Tuesday, September 6, 2011

BOOK REVIEW: MEDIC! by Ben Sherman (2002)

MEDIC! The Story of a Conscientious Objector in the Vietnam War
by Ben Sherman
Published 2002 and 2004 by Ballantine Books/Presidio Press

Ben Sherman was willing to serve his country, he was no protester, but he saw little point in invading Vietnam. He did not believe that Vietnam was a clear and present danger to the United States. He had serious moral objections to taking human life. But he didn't want to break the rules. He did everything in his power to legally register as a conscientious objector and seek alternative service status. He filed all the necessary forms in triplicate. He was directed to attend a hearing before a board of three World War 2 veterans. The Selective Service Board No. 23 in Sacramento, California asked him esoteric philosophical questions about how he would decide who would die in a situation involving a bus full of crippled school children, failing brakes, a precipitous cliff drop, and a baby left out in the middle of the road. Sherman asked them who left the baby out in the middle of the road, and they asked him if he was a communist. The board voted down his appeal 5-0, even though there were only three members present.

Sherman was inducted into the US Army. He tried to tell his superiors that he would never fire his gun at another human being. They called him a fucking commie. But Sherman was otherwise a model soldier and performed well at boot camp. But all that CO bullshit landed him in barracks arrest for four months, followed by an office assignment, and then, finally, due to recognition of his competence, he was placed with the Medical Corps.

Sherman went to Vietnam as a medic, and endured horror and folly. He survived and after many years wrote this book which is disturbing not so much for its descriptions of the horrors of war, although that is very much a part of his story, as it is for how the mobilization of a nation to war can destroy the capacity for individual citizens to make moral and ethical choices.

 People got drafted into military service back during the Vietnam War, which meant, if you were an American male of appropriate age, and your number came up you were going into some branch of military service. Your legal choices were limited. You could apply for conscientious objector status. Some got student deferments. Sherman was consistently denied in his legal appeals to become a CO.

 You could go outside the legal choices. You could desert. Some people faked mental illness, or went on the lam, or did everything in their power to convince the military gatekeepers that they were pinko commies or homosexuals or otherwise unfit for service. Those were the options. You went when your number came up, you tried to get a student deferment, you applied for objector status, or you left for Canada, or you tried to go on the run in the US, or you used deception to get booted out of the system.

Sherman went through all the legal channels to apply for objector status because he wanted to be honest, because he believed that stating his convictions clearly and unambiguously and within the legal framework was the honorable way to go. It would seem that honesty is not always the wisest strategy to get what you want. At the very least, Ben Sherman will never be known as a liar.

It's an open question whether the same can be said for Mr. Sherman's government.

 Why did we wage war against Vietnam? You could fill a library with the books that have been written attempting to answer this question. To fight communism? To counter the Domino Effect? To prop up a massive military industrial complex with an excuse to crank up the arms factories? Maybe it has something to do with who shot JFK if you're a conspiracy fruitcake.

Let's keep things simple: did Vietnam ever pose a true strategic threat to the United States? No. Could they have ever invaded our shores? No. So why did we go to war over there? I know of no sane answer. And, no, I'm not a conspiracy theorist, but I can sympathize with those that see far-reaching plots and schemes behind all the folly and bloodshed. I can understand why so many Americans came to lose faith in their government. Considering our early 21st century invasion of Iraq, and the open-ended War on Terror, we seem hell-bent on reenacting the same mistakes over and over again, on a geometrically expanding scale. Vietnam was a matter of invading just one country. Now we are committed to wars in Iraq and Afghanistan with no clear parameters for victory. Presumably, we are staying until we kill all the terrorists. This is probably neither possible, nor morally defensible when one factors in the inevitable destruction of civilian lives as collateral damage and the certain blood sacrifice of American and allied soldiers and contractors, but that doesn't stop dreamers from dreamin'.

But Sherman's book is no left-wing screed, I'm just bringing my own rants to the party. And even if you're a right-wing warmonger, there are plenty of reasons to read Sherman's book. The man writes vivid, no bullshit prose. Sherman includes many of the letters he received from the Army to document his ongoing status as a draftee, and his efforts to assert himself as a conscientious objector. He also includes personal letters exchanged with family and loved ones. All of this illustrates the kinds of words that he was confronted with, and what those words meant for someone who lived in the era of the Draft.

Sherman begins with a description of his first assignment as a medic: the body bags and the corpses that got stuffed into them. Sherman and the others on Graves Registration duty treated those dead soldiers with utmost care and respect, carefully brown bagging all the personal effects and belongings, and grooming the unkempt faces, to restore their dignity, and so that they got back to family and friends in as presentable a shape as possible. Sherman talks about the near unbearable smells, and plugging rectums with cotton balls.

Sherman begins with this description of Graves Registration duty, I believe, so that the reader knows right from the beginning that people get killed in a war. It's not Nintendo. It's not a game. When the decision is made to invade another nation with military personnel, people are going to die on a massive scale.

 Soldiers, no matter how well-trained, no matter how noble the cause, will be killed on the battlefield. They will not be coming back. Civilians will die. No matter how careful, no matter how grand the strategy on the part of military planners and leadership, unarmed non-combatants will be killed as a matter of course. Property and infrastructure will be obliterated, and whole populations will be displaced.

The costs are enormous both to the invader and the invaded. Politicians are fond of saying that there's no such thing as a free lunch when it comes time to do away with entitlement programs for the poor, but they never seem to apply the same logic to defense entitlements. Drawn out military engagements drain the coffers and do damage to the trust that citizens are willing to put into government institutions. Many soldiers come back traumatized by the experience of war to failing economies, scant job prospects, and inadequate health care.

The reality of what happened between the United States and Vietnam, once upon a time, is perhaps too grim  to face. It's better to marble it over with movies and books about heroic strategies, valorous sacrifice, and the might-a-beens: if only we'd used this strategy or that strategy, if only we'd cut off the food supplies by seizing the rice paddies, and what about nuclear weapons? My own father, a Vietnam veteran, perhaps insincerely, told me he thinks we should've used nuclear weapons in 'Nam. I say "perhaps insincerely" because I want to give him the benefit of the doubt. But, as nearly as I can tell, war has a capacity to distort people's sense of morality and decency. So maybe he meant it. Even if there were no serious plans by the leadership to do such a thing, and I don't think there were, the overall adventure left a lot of people feeling betrayed, angry, and disenchanted. Those that feel let down may harbor deep resentments and occasionally entertain ghoulish fantasies of retribution and victory.

But Sherman didn't let his experience with war cloud his judgement to such a degree. Instead, he decided to confront it as best he could by telling his story from his perspective. In a way, it's rather inspiring to know that someone could go through such things and still have a grasp on reality. Why don't guys like this run for elected office? Maybe we don't want that much reality.

Ben Sherman's website:

Radio Interview with Ben Sherman in two parts:

Part 1:

Part 2:

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