I am currently reading two books about war. One is a memoir called Guns of Normandy by retired Canadian Army Colonel George C. Blackburn about his days as a sub-lieutenant in charge of an artillery battery near Caen in the months following D-day in 1944. The other is Matterhorn, a novel written by Karl Marelantes, a highly decorated former U.S. Marine Corp. officer, about a company in the northern highlands of Vietnam in 1969.
The similarities are striking. Each book reveals the horrors of combat with inspiring and heartbreaking reality. The Canadian soldiers and American marines fight for days on end, often without food or the time to eat it, and exhausted to near death by persistent dysentery and virtually no sleep. Their legs are covered with feces; there is no time or place for washing. Their uniforms are so frayed and tattered that they provide no warmth or protection from the elements.
They are commanded by Colonels and Generals located far behind the lines having whiskey highballs before dinner, eating steak washed down with imported wine and settling back with a fine liquor when full and finished. These men, of course, had put in their time at the front in one of the two World Wars or Korea and could not be called chicken. The Marine Lt. Colonel in Matterhorn, in fact, wants to be “in the bush” to personally “kick ass” and get his “grunts” moving.
What they are is self-absorbed and self-serving. As the frustrated marine battalion commander tells the Lt. Colonel about his subordinate’s dedication to the corps: “…I’ll tell you Simpson. You think about where it’s going to get you. You use it. Either that or you let someone else use you so it’ll get them somewhere. I don’t know which is worse.”
This worries the ambitious aging Korean War vet, who desperately wants to command a battalion or, dare he hope, a division with stars on his shoulders before retirement. He is reassured by his slick young executive officer with no combat experience but lots of political moxie. “We’re top in the battalion on man-days per month actively in combat operations... Our kill ratio’s been climbing ever since I’ve come aboard…”
Body count, of course, was the only measure of success in Vietnam. Matterhorn nicely shows how this gets inflated as reports go up the line from squad to platoon to company to regiment to battalion to division to Washington.
What never makes to Washington, or even division level, are marine casualty reports. How one man died of malaria and several more marines lost toes and legs to trench foot (the USMC calls it immersion foot) and jungle rot because Lt. Col. Simpson refused to send a medevac helicopter for “sissy” complaints.
One important advantage the Canadians and Allies had in France was a clear idea of what they were fighting for. The soldiers and marines in Vietnam had no idea why they were there, but fought as hard as their WWII counterparts nonetheless. “’Tell me something Lieutenant,’ said platoon machine-gunner Hippy (who would later lose his legs to immersion foot). ‘Just tell me where the gold is…something out there for us to be here. Just anything, then I’d understand it. Just some fucking gold so it all makes sense.’”
There was, of course, never any gold. Only Presidents Lyndon Johnson’s and Richard Nixon’s political ambitions and America’s collective delusion that it had never lost a war and wasn’t about to start now.
But was there any real “gold” at the end of WWII? Hitler lost, but Stalin won. Great Britain won, but lost its empire and was so broke its economy didn’t recover for 20 years. Japan lost and the U.S. took over world leadership, but at the cost of a 60-year arms race that it continued long after its chief rival had dropped out. President Ronald Regan’s one-country race ultimately beggared our economy.
Not satisfied, President George W. Bush started a mini-war in Afghanistan and then Vietnam redux in Iraq at a cost of trillions. Then President Barrack Obama switched emphasis to Afghanistan, making it the new Vietnam with nuclear-armed Pakistan waiting in the wings.
Now, we owe more than we can easily afford to repay. Unlike the good old days of the 50s, 60s and 70s this debt is owned not to Americans, but to foreigners, principally China, which also happens to be our current rival for world economic and military supremacy.
Did we win gold, or fool’s gold?