edging toward about a million locked up for the drug war alone, and as a bone fide expert in both arenas, the parallels between the drug war and the war in Vietnam are truly striking. We have an army fighting an essentially civil war on its own turf -- and other people's turf as well; the battle has been joined for many, many years now; there is no end in sight; it is ever expanding, involving other nations, destabilizing them completely; the U.S. government's methods are becoming more punitive and oppressive, not less; it is costing big bucks and, guess what folks? It's lost.

Like 'Nam, it was lost before it began,a product of politics and corruption. We reached the point in Vietnam where the ridiculous became sublime. Remember Bentre? The village we had to destroy in order to save? It's like that now, in this war; take for instance all these young black men in prison. About a third of all young African-American men are either in prison or on some form of supervised release. The government's got to save all these African-Americans from drugs because drugs might mess up their lives. This labrynthine logic excludes the fact that prison doesn't simply mess up your life -- it just about ends it. But then again what the Hell -- we're talking about a Vietnam-soldier type underclass and, just like Vietnam, is expendable. It is much easier to build a prison than work out the mechanics of providing men with jobs that can support families. The former only takes buckets of taxpayer's money, while the latter takes thought, strategy, compassion and investment.

We reached the point in Vietnam where our demoralized troops were becoming downright tyrannical, they forgot the hearts and minds thing. My Lai happened, the Phoenix program: the end began to justify the means, no matter what. It's upon us again in the war on (some) drugs, it's getting difficult to tell the Marines from the Viet Cong. I mean, who's more the threat to you? A pot growing dude with a beard or a clean shaven, Constitution crushing FBI man? Is one load of dope worth the annulment of rights guaranteed in the supreme law of the land? Who is the enemy anymore?

Yes, the parallels are almost eerie, all but one. Where are the college kids, raising hell? We're well into the process of making the United States a gulag from sea to shining sea and I haven't heard a peep out of them.

As these law enforcement tactics become unsurprisingly Gestapo-like, with informers everywhere and brothers turning in sisters, I'm reminded of one of the tenets of Zen: you become that which you most hate. Like Vietnam, it has come full circle, but how much of the village do we destroy in order to save it?

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