The VigilanceVoice

July 8, 2002—Ground Zero Plus 299
War Is Hell--Literally--
But Vigilant Phone Calls: A Step In The Right Direction

Cliff McKenzie
Editor, New York City Combat Correspondent News

GROUND ZERO, New York City, July 8--This isn't a pleasant story.  No war story is.  War is about uprooting Hell.  It's about digging into the bowels of Hell and trying not to gag over its stench.  But there is hope.  A phone call can be the beginning to an end of war's Terrorism.

      My guts wrenched this morning as I read a descriptive story in the New York Times of the carnage resulting from an attack on the village of Kakrak in Afghanistan.   Faulty intelligence claimed the village had fired upon American planes and in retaliation a bombing raid, followed by ground troops, decimated the village.
      There were no anti-aircraft guns at the village--just the bloodied body parts of women and children and older men celebrating a wedding.   The villagers had been sitting on the roof of a building, enjoying the cool air when an AC-130 gunship tore them apart with canon fire, killing 48 and wounding 117.
      At dawn American and Afghan troops rushed into the village, expecting to find the "enemy."  Instead, they found pools of blood where young children had been killed, and saw parts of bodies hanging in olive trees where they had been blown by the force of the attack.

    Afghan mother
             Afghan boys

      American officials apologized for the mistake.  President Bush called President Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan to express his sympathy.
      The attack was against the home province of Taliban leader Mullah Muhammad Omar.  It was suspected an Afghan gave false information, a form of vendetta against the villages for being pro-Taliban.   An investigation is underway.
      What struck the core of my being was the description of the dead children by New York Times writer Carlotta Gall who was an eye witness to the slaughter.
       It took me back to scenes of blood and guts, buried deep in my own memory in another war that cost the lives of more than 1.5 million Vietnamese.
      I was a Marine Corps Combat Correspondent, charged with two responsibilities--fight and kill, then write and cry.    My first duty was to be a Marine, my second, a journalist.
     I had to switch on my blood-and-guts hat one minute, and when the smoke cleared, don the writer's cap and reflect on the horror of war and its cruel aftermath.    Obviously, I had to edit out the slaughters, and the pain, and the anguish of human lives being sacrificed, and replace those wounds with the glorification of war.  It wasn't an easy task.
     On one of my first of more than 100 combat operations during my tour in Vietnam, we shelled a village before assaulting it.  It wasn't unlike the village of Kakrak, a relatively primitive village, comprising grass hooch's and populated by rice farmers who wore no shoes, squatted as they talked, and spoke a language I could not understand.

  Serene Vietnamese village before the War

    As we swept through the shattered and torn village, ripped and smoldering from the mass of artillery shells used to "soften" the objective, we found no enemy.   Just women and children and old men, crying, weeping, wailing over the dead and wounded.
     The first victim I saw in war was a young child, no more than four or five.   It was sitting against a skinny tree, propped there by its mother who was looking for the child's head.   A piece of shrapnel had severed it.

     As we grew closer, rifles at the ready, not sure what to expect from the village, the woman screamed at us.   She reached down and grabbed her son's head from the dirt.  It was covered with flies and congealed blood.  She held it up above her frail arms, shouting at us.  Her blackened beetle-nut stained teeth made her look toothless as she ran toward us, cursing us in a universal language we didn't have to understand to know the message she was delivering.
     Then she ran back to the child's body and knelt next to it, placing the severed head on the torso, crying, wailing, as though by putting back in its proper place it might attach itself and bring back the life our artillery had taken.
     I remember kneeling down and raising my camera to take a picture of her and the dead child.  I remember putting my finger on the shutter release of my Nikonos, framing the horrible scene of a mother trying to resurrect her child's life, preening the child's face with her blood-soaked hands, kissing it.   She looked up at me.  I'll never forget her eyes.  They were full of hate and pain, confusion, anguish.
     I couldn't pull the shutter release back.   I froze.   It seemed she was pleading with me in the dead silence to not take the picture, to not soil the sadness and brutality already issued upon her.  Then she took her straw conically-shaped hat hanging on her back and placed it on the child's head so the face could not be seen.
     I didn't take the picture.   I didn't have to.  My mind took it.  My soul took it.
     I thought about that scene as I read the article on how the American forces rushed into the village expecting to find the "enemy" and only found the ugliness of human desecration.  I thought about those young men with rifles pointed and fingers itching on the trigger, expecting to engage the enemy in a fierce battle for glory and freedom, only to be met with blankets of children's blood, of old women crying over the bodies of their sons and daughters, of families ripped apart by a "mistake."

       To survive in war, one has to have a cast-iron stomach.   Scenes like those at Kakrak have been replayed in every war, in every conflict where human beings seek to kill other human beings.    There are no sidelines in war, no safe zones for the innocent.
      That is the sad commentary about war--it cannot exclude the innocent from its violence or protect them from the jaws of death.
      The village chiefs want the U.S. to notify them before any attack so the innocent can be removed from harm's way.   That will probably never happen.    Surprise is the key to military strategy.   However civilized it might be to let people know they are going to be attacked, the uncivilized way of war will prevail.   More children and innocents will be killed.
      Does this mean we shouldn't fight?  We shouldn't risk the tragedies that happened in Kakrak?    

          Goya's painting 'War is Hell'

     I can't answer that question.  It's ultimately a very deep and personal question.  I chose, in my youth, to fight for what I believed was the freedom of a people living under an oppressive, tyrannical state.    That belief carried me over the bowels of Hell, it kept my psyche from shattering whenever I saw the "innocent" maimed or butchered by errant shells, or the madness of war's bullets.
     Today, those memories of a time long ago haven't faded for me.   They are my driving force to promote Vigilance rather than Terrorism.   My big question isn't whether war is Hell--because it is--but rather, if people around the world stand up for Vigilance as they never have before, will war be reduced?
      I have to affirm the answer.   I have to believe if just one one- thousandth of a percent of destruction can be reduced by Vigilance Awareness, then whatever I'm doing will be worth everything I've done.
      Am I anti-war?
      No.   No matter how we try and whitewash the human being's character, there will be those who believe the oppression and tyranny of others is their right.  If there isn't a force to counter such Terrorism, then the bullies of the earth will take over.
     Last night, on Discovery Channel, I witnessed a phenomenal program called: Lions Battlefields.    It was all about how lions mark their territory, and hunt down their prey.   The producers used aerial shots similar to a military surveillance plane, with grid markings so the "enemy" could be seen by infra-red and heat sensors.
      From an eagle's eye view, you saw the lions creeping up and outflanking the Zebras.   You watched them ready for attack and then spring at the precise moment.

      Using heat sensors, the cameras showed the "territorial borders" of the primary or  'protector' lion.   He marked the area around his pride.  The cameras revealed a large area that no other male lion was to enter without fear of death, or, at the very least, a fierce battle.

      Nomad lions, the males who had to live outside the prime lion's territory, waited for a precise moment to attack the leader of the pride.   When they encroached upon the territory by crossing the border, the protector male rose to do battle.
      It was an awesome replay of how mankind and womankind set up their borders, and how willing they are to fight to the death for their territorial rights.
      When the Nomad lions attacked the primary male, the females helped their "husband" fight off the attackers.   New male lions who take over a pride kill all the cub lions so they can spawn their own.   The females were fighting for their children's lives.
      Nature is constantly at war.   The one thing I am reminded about by watching Discovery is that mankind and womankind have no edge on the commodity of violence.  Nature is full of it.   Truly, it is a dog-eat-dog world.
      But we, as human beings, allegedly have a higher calling.  We have been given the choice not to kill, where animals do it by nature's instinct.   

      Vigilance, ultimately, involves the evolution of our "natural" instincts to "kill."   I believe that Terrorism is our primal nature.   The Fear, Intimidation and Complacency that comprise Terrorism is the gift Nature gave us so we could survive a harsh world.   But Vigilance--the Courage, Conviction and Right Actions we learn to take through choice--are gifts from a Higher Power.
      This choice elevates us out of the jungles, converts us from dog-eat-dog, into compassionate beings, struggling to evolve beyond our primal natures.

     Mother Nature didn't pick up a phone and call the lionesses and apologize when the water buffalo attacked the pride--their mortal enemies--and crushed three of her  baby lions   Mother Nature doesn't cry or wail when a frog eats a bug, or when a python coils itself around a pig and crushes it to death.
     Mother Nature is kind of like Martha Stewart.   Everything is food.   Everything can be eaten.   The strongest survive.   The weak fall by the wayside.
     God, Jesus, Buddha, Mohammed, et al, don't send an "I'm so sorry messenger"  to soothe your heart after your child is crushed by an errant neighbor backing out of the driveway or is stricken by some rare disease.
      George Bush, whether you like him or not, whether you think he was politically motivated or whether he earnestly felt sorrow, picked up the phone and called the leader of another nation and globally apologized for the deaths of 48 people out of a total of 6 billion who claim space on this earth.

     Now, that's a sign of Vigilance.   Even amidst the horror of it all, mankind and womankind are struggling to evolve.   We're attempting to find the Courage, Conviction and take the Right Actions necessary to live under the Shield of Vigilance rather than the storm clouds of Terrorism.
     Maybe one day children and the innocent will be safe from war.
     That day can be brought a little closer if you and your friends and I take the Pledge of Vigilance today.


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