What is war? Let me propose the following undoubtedly imperfect definitions.
War is dehumanization by the violent crimes of mass murder and the efforts to destroy civil societies. Offensive war is the crime of making war to dominate another civil society. Defensive war is the tragedy of resisting aggression from offensive war. Making war is the sacrifice of a mass of domestic workers, by their regimentation and military use with likely injury or death, to inflict harm on a designated victim-enemy population whose combatants are responding in kind. The demarcation between offensive and defensive war can be ambiguous, dynamic, fluid and fragmentary. The structure of war is hierarchical: the higher an individual’s rank in the warring society the higher the probability of their being privileged and guilty of being a perpetrator; the lower an individual’s rank the higher the probability of their being victimized by the war.
The ideas embedded in these definitions and statements include:
– war is a crime, war is dehumanizing, war is violent;
– the directing perpetrators of war are the most shielded from its hazards;
– the people at greatest hazard from warfare are those least responsible for initiating and directing it;
– the troops sent into combat are themselves victims, having been robotized by coercive militarized training to perpetrate individual and mass murder as ordered (and to sometimes spontaneously murder, rape, pillage and torture on their own individual initiative), and in turn to absorb the mass murdering counteractions by the enemy.
I was prompted to these thoughts by reading the newly published (2020) book by Marc Levy, The Best of Medic In The Green Time, Writings from the Vietnam War and Its Aftermath.
I believe this is a book everyone in the United States should read and take to heart, because then the American Public might put up more resistance to ‘their’ government’s making of war, and the exorbitant funding of war technology and subsidized corporate profiteering from it. Also, the deep immersion of noncombatant readers’ consciousness into the personal testimonies of Marc Levy and the many veterans Marc presents in this anthology might induce a greater commitment by members of the public to antiwar political activity and voting choices, and a greater commitment to more conscientious ethical behavior and to the wellbeing of all of humanity.
The Best of Medic In The Green Time is divided into four sections. The first is an informative, significant and thoughtful Introduction by Janet McIntosh, Professor and Chair of the Department of Anthropology at Brandeis University.
The three sections of Marc Levy’s text are labeled: War, Poetry, and Postwar.
The section War comprises of 24 accounts occupying a total of 151 pages. The section Poetry comprises of 15 poems occupying a total of 36 pages. The section Postwar comprises of 34 accounts occupying a total of 366 pages.
All of the prose is written in a completely direct and unadorned style; and all of the poetry is transparently clear. None of the authors is allowing egotism to encumber their writing with attention-seeking convolutions and ornamentation. This is a group of writers who are just not interested in bullshit. Their words are vehicles for transmitting their truths as clearly as possible, because their purpose is to inspire the public to end America’s proclivity for making war.
While the entire agony, criminality, futility, injustice, sorrow and long-lasting pain of war generally, but in particular of the Vietnam War — since it nearly absorbed me into it during 1968-1969 (I was eventually passed over for induction because I drew a high number in the draft lottery of December 1969) — all make me angry and sad, what especially infuriated me in the accounts in Levy’s book were the descriptions of incompetents whose stupidity caused needless injury and death in the field, as well as the cop-mentality stupidity and rule-bound insensitivity of the bureaucratic assholes far behind the front and in the stateside draft boards, who added to the mental traumas of wounded warriors.
Jeff Motyka, a permanently disabled soldier, recounts how after many months of painful hospitalizations and physical rehabilitation after being blown up and deeply pitted with shrapnel in combat, he was hounded by his draft board witch (who had erroneously classified him as 1A years earlier, just as my draft board witch had done to me in 1968), seeking to have him returned to active duty because she believed that all documentation and physical evidence — like leg braces! — that anyone presented as evidence of an incapacity for military service were “usually phony.”
The section on War is a series of war stories, the types of scenes that inspire war movies, but which are entirely real here and thus authentically gut-wrenching and heart-breaking. This section prepares you to begin understanding why the authors and their compatriots can be so focused on and mentally confined by their experiences in Vietnam, and which they try to process over the remainder of their lives through poetry and postwar memoirs as in this volume, and also with psychotherapy, drugs and their own postwar veteran camaraderie; to try warding off the demons of post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), survivor’s guilt, guilt over crimes and killing, and alienation from the uncomprehending and disinterested civilian society they returned to.
One particularly thorny essay (actually, they are all thorny) is called “Five Simple Words”: Thank you for your service. Veterans who may carry 1000 years of aging and war sorrow imprinted on the minds and shot into their bodies during a one year tour of combat duty are now having to sustain postwar assaults with that platitude gushed out at them by clueless people in their self-satisfied certitude that they have demonstrated their higher moral sensitivity. Some veterans might take weeks to regain their fragile psychological equilibrium after the mental turmoil stirred up by being inflicted with those five words. If you ever feel compelled to comment to a veteran on his or her war experience, just offer them that most basic form of human love and solidarity: “Welcome home,” or “I’m glad you’re safe.”
Beyond that, neither you nor I as non-combatants can ever really know at a visceral level what any combat veteran’s experiences, both in the field and in postwar life, are like. At best we can become much better informed about war’s personal costs by reading books such as Levy’s, and we can become better citizens by conscientiously exerting the prerogatives of our citizenship with a sharp focus to counter the people and political groups that perpetrate and profit from war-making and war industry. In that way we can ‘thank veterans for their service’ by helping to prevent more war, and prevent more workers from being victimized by being pressed into manning wars, and becoming casualties who would sustain the murderous violence of America’s wars of choice (by ‘important’ people who don’t fight in them).
An important part of Levy’s book (actually, all the parts are important) is his descriptions of the humanity of Communist Vietnamese soldiers — like Bao Ninh (a man), and Dang Thuy Tram (a woman) — who fought against the American invaders and for the independence of their country. The recognition after the war by many formerly antagonistic American and Vietnamese veterans, of their shared humanity, has led to many touching reconciliations since 1975.
That same recognition can be applied to resolve international political differences to prevent them from degenerating into dehumanizing wars. And books such as this one by Levy can help spark that realization in more minds, and stiffen the resolve of political actors to actually work for the peace and wellbeing of humanity beyond the narrow confines of factionalism and mere nationalism.
There are touches of humor and jokes in Levy’s book, sort of along the lines of Joseph Heller’s novel Catch-22, but all layered on a horrendous substratum of warped reality and thus painfully ‘funny’ and painfully real. There are also sweet moments in the book, as when some caring giving soul, man or woman, shares a kindness with a soldier in need of relief.
The Vietnam War is not over, and neither are the Korean War, the Iraq War, the Afghan War, and many other unnamed and invisible American mini-wars and micro-wars that all produced war dead and permanently war-wounded, both American and foreign. Some of those voices from other wars are included in Levy’s book.
These veterans and their survivors carry the heavy loads of psychological sorrows and physical pains of their wars every day of their postwar lives, and those wars can never be said to have ended until all such visceral memories have been extinguished by the passing of the people who were personally seared by them.
What Marc Levy has been doing with his writing about the Vietnam War is to seek to manage his own trauma from his wartime experiences, and also to continue caring for his men — as he did as a medic during his time in combat — in their postwar lives by offering them avenues for release; and then by presenting all this literary work to the public to prod it into transforming America away from its self-harming behavior of war-making and militarism.
Marc Levy’s Medic In The Green Time is not some dry academic exercise of top-down analysis of historical trends and national policy decisions, it is a bottom-up first hand account from the heart of individuals sustaining the brunt of war and struggling to maintain or recover their humanity as, unlike many of their fellow soldiers, they managed to survive the fighting and are now locked in postwar struggles against demons that could easily kill them through submerged terror and unrelieved regret.
Finally, for completeness I mention my criticisms of the book, which are all very minor but which I note in the hope that they will be addressed to improve subsequent editions:
While the proofreading of the entire volume was stellar, there still are two typographical errors: on page 466, “forhonorably” should probably be “for honorably”; on page 506, “it’s his not job” should probably be “it’s not his job.”
While footnotes and parenthetical notes are frequently used to define acronyms, jargon and slang, it would be very nice to have a glossary as an appendix to the book for easy reading generally, and the convenient rereading of excerpts. It would also be nice to have an index.
A thoughtful interview of Marc Levy, and discussion of Medic In The Green Time, has just appeared, see
Medic in the Green Time author and Vietnam combat medic Marc Levy is interviewed by Bill Legault
Nov 28, 2020
Marc Levy’s website is https://medicinthegreentime.com/ ,
and his webpage on this particular book is
For me, Medic In The Green Time is the channeling of the pain, loss and isolation of combat survivors, into a work seeking to humanize us all into recognizing our fundamental and compassionate connections to people everywhere.
Buy a copy, and read it cover to cover.
Now at CounterPunch, very nicely edited by Jeffrey St. Clair
What Is War?
(On Marc Levy’s “Medic In The Green Time”)
2 December 2020
Human beings murder because they are simians with fear-based defense of tribalism embedded in their DNA, and because their expanded cerebral cortex has allowed them to learn dehumanizing narcissistic sociopathological greed. And the former can be distorted by states and potentates to their benefit, and the latter unleashed from even the most self-contained, those not already psychopaths, by an excess of traumatic stress.
Hi Manuel—The Best of Medic in the Green Time is a book I know I cannot read, because I know what is in it. In 1968 I was an Air Force medic (surgery technician), struggling with what I knew was going on in Southeast Asia, and the mindless hypocrisy that began with LBJ on tv telling us we had to have this war because the commies were going to overrun the globe if we did not stop them there. I think I knew of only one other person in my medical group who had similar misgivings about the war, and I shared a barracks room with this person. We spent many an hour talking about it, and berated ourselves for not being brave enough to walk into the CO’s office and put our ID cards and dog tags on his desk and say “we quit.” I suppose herein lies something of what makes the military person do what they do—some toxic combination of fear infused into a substrate of Protestant duty/work ethic/loyalty/honor mentality—the one I learned as a Boy Scout. I tried desperately to get an assignment to Cam Rahn Bay, at least to help with relief of the physical devastation coming out of the jungles, but my deteriorating military bearing caused the brass to class me as not quite fit for such duty. My feelings about this affected me to the point that I eventually went off the rails and was grossly insubordinate to a major and a captain (both surgeons in the department where I was NCOIC). Through the good graces of a senior NCO, I was spared jail in favor of a psych evaluation and eventually a medical discharge.
For whatever reason, I feel the pain, and as Col. Kurtz would say “the horror.” I still can stare for hours at aviation art prints of the B-17s at the 8th AF fields in England, or in some combat situation, and try to imagine the anguish felt by the ten crew members who climbed into one of those planes and took off knowing the horrible odds working against them—especially in light of LeMay’s order of low level, daylight bombing. But as you wrote—if you were not there, you just don’t know. I can still cry when I look at Lee Teter’s “Reflections” and the volumes of emotion portrayed there. I imagine too, the post war tragedies of those meeting the “uncomprehending and disinterested civilian population” or a man coming home to find that the love of his life—memories of whom helped sustain him in the depravity he spent a year in–had dropped him for someone else. Or, the recently returned soldier, with a brain trying desperately to process all that has happened to him, being feted as some sort of American hero.
I read one other article some time back of the “thank you for your service” comment and even now, fifty years later I was recently given pause when someone, after hearing of my military time, said those words—words that are like some stealth assassin dredging up feelings and memories that the person saying those words has no chance of understanding.
I think we might have an interesting time with a glass of wine (Kenwood Artist Series Cab was a favorite) reliving some of the music of the era. I started college on a music scholarship, and in 1968 was thoroughly immersed in Dave Brubeck and Gerry Mulligan. A medic friend of mine from Palo Alto played Bob Dylan for me and I was aghast at the poor rhythm and the fact that nothing seemed in tune. But then along came LSD, and I listened to “Highway 61 Revisited” for eight hours straight—particularly “Desolation Row.” The lead acoustic guitar on that track inspired me to get a guitar and attempt to play. His much later material did not interest me that much, and “Blood on the Tracks” might be the last album I got. Many of us in the Bay Area counterculture thought he was surely possessed.
Anyway, this has been way too long, but if you got this far—thank you for reviewing the book, and we can hope many will read it. And…as we know, “there’s a hole in Daddy’s arm where all the money goes” and, as we might say to many whom we know, “and you know something is happening here, but you don’t know what it is—do you mister Jones?” Take care.