By Ord Elliott
The U.S. military invaded Afghanistan in 2001 and has been there ever since; in fact, the government started and ended another long and costly campaign in Iraq within that period. All the fighting, dying, loss of limbs, family absences, stress and resulting post-traumatic stress disorder, alcoholism, homelessness and suicide have been experienced by less than 1 percent of the population – combat veterans.
“Everyone says they can only imagine the hell of war, and it’s true; if you haven’t been in combat, you just don’t know what it is like,” says Ord Elliott, a former platoon commander with the Marines and author of The Warrior’s Silence (www.ordelliott.com). The memoir, written over several decades, recounts the transformative experience of combat in Vietnam and how it informed his emerging understanding of war as a young man.
“The problem has gotten worse because the number of active-duty veterans in the U.S. Congress has been declining for nearly four decades,” Elliott says. “This year’s 113th Congress will have the fewest since World War II – just 19 percent of the 535 House and Senate members.”
Elliott says he had no particular purpose in mind when he wrote down his memories and impressions of war, and the pages sat in the back of my closet for years – until the drums of war started up once again for the Middle East.
“I knew more young people would be used as cannon fodder for an unnecessary war, voted on by old politicians with nothing to lose. That’s when I knew my writing could be used for something.”
Much of his reader feedback addresses the apparent indifference by politicians to the suffering that will be endured by troops when the nation goes to war, says Elliott, a Princeton graduate. He says many feel thatThe Warrior’s Silence – in the tradition of Karl Marlantes’ Matterhorn and Norman Mailer’s The Naked and the Dead – should be required reading for any politician pushing for a war vote. Several passages in Elliott’s book detail the heavy toll of war:
• Resentment & anger: As a platoon commander, Elliott participated heavily in “the numbers game,” which was the attempt to count the dead and wounded on both sides. “It became a far more fictional than real method of accounting,” he says.Many times since then, Elliott has daydreamed about having Robert McNamara, the late Secretary of Defense who played a major role in the Vietnam War, run “point.” “I wanted the politicians and the generals and the colonels sitting back in Da Nang moving pins on a map – I wanted those bastards on my point,” he writes. “When you’re on point, you’re marching on the edge of annihilation, your last moment not a full breath away.”
• Depersonalizing humans: In Vietnam enemies were called “Gooks;” today, we fight “terrorists,”or even the more blatantly racist “rag-heads.” In addition to the many inane reasons given for the past several U.S. wars –which stay with vets as a nagging “why?” – embattled military personnel also carry with them the dangerous experience of having dehumanized people. “When you get back from combat, you know you’ve changed, but you don’t know exactly how,” he says.
• The good warrior: Dave Hackett, a friend of Elliott’s in Vietnam, was the company’s executive officer. “He was a good Marine who never questioned the war; he was a professional warrior who accepted the rules of the game he was in,” Elliott says. One night, the two shared coffee while Dave retold the adventures of a Native American hero, as portrayed in a western-novel series, in which the protagonist was finally killed. The storytelling turned out to be prophetic.The next day the company was ambushedand Dave died in the firefight trying to save other Marines.Today’s Marines are much like Dave, Elliott says. They are admirable in their willingness to charge into anything, and they are completely at the mercy of politicians’ votes.
• Insight: “My father fought in the Battle of the Bulge,” writes Catherine Webber, a former Oregon state senator. “Two years later, when I was only 6, he committed suicide. Ord’s insight into the warrior’s mind has helped me understand how what he endured could have trumped his love for me, my mother and my baby sisters. Had I known this 60 years ago, my life would have been much different. I have now finally found some closure and peace ….”
(Ord Elliott was a Marine Rifle Platoon Commander in Vietnam, and he is a Princeton graduate. He went on to build a successful career in management consulting. He is also the author of a book on organization design, The Future Is Fluid Form: Practical Steps for Designing Flat, Flexible Organizations.)