Bethany Vaccaro’s brother Robert suffered a devastating brain injury from an explosion in Iraq 38 years to the day after my brother was killed on a bombing mission in Vietnam. In “Shock Waves,” an affecting and excruciatingly honest essay that explores what her brother and her family have been through since Robert’s injury, Vaccaro asks a disturbing question: When we send our soldiers off to war, do we expose them (and their families) to a fate even worse than death? The answer seems easy for my sister and me, who have ached over our loss for four decades. Nothing could be worse than the loss of our brother. But Vaccaro’s essay justifies her question and makes me wonder about our answer to that question. An essay as wise and searching as this one needs nothing else to recommend it, but I can’t help noting that Vaccaro is 24 years old and this is her first published article.
A second essay in this issue, by John B. Renehan, takes us to Iraq in the same year that Robert Vaccaro was injured, 2007. Renehan, then an Army captain, led a group of U.S. soldiers and Marines who were working with the Iraqi police in West Ramadi. “The Devil You Know” is explicitly about the choices Renehan and his men made between encouraging the Iraqis to keep the peace and worrying overmuch about enforcing their own values. This moral conflict arose because many of the Sunni tribesmen they were advising had been dedicated in the past to killing Americans and were less than dedicated in the present to American ideals about corruption and the treatment of prisoners. But implicitly Renehan’s essay asks how fast Iraq will be ready to provide for its own security. Recent news reports suggest that this question remains as pertinent today as it was two years ago.
These personal accounts remind us how disastrous and unpredictable war is, and thus how important is the decision to embark upon it. The literature of war can enlighten those of us who have not experienced its terrors, but I wonder if anything can replace the experience itself. It’s true that the presidents responsible for Vietnam had served in World War II, but even so I suspect that it was easier for President Bush and Vice President Cheney to get us into Iraq because they had never been to war themselves. It worries me that President Obama, who is sending more troops into a quagmire at least as dangerous as Vietnam, has also never experienced the fear and chaos of battle or the dreadful finality when a comrade dies at your side. Would he or could he do anything different in Afghanistan had he been to war himself? Probably not. But we have managed to unlearn one of Vietnam’s chief lessons: be leery of war as a solution, especially a solution looking for a problem. The consequences, for the Vaccaros and the rest of us, won’t go away in our lifetimes.
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