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Fmr. Sgt. Christopher Gaynor: War

By Remy Benoit


War is not a singular event. There are consequences. The suffering expands from the explosive center like ripples in a pond after a stone is dropped in its middle. The soldier dies and is remembered on a polished granite wall. A family is devastated, friends grieve. His counterpart has Asian features and his own grieving family and friends. For every soldier there are two, three or more ordinary citizens crushed in the melee. War is not a noble adventure, it is death, destruction and misery; a terrible human failure more profound than any other. Casualty numbers are statistics to military planners. Civilians, who are not personally touched by war, may feel a moment of sadness, but quickly move on. However, each individual, whether soldier or civilian, has a unique story.

This past Friday I shared such a story. Ann, a young wife with a newborn lost a husband, her daughter a father she would never know. He was Norm Goble, blown up in front of me 45 years ago in Viet Nam. We tried to save him, but there was no miraculous touch in our hands. Now, more than four decades after the event which devastated her and has haunted me, we are able to grieve together. I am a witness and a final connection to a life too brief. When I returned home from our meeting, waiting for me in my email was a link to a documentary film about war photographer James Nachtwey. His unflinching eye, courage and passion are expressed in images few people want to see: the dismembered bodies of children, the rotting corpses of mass murder, the screams of agony and the unearthly cries of unbearable loss. Many of his images show the costs of wholesale slaughter by getting very close, so that he and his camera become one with the subjects. Each ‘casualty’ is an individual with hopes and dreams and a grieving family and friends. You are unlikely to see Nachtwey’s stark black and white photos in American newspapers or magazines. Advertisers don’t want their products associated with misery. Ann’s loss is a story, Nachtwey removes the barriers, puts us in the middle of horror and challenges us to look, see and feel many stories.
Why are military exercises called War Games? One answer can be found in the 1983 film of that name. ‘A young man finds a back door into a military central computer in which reality is confused with game-playing.’ I am not confused, and no one else should be. In real wars people die in ugly, undignified agony. We have either allowed this to happen, participated in the nasty business of war or stood on the sidelines and are complicit in our silence. How we think about war has been altered by the language that is used to describe it. When the War Department became the Department of Defense in 1947, we took a big step back from reality. The military establishment uses terms like collateral damage to describe the 40 or 50 human beings incinerated by a bomb intended for their evil neighbor. ‘Police Actions’ replace declarations of war, we are civilized so we ‘deploy’ soldiers to win the hearts and minds of people who hate us absolutely, when what we are really doing is shoving an entire generation of our best young men and women through a meat grinder.

To paraphrase Forrest Gump, ‘I am not a smart man, but I know war when I see it’. At the end of the documentary ‘War Photographer’, James Nachtwey says: ‘if everyone could be there just once to see for themselves what white phosphorous does to the face of a child or what unspeakable pain is caused by the impact of a single bullet or how a jagged piece of shrapnel can rip someone's leg off - if everyone could be there to see for themselves the fear and the grief, just one time, then they would understand that nothing is worth letting things get to the point where that happens to even one person, let alone thousands’. There are no winners in war, everyone loses. Why can’t intelligent, educated people see that? Perhaps we are not as smart or educated as we think we are.

Fmr Sgt. Christopher Gaynor
Republic of Viet Nam, 1967-1968


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This item is part of historian, author, editor, and educator Remy Benoit's ongoing weblog for Veterans, writers, students, and others who believe in learning from and making history; including thousands of articles and posts and the free writing seminar, Using History for Healing and Writing.

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