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Ralph J. Dolan: The message of the old soldier
By RALPH DOLAN
NORTHAMPTON — “Stay a while, stranger,” says the haggard old man from the shadows along Main Street.
The stranger who has been addressed pauses: “You look like you’ve come a long way, old man,” he says. “What’s on your mind?”
“I am one of those who gave their lives in service to America. Today you and others stop to remember the price I paid.”
“Yes ... yes,” says the stranger, looking about. “Over there the bands are beginning to assemble for the parade. I sense a strange sobriety in the air. And now there’s you!”
The old man looks away and begins: “Oh, how I hated to let go. I whimpered like a baby there in the mud where I lay alone, my life leaking away. Now I wander with a heavy heart.”
The stranger takes that in and briefly considers the impossibility of this encounter. But he feels drawn in and says: “Go on.”
“I was 19 when I died. What does a 19-year-old know? Nothing! My life was snatched away.
“I had been so proud to serve my country. I was young and naive. But one thing I knew: the terrible tyrannies that oppress and exploit many of the peoples of this Earth must be replaced by the more enlightened view of existence, as captured in the ideas of equality and justice for all.
“Yes. I was an idealist. I was hopelessly impractical and eager to align myself with a large and noble cause so that I myself might take on aspects of nobility. The images of innocent people suffering under the boot of tyranny in Vietnam came flying around the world, entering my consciousness and demanding my attention.
“America, the greatest democracy the world has ever known and defender of the downtrodden, was stirring. Her wrath would be supreme. Her justice would be glorious.
“I was a true believer. I signed up for the fight. This was God’s work.
“I lasted only three days in Vietnam. My group was helicoptered immediately into a raging firefight in the delta. I remember jumping off into a soggy field, looking around, paralyzed by the sight of such carnage and then hearing one of our infantry officers screaming orders at us. ‘Get down! Get down!’
“I never recovered from the shock of that killing field. I wandered around in a daze, being shuffled here and there, going through the motions of soldiering, until that flying projectile entered just below the ear and exited out the top of my head.
“I see more clearly now. War itself is the evil. I gave myself over to an evil with a belief that this was a way to counteract evil. Such is the foolishness of youth.
“Those who take us to war again and again feed voraciously on the foolishness of youth.”
The old soldier pauses.
“What can I do for you, old man?” asks the stranger.
“Stay! Stay a moment longer, please. I am in search of peace of mind,” he answers. “I must let the young people know that they must not go to war any more, no matter what incentives the warmongers lay before them. They must refuse.
“Look. Look what has happened to my country. Look at my beautiful America, the beacon of hope for all the oppressed people of the world. Look. She set out to conquer the tyrants. Now she has taken on the characteristics of the tyrant.
“Sweet nation, America, for whom I gave my life so that she might be a great defender of the poor and the oppressed, has declared to the world that it is necessary to torture people. This is not a debatable matter. This is unthinkable.
“My sweet nation invades other countries with impunity. She has been heavily implicated in toppling democratically elected governments and installing puppet governments that do her bidding. She upholds vile institutions such as Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay. And, yes, the whole structure of American government has been taken over by a group of the very wealthiest people in the world. The words of democracy are spouted in empty repetition but the spirit of democracy is gone.
“You must tell them, sir. The old political structures are crumbling under the weight of their own corruption. Tell the people to rebuild! Tell them: Start at the very lowest, grassroots level, one’s personal relations. Create equality there. Create justice there. Then move on to the groups: family, community, nation.
“Demand equality. Demand a greater voice in the workplace. Demand economic justice. Experiment with new ways of governance. This is the medium in which true democracy will rise again.”
With that the old solider vanishes into the shadows.
Ralph J. Dolan of Haydenville, MA served in Vietnam and has had a career as a licensed psychotherapist. His column appears on the fourth Monday of the month.