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Saturday, November 21, 2009


Written by: Rick Staggenborg, MD on Nov 1, 2009 7:44 AM PST

This essay is dedicated to my brother, who paid the greatest price on behalf of my family for the national sin of the Vietnam War.

War is a very personal thing. Every combat veteran in a sense fought his or her own war. At different times and places during a war the experience will be different. Even in the same battle the experience depends on the personal history and viewpoint of the participant. The same is true for the families and other loved ones  in a combat troop's life. Each of us is affected in a unique way, but no one who truly loves them is unscarred  by the experience of living through a war.

I grew up in the shadow of the Vietnam War. When I was nine years old, my oldest brother made the choice to fight in a war he knew to be wrong, because he could not imagine disappointing our father or leaving the country he loved. He followed in the footsteps of our father, joining the military when our nation’s leaders demanded that our youth learn to kill in the name of democracy and freedom. He knew that this was not the purpose of this war long before my father did.

With my brother at war, I was horrified by the images I saw on the television screen, in Life magazine and seemingly everywhere I looked. I longed to be a part of the war resistance, reveling in the thought that my other brothers and sisters were part of the creation of a new society from the ashes of the old. I did not realize at that time how powerful is the urge in most people to suppress the memory of painful times. This act of repression is so strong that we tend to forget the good along with the bad. This is the basis of America’s Borderline Split. The inability to accept and see the totality of a thing that is both good and bad is the essence of Borderline pathology. It is a defense against the anxiety of ambiguity as we see the nation we were brought up to love becoming something that we fear, just as when the love of a mother is challenged by abuse or neglect.

I have never had any tolerance for injustice, whether deliberate or resulting from seeing someone act in  his own self-interest with reckless disregard for the effects of one’s action or lack of action. Though a child, I stood with my older brothers and sisters in opposition to the war of choice in Vietnam. I did not simply dream of peace, but vowed to never fight in or to support any war that was not absolutely unavoidable.

I told my father of my decision when I was fourteen, after my brother had returned from Vietnam while the fires of war burned on. I was shocked when he responded reflexively by trying to strike me with his fist, for the first and only time in his life, yelling angrily “Then what did your brother go through all this for?” I stepped away from the blow, falling in amazement and shock. When I picked myself up, I angrily told him that I would not step away again. He had taught me that one does not avoid confronting injustice, and that the act of a father striking his child is always unjust. As a pastor later taught me, turning the other cheek does not mean accepting unjust punishment. It means forcing a man who would strike you with the back of his hand as one might a slave to confront you instead as an equal, with his fist. Jesus was reminding the Israelites of his day that they had not accepted slavery in Egypt and that they had a duty to themselves and to God to not accept it when Rome conquered Judea.

We must never again accept slavery. We must not rage against the Machine, but fight it with every fiber of our being with a sense of calm assurance that together, we cannot lose. Rage is fueled by hate and fear, leading to the loss of reason and to the atrocities committed in time of war. Righteous fury by contrast is the product of deep love and compassion for the victim. We must lever lose our fury at the injustice of war if we are to be effective Soldiers For Peace. The sacrifice of my brother and all the other combatants and their loved ones  who were wounded by war must not be in vain. It is our duty to those who lived to suffer broken lives to fight on in their names until we see the end of war.

In the immortal word of Roger Watters:

Welcome my son, welcome to the machine.
Where have you been? It's alright, we know where you've been.
You've been in the pipeline, filling in time,
provided with toys and Scouting for Boys.
You bought a guitar to punish your ma,
and you didn't like school, and you know you're nobody's fool,
so welcome to the machine.

Welcome my son, welcome to the machine.
What did you dream? It's alright we told you what to dream.
You dreamed of a big star, he played a mean guitar,
He always ate in the Steak Bar. He loved to drive in his Jaguar.
So welcome to the machine.

Rick Staggenborg, MD

Portland, Oregon

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