Veteran's Day, POW communication systems, and Warfare

Monday 11 November 2002 at 03:32

My aunt- and uncle-in-law, Judy and Rob Cleary, invited me over to their house for tea this afternoon. Also joining us for tea was Bill Angus and Ellie ???. Rob and Bill were both Marine aviators who "flew right seat" on A-6 Intruders in the Vietnam war -- they were navigators and bombardiers, not pilots.

It was a rare and unexpected opportunity for me to listen to authentic war stories. Bill was shot down and spent ten months as a prisoner of war at the Hoa Lo prison in Hanoi. Rob flew an extraordinary 208 missions. Most aviators were superstitious about flying more than 100 missions because they could only defy the odds of getting shot down for so long.

This evening has effected me profoundly. It has come at a time when my mind is already buzzing with Linda's comments on literacy and democracy and Jefferson's belief that public education is the antidote to tyranny.

Cognitive dissonance

It's hard to reconcile my conflicting feelings: deep gratitude and respect for the incredible price paid by veterans, and deep resentment and distain for warfare and the cycles of death and violence. Talking with my wife about it this evening, she observed that one can honor the soldiers for fighting to protect each other under insane circumstances while remaining angry at the politicians for putting the soldiers in that position in the first place.

War Pigs
Disposable Heros
For Whom the Bell Tolls

I'm haunted by the visions I imagined while Bill described some of his experience in the "Hanoi Hilton". The prisoners established covert methods of communication. They would be moved regularly in an effort to disrupt communications. Even so the chain of command was the first thing to be re-established after a move. I asked about the methods of communication. An Air Force major in a cell across the hall taught him a tapping code as the first order of business shortly after Bill arrived. It was the same concept as Morse Code but easier to remember. Other methods of communication included sign language, if any visual contact could be established. And small notes could be passed, rolled tightly into hollow sticks and delivered by Thai prisoners of war who were also being held, but were somewhat more free to move around as part of their duties. Through the chain of command and covert communications the highest ranking officers among the prisoners were able to "set policy". Prisoners were expected to resist any demands to the best of their ability and undermine efforts by the prison guards to create propaganda. I was struck by the resilience of the communications. Bill described that chain of command as a life line. The new prisoners would have more current news about America and the developments in the war, or sports scores as the case might be. Older prisoners would share the dates they were shot down. A different perspective on group-forming.

After writing this I found Bill's own words describing his experience. Rob also lent me a copy of Fast Movers: Jet Pilots and the Vietnam Experience. There are some disturbing descriptions of the torture endured by the older POWs, and of the wounds they self-inflicted in order to thwart propaganda efforts. In spite of the tyranny of imprisonment and torture, the POWs maintained lines of communication that gave hope, discipline, and purpose.

Ellie asked Bill if, in his time there, he had seen any random acts of kindness. In the face of war, was there any sign of humanity from the guards? An excellent question, but Bill couldn't remember much. Maybe once. He expected that if you were to ask 500 POWs you might get some reports of kindness. But he suspected the guards were "hand picked." I presume he meant they were chosen for their taste for delivering abuse and torture. "They weren't American sympathizers," he added.

I would describe myself as a pacifist. I've got strong feelings about warfare, but no experience on which to base those opinions. The closest I've gotten to any kind of combat is my martial arts training. It's definitely a martial art but in comparison to war, my experience has been more like a sports or fitness program. I asked how their experience with warfare effected or changed their opinion about warfare.

After he returned from Vietnam, Rob sold all his weapons and never went hunting again. He could no longer enjoy the sport of it. Bill described warfare as a necessary evil as long as there are people like Saddam Hussein in the world. With complete respect for Bill, I so want to disagree with the "necessary" part in some credible way. It's so circular -- as long as there are killers in the world the killing must continue.

More cognitive dissonance. During the Halloween seminar, Saotome Sensei observed that one must be strong in order to choose to be merciful. If I understood him correctly, one should choose to avoid brutality even in the face of physical attack. But in order to make that choice, one must be in a position that offers brutal alternatives, or else there is no choice to be made. With that, I grudgingly concede the "necessary" part.

Bill also explained that the experience of an aviator is fairly sterile. "You don't get dirty," Rob added. Release the bombs and confirm that you hit the target. Rob provided air support for American ground troops. He was protecting our own, and therefore felt justified in his actions, even if the justification for the war itself was questionable. "Some enjoy combat, and those are the people you want to have on your side," Bill said. "Others, like Rob and I, were thrust into combat and didn't enjoy it, but performed well." "I was proud of my work," Rob added.

My deepest thanks to the service men past and present who give the US the option to choose between war and peace. And I pray our leaders choose peaceful solutions.