Everyone's A Victim

What I remember most about being shot is how quick it was. Like a streak of lightening, searing my right eye. One second I was an intense, whole, and scrappy eight year old, the next I was down on the tin roof of our makeshift garage writhing in unfathomable pain, a victim of my brother’s pellet gun, needing to be led off the roof by another brother, never to be the same again. It is this moment that I relive when I think of the children in the world who are harmed by war; some are bombed or shot or napalmed outright, killed instantly, others are maimed. I lost the vision in the affected eye and it would be years before I received proper medical care. It is of this I also think, as the countries to which children belong are obliterated and they are left to fend for themselves.

I think of my brother, given a “toy” gun by our parents before he was wise enough to use it, who was never able to say he was sorry for what he had done, and whose guilt turned into bitterness against all females and lack of honor toward himself. Later in life, violence and cocaine were his crutches of choice, until he died an untimely death, quite recently.

After 9/11, when the U.S. government chose to bomb Afghanistan – as if no children lived there (this is what small children believe: that of course if grownups who bomb countries knew that children lived there they would not bomb) – I was distraught to discover there were 700,000 disabled Afghani orphans. Many of these children were blinded; many had lost hearing and limbs. Who would they turn to, where would they go? I wondered. Who would feed them, take them to safety, put them to bed? Now we know their orphanages were not spared. We, who paid for this destruction, must live with this.

My sweetheart, a Viet Nam veteran of Korean-Norwegian descent, tells me harrowing tales of his tenure there. Drafted at eighteen, he was ordered to come to the induction center to arrange for re-classification of a student deferment. Once there, he was steered onto a bus and sent off to boot camp, without even, he says, a toothbrush. There, he was confronted with the rigors and horrors of training, hardened men giving crude and shocking orders to teen-agers who had no recourse but to obey. Within a short period of time he was sent halfway across the world to fight people he barely (expect for the News) believed existed. What is more, because they were Asian, they looked like him. He tells me something I have never heard before: that though in boot camp the army issued each recruit a gun with a heavy wooden stock, a necessity for hand to hand combat, in Viet Nam the soldiers were issued guns with lightweight plastic stocks, made by Colt but designed by the toy manufacturer, Mattel. Against the heavy, wooden-stocked AK 47s of the Vietnamese combatants (supplied by the Chinese communists) these guns that jammed, misfired and often shattered on contact, were almost useless. Frightened and frustrated soldiers appealed to their superiors for Thompson 45 caliber machine guns, antique relics of previous wars, and wrote home for their father’s and grandfather’s sawed off shotguns, and went out to fight “the enemy” with those.

He tells me of the immense suffering of soldiers. Of the rivers of heroin, supplied by the Chinese communists – who were helping their Vietnamese communist comrades on this front too – that flowed into camp, and how this “medicine” that soldiers turned to in order to blot out the terrible things they had seen and done, became a poison that turned everyone involved in its sale and use into demons of instability and pain. He tells me of the young man he was at nineteen, alone, far from home, at the mercy of a war he didn’t understand, forced to live by his wits, even as he deliberately scrambled them with what he thought was cocaine, but was, in fact, 94-97 percent pure “China White” heroin, one of the deadliest drugs known. He tells of being put in a metal box for 21 days and “cooked” at 114 degrees, to cure him of addiction. A torture many of his mates did not survive. He tells me of the suicides.

I weep with him, and hold him, as he tells me these tales. This was nearly forty years ago, and he is still suffering, deeply. Why haven’t I heard these stories before, I ask. Because nobody has wanted to hear them, he replies. Some people have. In remembrance of some of those people we watch Born on the Fourth of July (one of my favorite films), The Thin Red Line (the most lyrical of war films) and Platoon. We watch the compassionate masterpiece Coming Home. There have always been people who understood everyone’s a victim in war. May our numbers increase.

I wrote this as an op-ed piece while promoting my book for children, WHY WAR IS NEVER A GOOD IDEA. Illustrated by Stephano Vitale. It was never published.

Copyright © Alice Walker 2008