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Morally Surviving America’s War On Vietnam

A Book Review/Essay

Finally, always provocative and erudite, Uhl takes on one of the Left’s current icons in an essay titled “Apocalypse Now? The Strange Jeremiads of Christopher Hedges.” First off, as with Turse, Uhl doesn’t disagree with Hedges’ “assessment of the mounting woes and blows that we as a people have grown accustomed to bearing.” The corruption. The Greed. The Runaway Militarism. He admires Hedges’ journalistic experience with The New York Times in war zones like El Salvador and Bosnia. He recognizes in Hedges the same PTSD found in war veterans. What he questions is “Hedges' blend of mysticism and muddled thinking,” his preacher-like ascension onto a “sectarian pulpit.” He suggests Hedges’ “resume in the peace movement seems a trifle lite .... Minimally, Hedges and those who follow his doomsday strategy must concede that 'repeated and substantial acts of civil disobedience’ are not the only avenues of struggle available to us today.” He quotes Ralph Nader in an interview with Hedges: “Every major movement starts with field organizers .... But there’s nothing out there. We need to start learning from what was done in the past.”

Where the nation is off to with Donald Trump is an open question. While the president-elect thrives on ignorance of them, all sorts of moral issues hang in the balance. In 1919, Yeats wrote the famous lines that resonate so much today:

    Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
    Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
    The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
    The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
    The best lack all conviction, while the worst
    Are full of passionate intensity.

As WWII approached, great minds like Albert Einstein and Sigmund Freud struggled with these issues. For them, it was the foundational dialogue out of which civilization was formed and barbarism was kept at bay. The future looked dark and cruel. Freud tried to frame the problem in the two forces he called Eros and Thanatos -- the Life Principle and the Death Principle. In the great dialogue between them, which direction did one lean?

Oftentimes, these lofty and abstract psychological/mythic principles play out in sudden, heated moments in war zones -- in acts that are virtually instinctual. Uhl tells of one such moment in his memoir Vietnam Awakening. He’s relatively new to the war as an intelligence officer, the ranking man on a patrol that encounters a tunnel. Hand grenades are tossed in; a claymore mine is dropped into the hole and set off; C4 detcord is wrapped around a tree, blowing up part of the tunnel. Three maimed Vietnamese bodies (likely NVA cadre) are extracted, some in parts. One teenage male is alive. A particularly manic, aggressive member of the team puts a .38 pistol up to the kid’s head and looks around at his superiors. Most are ready to look the other way; as the ranking man, it’s up to Uhl. The would-be killer says: “‘If we don’t do him now, Lieutenant, he’ll be back out there in two days planting booby traps that’ll kill more GIs.’” Uhl writes, “The sap of righteousness rose up in me.” He gives his order: “‘Maybe what we’ve done here today is justifiable as an act of war. I don’t know. But I will not stand here and allow you to commit premeditated murder.’” The subordinate is “purple with rage.” There's a cost: the man becomes a bitter enemy.

story | by Dr. Radut