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John Cory: War Remembered

War Remembered

By John Cory
t r u t h o u t correspondent in Saudi Arabia
t r u t h o u t | Perspective

Tuesday 28 January 2003

As I write this, the world awaits the UN inspection report and the State of the Union speech from George Bush. All of the waiting is not keyed to evidence or evil or that "Aha!" moment. The world is waiting for a start date. When will the war begin? Soon. How long will it take? Not long. How quickly will it be over? Not soon. War is never over - it just lingers.

A few years ago I passed a slow afternoon with my business landlord. He was approaching his 76th birthday and on this particular day he brought a bottle of bourbon, two glasses, and a desire to talk, as he entered my office.

Jack is one of Brokaw's "greatest generation" though Jack himself would deny such a moniker. He was a bomber pilot in WWII and one of his proudest mementos is a squadron photograph that includes Clark Gable, standing right beside Jack's big grinning mug.

As he poured us each a drink, Jack explained that he had just done what all old soldiers do at some time or other; he had fingered a faded face in a faded photograph of an old comrade-in-arms and felt a flush of sad nostalgia. Fifty plus years on, the war had come back to him. It wasn't a pity attack or guilt; it was simply the memory of a lively young pal in a long ago place when war ruled the world. So we passed the afternoon exchanging tales of men and combat, and pubs and high jinks so familiar to all who have ever been soldiers. A toast to the dead and the living, and the hope for never again.

I have been to war. I served as a combat medic and I know what it is to peer into a man's heart through the shrapnel holes of his flesh. I know what it is to see the dead; both friend and foe, strewn about the battlefield like so much broken furniture. But there is more to war than the battles, victories, and the eventual truces.

I have lived and worked around this world for many years. While living in Japan I watched the annual commemoration of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and had opportunities to speak with survivors and former soldiers. Decades after the Great War, the destruction, illnesses, and the memories, all were as strong as ever. My times in Korea revealed the scars and sadness of a war that ended with a divided nation and still divided families. Here in the Middle East I have talked with Israeli and Egyptian men who fought in both the 1967 and 1973 wars. Their memories are equally strong and vibrant even today.

After my combat tour, I saw the fall of Saigon in 1975, and then returned in 1999 and 2000 to find the ghosts of war still ever present. In my travels around Southeast Asia I was astounded to find areas that were still mined and marked with warnings about explosives buried in the rice paddies. I revisited a small village where I had served, only to be asked to help the local mayor and his council complete their map of minefields and hidden ammo dumps. Could I remember where the claymore mines had been placed? Where was the cache of mortar shells hidden down by the river? Did I know what happened to the defoliating chemical agents that were once stored in this small hamlet?

A small village in the Central Highlands where many children and young adults are missing limbs, where birth deformities and cancer rates are the norm and not the exception, where farmers struggle to grow enough rice and other staples by avoiding some of the best land because of its hidden danger; this is the home of war's remains.

Let's make no mistake, war is never about just the soldiers. The face of war is not a recruiting poster. The face of war is on children, long after the tanks and artillery have gone. Barren poisoned ground produces generations of poisoned food and water. Uranium based bullets leave cancer producing agents to ricochet around the environments of playgrounds and schools. Defensive chemical armaments become passive pollution that is associated with increased birth defects, respiratory ailments, and a variety of blood disorders.

My friend Jack and I passed that afternoon over bourbon and cigars, talking as most men do, of forgotten chums, the luck of survival, and our hope to never see the world at war again. Perhaps it was the moment or maybe my affection for Jack, but I still remember his last toast for the day.

"Here's to war remembered, may we never forget."


John Cory is t r u t h o u’s correspondent in Saudi Arabia

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