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John C. Graham
"In brief, when at war, the Infantryman is mostly bored--or tired--or sleepy--or hungry--or itches--or dirty--or thirsty--or homesick--or hot and has lice--or cold and has lice--or wet--or scared--or pissed-off--or doesn't give a damn. Or, any combination of some or all of the above."
- John Graham
I left Camp Fuji, Japan, with C Company, 17th Infantry Regiment, 7th Infantry Division, sometime in late August 1950. We sat on a ship in the harbor at Pusan, Korea, until we landed at Inchon, Korea on the 16th of September 1950. We moved, I have been told, southeast and met the 1st Cavalry coming up from Pusan. Then we boarded another ship and landed at Ewon, North Korea.
Since I left Korea in 1951, I have told a number of tales about my experiences there. Today I do not remember being as brave as I first recalled. Things that I recall now are not as funny as I first thought. The only thing that is the same is that those who lost parts of their bodies still haven't found them, and those that died are still dead.
This is an effort to filter all the crap out of the crevices of my mind and determine how I feel today about my experiences then.
About My War
"Never think that war, no matter how necessary, nor how justified, is not a
- Ernest Hemingway
First of all, for the infantryman, wars are always fought in the worst possible places. Wars are fought either in a desert or in a jungle. Or north of the Arctic Circle. Or at the Equator. Or in the mountains. Or in a swamp. Never at a country club. The temperature is either 120 degrees in the shade or it is 20 degrees below zero everywhere. It is either raining, snowing, foggy, windy, extremely humid or extremely dry, or too hot or too cold. Or some combination of any or all of the above. Every insect on the plant Earth is informed of the latitude and longitude where a war is going to start, and at the first shot goes to the war's location. The infantryman is never given the proper clothing--that which protects him in the particular weather conditions or from all those insects and other assembled varmints. The rear echelon USO commandos have them.
The infantryman walks from one place to another usually carrying a pack on his back as big as he is. Then he sometimes walks back to the place he came from with the same damn pack. Or he walks to another "place" that is usually at the bottom of a 10,000 foot high mountain. He then climbs the mountain and digs a hole in either frozen ground or rock or in a mud-hole. Next, he gets one of two pieces of news. (1) He is told that chow is at the bottom of the mountain and if he wants he can go get it. Chow is the army word for what can loosely be called food. For instance, during one short time-span of my war experience, we had plain corned beef hash for breakfast, corned beef hash with mustard at noon, and corned beef hash with catsup for supper--and we were in the rear. Frequently we ate what we had in our pocket. (2) He hears that he is on the wrong mountain and that he will have to walk down the one he is on, walk up another one, and dig another hole. All this 'up and down' usually occurs between 7 p.m. and 5 a.m. Why, even a mule is not this dumb.
Sometimes the infantryman is told that the enemy is at a certain place and that he has to go there and get him to leave. Sometimes the infantryman is told to go to a certain place and wait for the enemy. On numerous occasions the infantryman either finds out on the way or when he gets there that the enemy has been given the same instructions. In either case, the enemy does not usually take too hot to the idea of someone taking his hole-in-the-ground. Luckily, these times of close combat are only a small part of the total walking-from-one-place-to-another time, though they do generate a great many feelings (mostly fear) in the infantryman. (Well, sometimes it is more like panic.) When in a state of a great many feelings, the infantryman sometimes does some rather odd things--like trying to outrun a bullet. You may be interested to know that I have seen United States soldiers "trained" to do that very thing.
There are a number of activities an infantryman learns while participating in the atrocity of war. For instance, when he stops, he takes a nap. He sleeps. He can learn to go to sleep in less than five seconds and to sleep for as little as one minute at a time. He can even learn to sleep while he is walking. He also learns to keep his feet dry--as dry as he can, if he can. He learns that if bullets are "popping" near him, he doesn't have to worry about them. The popping is the bullets making their own little sonic booms, and they are at least four or five feet away from him. If he hears the bullets "Zing" or "Whine", he gets the hell out of there because someone is shooting at him. The war is getting personal. (My experience was that I did not hear the bullet that hit me.)
Suppose that 12 o'clock is directly overhead and 3 o'clock is directly in front of a person. The infantryman learns that if he hears an artillery or a mortar round coming in--and he does learn to tell the difference (among other things, the trajectory and the sounds are different), it is okay if it gets to 12 o'clock, unless it is a small MM mortar shell. However, if somewhere between 12:30 and 1:30, or 2:00, or 2:30 the sound stops, he knows he's in a lot of trouble. There are likely some other things an infantryman learns about war, but after 50 or so years, he begins to suspect he won't need them real soon and forgets. During those close encounters with the enemy, the infantryman once in a while spends some time making deals with God because he's scared out of his BVDs. (Well anyway, he gets out of them as soon as he can.)
In an effort to be as diplomatic as I can about the whole thing, I have concluded that anyone who tells you that gravel-agitating, ground-pounding, dog-faced, foxhole-digging infantrymen fight for America or apple pie (well, maybe apple pie), or motherhood or Old Glory is a lying s-- of a b---- and was probably so far in the rear that he had to read about the war in Stars and Stripes. An Infantryman fights because that's what most everyone around him is doing. When it hits the fan, there's just nothing else to do. It's the only game in town, so to speak. He either fights or he dies--or he's damn lucky.
About 20 seconds into my first fire-fight, I discovered that John Wayne was a celluloid fraud--a fake, a pretender whose sole purpose was to allow one to escape reality for 60 to 90 minutes. In an even shorter time I discovered that when men die they are really dead. They just are not anymore. A dead man is just a cold hunk of meat. I have also come to suspect that, although fathers may no longer sacrifice their sons to their Gods, super-patriots and politicians and old men still lie to young men about war. They appear to have no qualms about sacrificing a nation's young--its healthiest and its most intelligent--for the phrase: "My Country, Right or Wrong"--a phrase which, to me, has always seemed kind of like saying, "My mother, drunk or sober."
A person living in the U.S. of A., a democrat republic with a somewhat free enterprise economic system, stands a better than average chance of getting an at least fair-to-middling education and/or a chance to learn a trade and develop a pretty good self image. There is a better opportunity here for that than in any other country on this planet. For the most part, a person can strive to become whatever he/she wants. As that same person participates in the villainy of war, all of that goes by the wayside. One does not 'Become'. One goes where one is told to go and does what one is told to do, no matter how absurd and as if she/he has no Neo-cortex at all.
When two social systems select their young, their healthiest, their most intelligent, and condition them to act like lizards, and then send them out to die or be maimed while they are trying to destroy the people and the property of the other society, they are demonstrating a process known as Social Cancer. In other words, the military strain of Social Cancer is such that it destroys the social system's best genetic future. It moves the society toward a lower genetic mean. You ought to wonder about that. It seems to me that war is an example of "mind destroying its own field." It flabbergasts me, makes me speechless with amazement and astonishment--surprise even, that "Human-Becomings" do not resist war more often. Maybe what resistance there has been is an example of the "Process-of-Human-Becoming-Mind"? Maybe it was Mind's effort to "save its own field."
Perhaps the rules should be changed for the next war. The first wave of all assaults and the first line of all defenses should be manned by politicians and super-patriots and old men.
War hath no fury like a noncombatant.
- C.E. Montague
In time of war, the loudest patriots are the greatest profiteers.
You can always tell an old soldier by the inside of his holsters and cartridge boxes.
- George Bernard Shaw
Well, I Didn't Hear It
I don’t know where the hell we were. I almost never knew where we were. I didn’t really care. I have since heard we were near a town called Chechon-ni. I do remember it was colder than the proverbial well-diggers ass in Maine, which was normal. I'm fairly certain it was the month of February, but I'm not so sure about the day. The 19th, I’ve since heard. I suspect it was around the middle of the month. Plus or minus a week I suppose is close enough. I remember it was a regimental attack with the 1st Battalion on the ridgeline on the left, the 2nd Battalion in the valley, and the 3rd Battalion on the ridgeline on the right. The really important information was that Able Company was the attack company, and that I was issued a whole box of C-rations. Three meals--which was not normal.
Well, the war went along fairly well. "A" Company got into a fire fight several times, but didn’t seem to have a lot of trouble taking the ground. That is, until about two o’clock when we, "C" Company, were ordered to attack through "A" company up along a ridge leading up to a big mountain. There were three little hills or knobs along the ridgeline on the way to the big one. We had a brand new 2nd Lieutenant platoon leader, and when the Old Man told him the second platoon was to be the assault platoon, the first thing he said was, "Fix bayonets!" I said, "What?" He repeated it. I remember thinking, "I wish he hadn’t said that." I was the point man.
There wasn’t anyone on the first hill. We were receiving fire from somewhere, but they weren’t getting close. We could hear the cracking. On the second hill we captured two and killed three Chinese soldiers. There were probably twenty Chinese on the third hill. There I had a couple of interesting experiences. As I moved near the top of the hill, I had my rifle near my shoulder ready to fire when suddenly I was looking into the left eye of a guy about my age (20). Just the right age to die, the old men tell me. His left eye made a perfect bull's-eye through the sight of my M1. In that instant we both knew I was going to kill him. He was not afraid. He did not hate me. He did not plead for his life. He just knew. And I killed him. The super patriots will possibly get some kind of sexual charge after reading that, just for an instant, there was a hole all the way through his head.
Anyway, most of the platoon was on the left side of the hill firing at some soldiers running toward the big mountain. I ran around the right side into three Chinese soldiers. I pulled the trigger and...nothing. I had a ruptured cartridge. Well, lucky me--or as fate would have it, they threw down their rifles and surrendered. A little while later, the First Sergeant came along and gave me his rifle. The CO asked what time it was. Someone said, "Fifteen minutes to four." The CO said, "Let's get the big one before dark.” The new Lieutenant said, "Move out.”
From where I was standing it must have been 150 to 200 yards along a nice, clean ridgeline before we got to the tree line on the big hill. Those Chinese had suckered me so good that I didn’t even have my rifle at the ready. I was just swinging it along in my right hand. About halfway to the big mountain there was a great big explosion, but no sound. I thought, "Somebody must have got hurt.” The next thing I knew, I was laying in a big snow bank about twenty feet off the ridgeline. I thought, "Graham, you dumb-ass. What are you doing laying down here?" I tried to get up and I couldn’t use my left arm. "Ah-h-h-h-h-h. I’ve been shot," I screamed (or thought)--I don’t remember which. But I do remember the sudden awareness, fear perhaps, panic even, that what I had been afraid of for so long had happened. I began to holler for the medic. There was some nut on top of the ridgeline hunkered down behind a small bush about three feet tall that didn’t have a single leaf on it, and he started hollering for the medic. Then I remembered the medic was back on the other side of the last hill working on some guys there. I rolled over and got up I suppose, and hollered, "Fight you bastards. I'm going to Japan!"
Now this is eerie--pay attention. I then calmly walked back over the hill where the medic was, right in the middle of a big fight with my back to the enemy, not considering that I could get shot again. The fear was gone. The medic put a greasy bandage over the bullet hole in my upper chest, put my arm in a sling, and told me to wait for a stretcher. I told him, "You're out of your cotton-picken mind. I can walk and I'm getting the hell out of here." I experienced pain only once. The trail back had a lot of ice on it and I slipped once, landing on my butt. I arrived back at the Battalion Aid Station after dark, likely about nine o’clock. The bullet had hit me in the left collarbone, went through the top of the left lung, and busted the third, fourth, and fifth ribs on the left side about an inch from the spine. It didn’t come out the back.
Incidentally, I heard that my company had about 43 men left the next morning, counting the cooks, clerks, and drivers. I don’t know what happened to the 1st Sergeant's rifle or my C-rations. I suppose the moral of this story is: (1) Never attack through Able Company. (2) Never accept more then one meal of C-rations before an attack, but if you do get more then one meal, eat them as soon as you can. By the time I got back from the hospital, the 1st Sergeant had rotated home, so I don’t know what the moral would have been about losing his rifle.
A Common Bond?
- B.G. Farrell
A few years ago I became acquainted with another participant in the Korean "Police Action." He had been an infantry rifleman with the First Marine Division during 1950. Although severely wounded, he was one of the few who survived the attack from the frozen Chosen to the sea. I was an infantryman with Company C, 17th Infantry, and was not wounded until February 1951. In one of his letters he asked, "... we all have a common bond, don't we?" At the time, I made some sort of disjointed response. However, his question is a good question and has been asked, I suspect, by many combat veterans--either in the company of other combat veterans or in some private crevice of their mind. The men who ask this question deserve an answer. So, I have thought on it.
Our State of the Dis-Union
First, to put this whole thing in its proper light, it seems to me that we humans are more or less prisoners of our individual histories. Some more or less than others. Humans seem never to leave anything behind. We carry all of our past experiences with us--even though we've been told to forget them and even when we really do want to dump some of them. All of our life experiences are hiding away in some remote crevice of our mind. Most of the time we do not know they are there. Sometimes one or more of them raise their little heads into our unconsciousness, or even occasionally into our consciousness, and influence our thoughts and ideas and behaviors without our knowing they are doing so. For instance, "Why in the hell did I do/think that?" or "Where did that come from?" In other words, our life experiences--all of them--are woven into the structure and functions of our brains and minds and may influence our present behavior without us ever knowing or even wondering.
At any one instant in time, some combination of our past life experiences are what we are. When we are faced with new situations, they are the rules which channel our behavior, whether we like it or know it or not. There are times, however, when our past experiences do not prepare us to deal with some new situation--when our experiences are not of the same sort, like two gears which do not quite mesh. Later perhaps, just outside our consciousness, their silent grinding gives rise for a moment to a passing, formless, almost unnoticeable, feeling that something is amiss. We sense something is not quite the way it should be, but we are not sure.
The History of Our Personal Experience
A great many Korean veterans were too young for military service during World War II. For example, I was eleven years old when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. We did, however, see all the John Wayne-type war movies and learned war was a heroic endeavor. (It is, but only in the sense that ordinary humans in very anti-life, anti-human circumstances, perform very human and extra-human deeds.) We learned in those movies that our wars are fought by GI's who are men with no fear, and that to die for your country, etc., is a glorious thing. As soon as we were old enough--some of us before we were old enough--joined one or the other of the military services. There was nothing about the peacetime military to correct our delusion. Then, the North Koreans, as is the wont of authoritarians, decided to impose their laws, their social structure, their values, and their ideals on the South Koreans. However, President Truman decided "enough is enough" and through whatever mechanism and/or circumstance, this world's first United Nations army was born. (I personally felt some satisfaction in having been part of that Police Force.)
A short time into my first encounter with an armed enemy, I made at least five significant discoveries. (1) I was not without fear. (2) The fear I was experiencing in battle was not new. I had experienced the identical emotion before. (3) When men die, they are really, permanently, dead. (4) For me personally, war was not heroic. (5) I could die.
Most humans will admit to having experienced fear. A year or so after I returned to the States, I had one of those "Ah-Ha" experiences which revealed that the fear I experienced in combat was the same--the identical emotion, that I had experienced when I was a child and was afraid of the dark. You ought to think about that. Further, a dead soldier just "is not" anymore. There is nothing glorious about a dead human. At best, it is a cold hunk of meat. For me, war was not heroic. Most of the time I was dirty, scared, hungry, tired, hot and had lice, cold and had lice, sleepy, homesick, bored, pissed off, didn't give a damn, or some combination of any or all of the above. The panorama from the foxholes I dug and/or occupied never indicated anything but that war was an unmitigated, total, absolute waste of time and material and life. The purpose of war is death and destruction. Most humans have experienced the death of others and, if they were close to those who died, experienced the pain of loss. Or, we have observed the grief of others at the death of their friends or relatives. However, none of us have personally experienced death.
There are instances when in a remote crevice of my brain/mind there is a brief but faint and formless sensation, a far-away itch, that I did not measure up to the illustration provided me by my society through its informal mouthpiece--John Wayne. I did not react to real war as I had reacted to the fake war on the screen. I was afraid. I did not charge into the mouth of cannon and die a poetically glorious death. I know I was as brave as most and I know I fought as well as many and better than some. I know John Wayne was a fake, celluloid hero and the films were propaganda. None the less, once in a while I am aware that my distant "itch" has not gone away. A problem with experiencing both the John Wayne celluloid war and real war is they are incompatible experiences. They are not the same. They cannot both reside in the same human brain/mind. A combat veteran must suppress both or compartmentalize and select one for his/her reality.
With respect to my fifth discovery, when in Korea there was always this little uneasiness of mind--an unspoken suspicion or maybe a doubt, a foreboding perhaps--concerning the reality and the nature of some possible future, terrible, evil even, event. Maybe even a self-doubt about my capability to deal with this possible future "thing." I personally always thought about getting shot. I never considered stepping on or tripping a mine, nor did I think about getting hit with shrapnel from a grenade or mortar or an artillery round. Just "shot." It seems to me now that all that anticipation and anxiety arose from the fact that I had never been shot. A lack of experience. I had no relevant past experience. The fact is, when I was shot it was almost a non-event. Someone on the upper part of a mountain that I was trying to take away from him shot down on me, hitting me smack-dab, dead-center on the left collar bone, the bullet going through my lung and breaking three or four ribs near my spine but not coming out. There was the sensation of a big explosion, but no sound and no pain. As soon as I discovered I was not dead and could walk (there was a great deal of panic and screaming for the medic until I made that discovery), I hollered, "Fight you bastards. I'm going to Japan." Then I got the hell out of there. All that foreboding had been a waste of energy and focus. With respect to my dying, I had prior experience with the death of others as a civilian. In the police action itself, the death of others got to be rather ordinary. I, though, had never died. That is, I had no "personal" experience with death. I could not think about being dead. I knew not of what I feared!
Remember the Ah-Ha experience that I mentioned in a preceding paragraph? Well, a human is a sensate creature, meaning the human knows and becomes and functions by means of information he or she receives about the worlds outside her or his sack of bones through her or his five sets of sensors. A sighted human loses the ability to see (sight is its most important sensory system) when entering the dark. The human cannot know, it cannot become, it cannot function properly when the sight sensory system does not operate. The loss of their most important device results in some anxiety and fear in most humans. (Why do you suppose many creatures on the planet Earth sleep at night?) Losing the use of its most important sensors is, for a human, sort of like trying to walk when a leg goes to sleep or like trying to talk after your tongue has been removed. When a human is in a dark place like a cave, a big part of him or her just ceases to exist. The person's orientation or reference connections with the world outside itself are gone. The person is alone as an incomplete self. All, all alone. A human is not a complete biological creature if it is not receiving information from all of its sensors.
Being afraid of the dark and being afraid of death are the same and exist because of the absence of experiencing them--the dark because an ability to see is lost, and death because it is the one thing that humans cannot experience and repeat. What you do not or cannot know and/or what you do not or cannot understand may cause you to react with bodily sensations we call fear--if it is death. The mark of a combat soldier is that he or she can learn to overcome these sensations with reason. For humans, there seems to be some sort of connection between the loss of part of the self or loss of the ability to understand or to control one's self and the survival instinct. The survival instinct may be one of the most powerful of all "living creature"-inherited neutral circuits. Standing at the edge of one's knowledge and gazing with awe into the abyss of one's ignorance is sort of like standing at the edge of a cliff and gazing with anxiety, dread, foreboding, and fear into a huge, dark, bottomless hole or valley and imagining that at any moment the edge of the cliff is going to break away and you will fall, grasping and clawing at nothing, into that unknown, unknowable, and unimaginable place from which there is no return. And you have no control over whether or when the event occurs.
Our senses, in particular sight, are to our biological self as our experiences are to our brain/mind self. In combat and in the dark we lose the illusion that we are self-made men and that we are in control of our own lives.
There is one other characteristic of these humans who are native to the plant Earth that we must understand before combat veterans can understand what we have in common. Humans, unless they are social cancers, are social animals. The bonding between humans, the need for and the pleasure of the company of other humans, the dependence on other humans, the reliance on other humans are normal because they are required--absolutely necessary--for the survival of the individual human as well as humanity and for human societies on the planet Earth. Without this inter-human attraction, there would be no humans on this planet!
Most human social systems are organized so they make living on the planet Earth a little less difficult for those who belong. The social system provides the members of the society with ideals and values and rules and bounds which channel or direct the member's behaviors--specifically those behaviors concerned with dealing with other humans. The members have reasonably consistent experiences. Each person feels fairly comfortable with his fellow citizens and experiences some control over his or her own life. He or she fits in and, in return, makes some sort of contribution to his social system. For example, the idea that every human is entitled to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness is a basic organizing ideal of our social system. We learn the need to cooperate with other humans and actually experience human growth and pleasure in our associations. If someone is in trouble, his friends and neighbors will help. Even those from the larger community who do not know the one in trouble will help. When we have helped, we are justified in standing a little taller and we feel good about coming to the aid of a fellow human. We become more human. Most of us.
Once in a while our society is threatened from without and we voluntarily assume, or we are called on to assume, the responsibility of defending it. A combat veteran I am acquainted with suggests the responsibility becomes operational as a sense of mission. Unfortunately, to this date humans have frequently chosen a process of destruction called war to settle their differences. There is absolutely nothing about the process of war that is consistent with our social norms. Nothing. Without some ethereal, amorphous psychic pain and a great deal of suppression, our social experience and the experience of war cannot reside in the same human brain/mind.
A consequence of this split experience is that combat veterans live with at least a couple of contradictions. (1) John Wayne's sham bravery and their own fear. Now read Farrell's description of the combat veteran again. (2) What we have is an individual, yet common, experience of war that only we know. As long as we live, we can share only with others of our kind. Only we experienced. Only we may know. Only we may understand. Only we may legitimately speak of war. We also have the experience of our social system. Our situation is that our experiencing of our society provides us one experience of reality and our experiencing of war provides us another experience--and the two are totally opposite. They are of two different worlds. The experience of war is, in fact, a contradiction of all we deem holy. Therefore, we, individually, are condemned for the rest of our lives to live with these contradictions--our sets of two opposite and incompatible experiences trapped in our one brain-mind. A "no-other-man's-land" between the creating experience of our society and the destructive experience of war.
Consider for a minute the nature of existence between two totally incompatible places, between matter and anti-matter, for example. The combat survivor resides in just such a tension. Perhaps, on the other hand, it is something akin to the Catholic church's concept of Purgatory--a place between an experience on Earth and an experience of Heaven, but for which, while in that place where the individual is transformed, the experience is unknowable.
Because of the peculiar character of humans residing on the planet Earth, it is not our individual experience of our social system, nor is it our individual experience of combat, that is our common bond. These no-other-man's-land sets of contradictions are what combat veterans have in common. No one else!