The year is almost gone, which makes us think about our progress, or lack of it. Christmas is here, the descent of the divine to earth, and the weary world rejoices, for yonder breaks a new and glorious morn.
The promise of Christmas joy forces us to evaluate our values and our American culture. We are present-oriented, a powerful value. We are mindful of the future in a minimal way and almost completely forgetful of the past. Our very short attention span, conditioned by TV, the Internet, social media, and the generally poor level of literacy, is fragmented and easily distracted. With our focus on the here and now we struggle mightily to make sense of things, but it’s all we can do to understand the immediate present.
We tell the children to be proud of our history, but judging by our actions in the present we don’t seem to understand the significance of the past. Take our present wars, for instance. The recent revelations of the Pentagon’s deliberate and successful strategy to delude the Congress and the public about our failures in Afghanistan and Iraq are a loud echo of the same kind of deception practiced during the Vietnam War. We have repeated the Vietnam mistakes in Iraq and Afghanistan, resulting in endless, futile wars.
We have failed to win in Iraq and Afghanistan, pouring blood and treasure into the rat holes of these frightfully expensive wars.
When they finally end we will still have to pay far into the future because we are morally obligated to rebuild what we have destroyed in those countries. On top of that, for a generation to come we need to treat the physical and psychic wounds inflicted on a million veterans. Wounds to the body heal slowly but they heal, even if incompletely. But not the mental wounds. If there is one thing guaranteed to provoke eternal neurosis and psychosis in soldiers, embodied in the agony of reliving the war, it’s losing the war.
At Christmas time the deep wounds of memory carved into the brain come to life again. It is the irony of joy that it causes pain. Christmas is joy, the joy of coming home, but home for combat veterans is not the same place that we left when we went to war. That’s the pain.
In November 1967 we fought the battle of Dak To in the Central Highlands of South Vietnam. Dak To is a dusty village astride the road traversing the borders of Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia.
The enemy strategy was to attack in this mountainous area, inflict a major defeat on the U.S. Army and split South Vietnam in two. The North Vietnamese dug themselves into heavily defended bunker complexes on strategic high ground. The 173rd Airborne Brigade and the 4th Infantry Division rooted them out of their positions. The 173rd bled themselves white on Hill 875. My battalion and other battalions of the 4th Division bled ourselves white on Hill 1338 and other peaks of the Annamese Cordillera.
Nobody remembers the battles around Dak To. Nobody except the soldiers who fought them. Our fellow citizens are too preoccupied with the present to remember battles long ago and far away in those places with the strange-sounding names. Many veterans wish very much that they would remember.
Christmas 1967 came none too soon for us. The heavy fighting was over but we were still on guard on hilltops five clicks (kilometers) from the Laotian border. The Army sent Chinook helicopters loaded with clean uniforms, Christmas dinner, and bags of mail from home. It was a good Christmas, in spite of all the death and destruction. We had each other, the joy of comradeship, even if mourning the loss of the fallen.
Veterans are forever seeking to restore that close bond with comrades, especially at Christmas.
Joe Barrera, Ph.D., is the former director of the Ethnic Studies Program at UCCS, a lecturer in U.S. Southwest history, and a combat veteran of the Vietnam War.