Joe Barrera: Veterans’ Day is about Creating Community

In 370BC a Greek Army ventured into Mesopotamia, lured into supporting a claimant to the throne by the promise of money and booty. How the Greeks managed to extricate themselves from a hopeless situation in what is now Iraq and Syria is the subject of the famous account, The Anabasis of Xenophon. “Anabasis” means “a journey out of.” The story is that Cyrus, the pretender to the throne of the Persian empire, is killed by his rival and the Greeks find that they have backed the wrong faction. This, of course, sounds familiar. We are now in the same position as Xenophon, the wise and courageous soldier who leads the Greeks out of the trap. But unlike Xenophon we have no exit strategy to free ourselves from the Iraqi and Syrian quagmire.

Halicarnassus (Anabasis)
Go to the Military Veterans’ Community Dialogues

No doubt about it. We are stuck in Mesopotamia, not to mention Afghanistan. In my opinion it happened because we misunderstood the desires of those countries to create communities according to their own rules. The same for our tragic misadventure in Vietnam. The task for us now is to extricate ourselves by rediscovering our own rules for community. I don’t want to make too much of the analogy but the lesson is clear. Xenophon’s Ten-Thousand fought and won their battles and survived the long journey out of the desert by the unity forged in comradeship. They were a small army, but they acted more like a community, a nation on the march through hostile territory.

Community is essential. This is true in both the military and civilian spheres. Armies imbued with comradeship, the military equivalent of community, win battles against much stronger foes. Civil societies succeed, but only if they are true communities. During this season, when we honor veterans and the society they have protected, it’s good to reflect on this. Philosophers have described community in many ways. It’s useful to read what they say, especially those who write about human communities from the experience of war. J. Glenn Gray, the eminent Colorado College philosopher, in his book The Warriors: Reflections on Men in Battle says this about the communal spirit, what he calls “love as concern:”

The characteristic mood that accompanies love as concern is neither deep joy nor unrestrained grief, so often typical of erotic love. Concerned love knows relief and it knows anxiety in its depths, but seldom does it put everything at stake on the preservation of this or that life or treasure. Its care is for the whole and not the part.

The essence of community is a love concerned with the whole. Concerned love leads to the building of community after the destruction of war. Fortunately for human beings, most soldiers are not made into habitual killers by war, even if they are soldiers who have killed. They are capable of living civilian lives after war. Gray, the WWII veteran, is correct about this, even if many veterans doubt it. Other writers have sought to define community. Sebastian Junger, who was an embedded journalist with the 173rd Airborne Brigade in the Korengal Valley of Afghanistan and made a documentary about the experience entitled “Restrepo,” defines “concerned love” in a different way, the way of male bonding. In

his book, Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging, Junger discusses a type of love among soldiers. The men form the ultimate in male bonding, a brotherhood which only men in battle can form. Hardship, such as war, enables soldiers to transcend selfishness. Junger knows from first-hand experience that the bane of modern armies, PTSD, would not exist if soldiers preserved that brotherhood when they return to the civilian world. Unfortunately, combat veterans lose this protection all too quickly. This Veterans’ Day, we should provide veterans the chance to re-enact the communal love of their small units, which existed in our society before we lost our tribal identity.

A good example of communal love is The Warrior Storyfield in Longmont. A group of veterans and artists formed a “tribe,” a sculpture project that gives the unspoken experience of war a voice through the creation of huge iron statues of a dragon, representing homo furens, the ferocious warrior, and the phoenix, representing the resurrection of human love in the soldier when he comes home. Closer to home we have the Veterans Community Dialogues, to be held on November 7.

Joe Barrera, Ph.D, is the former director of the Ethnic Studies Program at UCCS and a combat veteran of the Vietnam War.

 

Ken Burns’ “The Vietnam War”

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I have been watching The Vietnam War on PBS, the nation’s largest TV network. The program is billed as one of the best film documentaries about our misadventure in Southeast Asia. I agree that it’s a good one, but I have my reservations. It seems that I always find things that are wrong, or at least not accurate, about the Ken Burns effort and others like it. When I read books or news stories about Vietnam, watch old TV news clips, or see contemporary documentaries and movies, I cannot help but feel that we are not told the honest truth. Vietnam was never truthfully explained when Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon were in the White House. This is still the case even if the latest offering is good history, exposing the lies and miscalculations on the political and military levels that got us into Vietnam. The documentary does a good job of that. We see the duplicity of our government, the bloody tragedy that resulted and the bitter wounds of division, not yet healed, that the war and the betrayal by our government, caused at home. Many are now saying, “I didn’t know the history.” But I am concerned about other things.

I am a combat veteran of the Vietnam War. I did my duty as a soldier. But my experience puts me in a small category of Vietnam veterans. I did not want it, but I am numbered among the few who actually fought. This affects my vision. Once an infantryman, always an infantryman. This means that I am unforgiving when civilians attempt to explain my war. This is common among combat veterans. We love our wars. Yes, in our hearts we love them, for most of us an embarrassing secret, hard to explain. We are sensitive about this and sincerely try to tell our fellow citizens that we and our wars have been distorted by well-intentioned people. But it never seems to make a difference. Ken Burns and Lynn Novick do not understand my war and this love. In spite of their interviews with combat veterans, they manage to distort the Vietnam combat experience. Since this film started I have been telling people that it is distorted. All I get is doubtful looks and pitying stares.

Almost every U.S. veteran war story told in the documentary is a tragic one: Ambushes and human wave attacks. Platoons, companies, battalions overrun. Horrendous casualties. The story of innocent young men like Mogie Crocker, KIA in 1966, woven throughout the entire series, told by his mother and sister who can barely contain their grief fifty-one-years later. The starving POWs, reduced to killing and eating cats. John McCain, with two broken arms and a broken leg, tortured by his captors. The 7th Cavalry, decimated in the Ia Drang Valley. The 173rd Airborne Brigade and the arrogance of their commander, who let three companies suffer near annihilation on Hill 875. Only the Marine, Karl Marlantes, tells a heroic story of taking a hill and killing the North Vietnamese. But there was much glory for us, if you can accept that  there is glory in war. I wish the story of my battalion, 1/8th Infantry, 4th Infantry Division, had been told. In May of 1968 we fought and destroyed two regiments of NVA five klicks (kilometers) from the Laotian border during “Mini-Tet. What about the barrage of 152 millimeter Russian artillery that we endured for weeks during that battle? Now, there’s a story.

Losses happened. Many firefights ended inconclusively. The enemy was brave, just as brave or braver than we were. It was a war of attrition. But the fighting men never lost a battle. We lost the war, but that was no fault of ours. In their eagerness to tell the pathos of the war, accented by the maudlin lyrics and whine of Bob Dylan, Burns and Novick paint a picture of U.S. victims of the war. They make us out to be victims. It is true that the draftees didn’t want to be in “the Nam,” but the conscripts fought as bravely as soldiers in any other war. This is said by some of those interviewed but it is lost in the general narrative.

In contrast, the VC and NVA narratives ring with righteousness and heroism. Our men don’t smile for the camera. We see more than one stereotypical GI weeping veteran. The VC and NVA veterans look happy. Of course, they won, so they should look happy. U.S. film footage that Burns and Novick show is all real–we see bloodied American corpses. The North Vietnamese Army (NVA) footage is obviously Communist propaganda, staged scenes of the victorious People’s Army of Vietnam, the PAVN, as they called themselves. No dead NVA in their films. That is the first thing that seized me when I saw the first episode. I asked myself, “don’t Burns and Novick realize that they are showing Communist propaganda?” They interview an NVA cadre in his dress uniform. The man looks much too young to be a veteran of a war fifty-years ago. No Americans are interviewed in dress uniforms and they are all old men.

There is one more bone to pick. Burns and Novick almost completely ignore the presence of Hispanic soldiers. Only Everett Alvarez, the longest-held POW in Hanoi, is interviewed. If not for that dubious distinction I feel that Alvarez would not appear in the documentary. It’s a pattern. Burns was forced to add an episode about Hispanic soldiers to his WWII documentary after the American GI Forum, a Hispanic veterans’ organization, threatened a boycott in 2007. He had completely left out the role of 500,000 Hispanic soldiers in WWII.  Burns should take another look at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington. It is the only public monument in which Hispanic valor is faithfully honored. Thousands of Spanish names are engraved on that Wall, written and paid for in blood.

Joe Barrera,
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Joe Barrera: Stories that Heal

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There was a picture in The Gazette a couple of months ago that really got to me. The photo was front-page, full-color, and it was pure heartbreak. In the picture a grieving mother is on her hands and knees decorating the grave of her son. I could feel the pain of her broken heart. That awareness prompted me to propose a solution for veterans’ suicides.

The suicide of that mother’s son, the “ideal Marine,” as he was called, a young Colorado Springs veteran of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, was a senseless tragedy. It was senseless because the alienation from society that often precedes suicide can be prevented. We already know how to do it. We have solutions. We just need to implement them.

I would like to propose one good solution, simple, easily done and effective in healing the soul damage caused by war. Once we understand the soul damage of war veterans, especially combat veterans, we then have the option of implementing what we call The Military Veterans’ Community Dialogues. What are the Military Veterans’ Community Dialogues? They are opportunities for soldiers to tell their stories of war and coming home from war to other soldiers and veterans in non-judgmental, supportive, structured but informal sessions, in the presence of families, friends, and community members.

Please note: In the presence of loved ones, spouses, families, friends, and just as important, members of the public, the community at-large. It is common for veterans not to talk about their war experiences to “civilians,” which includes their families and friends. But in the Dialogues, they will open up and tell their stories to other soldiers and veterans. The families, friends and community members listen, absorb many things they have never heard before, and they react, they begin to tell their stories. All the group – soldiers, veterans, families, friends, community members – start to talk.

Healing begins once psychically damaged veterans start to tell their stories and listeners extend acceptance. All veterans deserve help in their readjustment to civilian life, which for many can take a whole lifetime. What is commonly not understood, however, is that like the young Marine who committed suicide, those who are combat veterans very often need a heightened level of support. Tragically, the “Ideal Marine” never got that. As a combat veteran of the Vietnam War I know the need for this kind of support. Because they are built on community, the Military Veterans Community Dialogues, which we have been doing since 2005, can provide some of that support. No amount of professional therapy at the VA or any where else, however competent and well-intentioned, can substitute for true community.

The principle idea motivating the Dialogues is first an honest understanding of what happens to soldiers in war, especially the soldiers who do the actual fighting. Secondly, it is to propose the creation of a true community, a network of responsible people actively bringing war veterans back into the embrace of the society they have fought to defend. When soldiers tell their stories there is a chance they will heal their trauma. If we heal trauma we reduce suicides. What is combat veteran trauma? There is an emptiness in the lives of many war veterans that is difficult to fill.

When infantry soldiers and others who actually fight are trained for war. they are trained to be the weapon that we use against aggressors, the sharp edge of the sword that bends our enemies to our will. This is the morality of war, if we can speak of war as a moral thing. We must destroy our enemies before they destroy us. This justification – however much it is believed in the beginning – ultimately fails to convince many soldiers, especially in the kinds of war we have been fighting since 9/11. We have been fighting insurgencies which create a moral dilemma because we kill non-combatants.

Like the Vietnamese in my war, Iraqis and Afghans will resist. They will fight against us. This resistance causes untold civilian casualties, including women and children. The consequence is that we have many soldiers who did their duty honorably but are now afflicted with soul damage, who are suffering from what is called “moral injury.” Moral injury can create a corrosive guilt. Out of this guilt a fateful remorse is born and a terrible sadness that defies healing. Soldiers who return from fighting insurgencies struggle to forget the war, to conquer guilt, to re-integrate. But for some this is very difficult if not impossible.

They do not see any hope of becoming normal again. They are at home, but not at home. Many develop a consciousness of futility which leads to depression. This leads to a desire to end the suffering, to seek solace in oblivion, to just slip away into nothingness. To die.

~ O~

Joe Barrera, Ph.D., is the former director of the Ethnic Studies Program at UCCS, a combat veteran of the Vietnam War and one of the founders of the Colorado Springs Military Veterans’ Community Dialogues.

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Los Dias de los Muertos – The Days of the Dead

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We are in the autumn of the year. Another year falling down to die in December. We roll past All Saints and All Souls, remembering Heaven and Purgatory, the days of the dead, los Dias de los Muertos, as we say in Spanish.

Autumn is like that, bringing remembrances of the dead. But memory is strange. Instead of dying, memories come to life, more real than the people and events from which they spring. My memories are of the Vietnam War, rapidly receding into the distant past, and of the soldiers who populate those memories. Soldiers appear, stand and speak. They come to petition, to ask for my favor.

Sometimes I cannot answer them. They are too insistent, wanting to hold me accountable lest I forget them. The dead of the Vietnam War, like the dead of all wars, wish only to be remembered. But the Vietnam dead have a special poignancy about them. They do not want to be consigned to the gray world of shameful memories, even if their war is often perceived that way.

So I am patient with them. And I am patient with myself. Before I had Vietnam memories, I had other memories, the World War II stories that I heard growing up. I came home from the Vietnam War in 1968, in the autumn of the year. I came home to south Texas. I was a combat veteran, home from the war, but yet not home, unable to return to the civilian world, as combat veterans often cannot.

But it was a good homecoming. My uncle was there to greet me. He was an old soldier. He had landed with the Second Infantry Division on D+1, June 7, 1944. Reynaldo V. Zuniga, that was my uncle’s name. When I think of my war I always think of him. I remember the stories he would tell.

My uncle would sit with his cronies, among them another combat veteran named Ray Hernandez, who had been with the 36th Division, the Texas National Guard outfit savagely mauled by the Germans at the Gari river in Italy and finally at Monte Cassino. There was another man, a small, quiet, dark-skinned man. This man’s name was Jose Lopez. He would come to visit relatives in Brownsville, then stop to visit my uncle before returning to San Antonio. They had been in the same regiment during the war, Jose Lopez in M Company.

In December 1944 he killed 132 Germans in and around the Belgian village of Krinkeldt. He shot them down with his .30 caliber machine gun. He was alone. His comrades had fled in the face of the German onslaught. For that action during the Battle of the Bulge Jose Lopez won the Medal of Honor.

The stories would usually start on D-Day. That was my uncle’s glory. He jumped off the ramp of the LCI, into water that nearly covered his head. “I held up the man next to me,” he would say. “I’m six feet-two, so I saved him from drowning. And the Germans were still shooting at us.”

He was seventeen when he ran away from home in 1940 together with his best friend, Ernesto Vela. The boys hitchhiked to San Antonio and joined the Army’s Second Infantry Division, the famous Indian Head division. The profile of the stoical Indian warrior is the proud insignia of the Second Division, a fitting symbol for the many south Texas Mexican Americans who fought, bled and died in that combat division in World War II.

Ernesto was killed in Normandy. He lies in the American cemetery at Colville-sur-Mer, overlooking Bloody Omaha, the beach where so many men died. My uncle still talked about him many years later, and I would listen, listen so much that I felt that I knew Ernesto, that he was my comrade, too.

He was rapidly promoted and was very soon an NCO, the platoon sergeant, even if he was a hard drinker and a hard brawler, ready with his fists and even more ready with his sarcasm. But he had leadership qualities. I remember that he was a natural leader and I certainly wanted to follow him.

My uncle lasted three months in combat. He was wounded three times. The last wound was almost fatal. It was in September, 1944. The U.S. Second Infantry Division was now part of Patton’s newly activated Third Army, tasked with clearing the Germans out of the Brittany peninsula and liberating the port city of Brest.

Reynaldo Zuniga was a platoon sergeant in I Company, 3rd Battalion, 23rd Infantry Regiment. He led from the front, always from the front. He was that kind of man. He ran out in front of his men, and I can hear him shout, “follow me!” It was at the siege of Brest.

Then he was shot. A German soldier hiding behind a wall shot him with a K98 Mauser rifle, the 7.92 mm  slug shattering his pelvis. He lay on the ground, “and the blood was pouring out of me like water from a faucet,” he would say. The platoon medic ran out, oblivious to danger, slapped a pressure bandage on him and pulled him to safety. “The Germans were so close that I could hear them talking, but they didn’t shoot the medic and they didn’t shoot me again.” I can still hear him say that, paying a grudging compliment to the enemy who had nearly killed him but then chose to spare him.

On Veterans’ Day I drank a toast to him. I went to my war because I wanted to be like him. But of course I never could ascend to that lofty height. We old soldiers continue to fight our wars. It’s a type of relief to tell stories, especially among the bands of brothers found in every VFW and American Legion post across the land.  I have done that, and gone on pilgrimages looking for solace.

When I visited the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington – The Wall – I tried to put mine to rest. I touched the names of comrades engraved there. It’s a powerful experience and it’s no accident that the Memorial to the Vietnam War dead is a wall – we, the survivors – are still trying to go through our own wall. We want to finish our war and reunite with our comrades. It’s tragic that so many Vietnam veterans cannot do that.

When I went to the Wall I think that I succeeded, at least to a small degree, in putting my war to rest. Touching their names gave me a fleeting connection to those long-dead comrades.

But there was another bond that I found there. It made me feel another strong emotion. The Wall has one unique feature that I immediately noticed. No where else, on no other American monument, civilian or military, are there so many Spanish surnames. On every panel there are Mexican, Puerto Rican, Cuban, Central American names. Thousands of them.

The Vietnam War Memorial is an ironic testament to affirmative action. That Roll of Honor is the only place where our country gives Latinos the recognition we so richly deserve – because it was paid for in blood.

~Joe Barrera,
Publisher/Editor
The Almagre Review

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