Skip to main content

Why are we still in 'Vietghanistan?'

By Scott Camil, Special to CNN
May 5, 2012 -- Updated 2223 GMT (0623 HKT)
Scott Camil pictured in a cemetery in Dai Loc, Vietnam in 1967
Scott Camil pictured in a cemetery in Dai Loc, Vietnam in 1967
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Scott Camil: Horror over soldiers defiling corpses avoids issue of our involvement in war
  • He says we teach kids to work out conflict, then teach soldiers to use violence in conflict
  • He says he too lost empathy in Vietnam; soldiers not to blame, warmongering leaders are
  • Camil: "Rules of war" a ridiculous notion. Why are we still in "Vietghanistan?"

Editor's note: Scott Camil is president of the Gainesville, Florida, chapter of Veterans for Peace, a veterans' organization that aims to raise awareness about the costs of war. He is a former sergeant in the U.S. Marine Corps and served four years in Vietnam; his decorations include two Purple Hearts, a Combat Action Ribbon, two Presidential Unit Citations and Good Conduct Medal.

(CNN) -- As a veteran of combat in Vietnam, I am often asked about current wars. Recently I have been asked about soldiers posing with corpses or urinating on corpses in Afghanistan. The "patriotic" media wants us to understand what it is like to be a soldier in war, not to condone the conduct but to ask "who are we to judge?" They want to know about rules of war: "Are there rules about taking pictures with dead bodies?"

When I see these pictures, I am not shocked. I have similar pictures from Vietnam. And I'm in them. Such pictures are part of our warrior culture. Not everyone takes them, but they are not in any way unusual.

Look at the famous photos from Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. The U.S. soldiers aren't looking over their shoulders. None of them appears worried about being caught doing something wrong. They all look comfortable, often smiling for the camera. This tells me that the behavior captured in the photographs was S.O.P. (standard operating procedure).

What I find most disconcerting is all this attention to what is done to these dead bodies and absolutely no question or curiosity about why they are dead in the first place. No questions about why U.S. troops are still in Afghanistan at all.

Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter and Facebook.com/cnnopinion

The idea of having "rules of war" assumes that there is a proper and civilized way to conduct warfare. I find the idea ludicrous. We teach our children to solve their problems without fighting, not by fighting according to rules. For the most part we practice what we preach.

Scott Camil
Scott Camil

The county I live in sued a city that wanted to build a cement plant. The county didn't want the pollution. A court ruled in favor of the city, and the county lived by the ruling. The county didn't send the sheriff's department in to kill some city residents.

Florida is suing Georgia for diverting too much water to Atlanta. Neither state is likely to call out the National Guard if it loses the case.

So why is it that when nations have disputes, we must accept that they will murder and maim each other's citizens? The conduct of soldiers in war is made up of violent behavior that is criminal behavior outside of war. War is when we allow our loved ones to murder and destroy and then wonder that they are so traumatized.

Misconduct hurts morale, Panetta warns troops

In Vietnam, I lost my first friend at a place known as Alpha North. It was my third week; it changed who I was forever. I realized then and there that my life and the lives of my friends were really at risk. We were in a place where it was the job of the people who lived there to kill us. There was no second chance, no time out. This was for real.

As was typical of our troops, I lost all empathy for the Vietnamese. They all looked the same, and I couldn't tell the ones who liked us from the ones that wanted us dead. As is also typical in such situations, I chose to err on the side of safety. "F*** the Vietnamese!" was my attitude. We all knew (or thought we knew) that the life of one Marine was worth more than the lives of all of the Vietnamese put together.

If we are going to talk about rules of war, it doesn't make sense to start with the soldiers and Marines who have been put into that situation. They will all tell you that the first rule is to stay alive. Most people, when asked to choose between obeying the rules, if they believe that harm or death will come to them and their loved ones, or breaking the rules, if they believe it will keep them and their loved ones safe, choose to break the rules. The question is hypothetical to most people, but not to a soldier in combat.

Instead, if we're going to talk about rules of war, we have to start with the powerful people who chose to put those soldiers there. The No.1 war crime is starting a war, because all other war crimes emanate from that first crime.

I have not been to Afghanistan, but there are some evident similarities between the war there and the war in Vietnam. Call it Vietghanistan. Both are wars of occupation. The people of both countries looked different from us, resulting in racial profiling. They are all suspects, a word that carries a suggestion of guilt.

Neither war has had an actual plan for winning.

When people ask me if we could have won the war in Vietnam, I say that I was taught that the duty of a Marine is to destroy the will of the enemy to resist the authority of the United States of America. The way a Marine performs that duty is to make the price of that resistance more than the enemy can afford.

Opinion: Don't demonize our troops

In Vietnam "Body Count" was the measure of success. I was told that if we killed 10 Vietnamese for every American, we would win. We more than met that goal without, of course, winning. But our rule was "might makes right" -- a philosophy that my father had taught me the United States had defeated in World War II. It seems to be alive and well.

In Afghanistan, the United States supposedly invaded to arrest one man. Last year we were told he'd been executed in Pakistan. What is the mission now?

My mental wounds are more painful than my physical wounds. The cream of my generation was wasted in the rice paddies of Vietnam. All of the sacrifices we made bought nothing but a black marble wall in Washington. It pains me greatly that my country did not learn from Vietnam that it should never again to waste its children on wars of choice, but instead use civilized nonviolent methods of conflict resolution.

Today my country perpetrates the same crimes against my children's generation. This is unbelievably hard for me to take.

Do we really believe that having rules on how we can murder each other in war makes the murdering clean, acceptable, and civilized behavior? If we developed rules for rape or slavery, would they be acceptable too? Should we bring back dueling and regulate individual murder? Why is murder on a large scale treated so differently from other outrages?

I am told that killing people in war isn't murder, because it is sanctioned by the government. This reminds me of former president Richard Nixon saying "when the president does it, that means that it is not illegal." In warfare, the overwhelming majority of those who suffer and are killed are civilians? Does calling them collateral damage really mitigate those losses and make them acceptable? Not to me.

What about the laws on our books that forbid war? The Kellogg-Briand Pact bans all war. The United Nations Charter legalizes two types of wars, neither of which matches most of our current wars. Our wars are neither defensive nor authorized by the U.N. Security Council. And the U.S. Constitution forbids wars not declared by Congress, which has not declared a war since 1941.

As long as we are willing to accept war as a legitimate means of conflict resolution, we must be willing to accept the facts that go with war. Mothers, fathers, aunts and uncles, grandparents and children will die and be maimed both physically and mentally. Some of them will be in uniform, but the majority of them will just be "collateral damage." Our family members will come home with physical, psychological, and behavioral problems.

We will continue to have military and VA hospitals with waiting lines.

Preparing for these wars means continuing to train our children to hurt and kill other humans. This involves a process of dehumanization that is in conflict with the training required to produce good citizens in a democratic society.

In my training at Parris Island, the citizen was taken out of me and I was rebuilt as a Marine. We had a prayer that we recited every night when we hit the rack:

"Another day in the Corps, Sir, for every day is a holiday and every meal is a feast. Pray for war. Pray for war. God bless the Marine Corps. Pray for war. God bless the Commandant. Pray for war. God bless the drill instructors of 353. Pray for war."

Are we really willing to continue to accept all of this?

My organization, Veterans For Peace, believes that our stories are our strength. We believe that by educating the public by relating our personal experiences, we can reveal the hard, ugly truth about war. Our collective experience has taught us that war is futile and immoral. We believe that it is abhorrent to think of human beings as "collateral damage," and we refuse to be silent as our government continues to pursue illegal, immoral wars of aggression. We believe that if the public really saw and understood the truth of war as we do -- they would end it.

As long as we continue to accept war as an acceptable means of conflict resolution, things will remain the same.

Work for peace.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Scott Camil.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 1425 GMT (2225 HKT)
The Occupy Central movement has already achieved much by bringing greater attention to Hong Kong's struggle for democracy, writes William Piekos.
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 1413 GMT (2213 HKT)
As Prime Minister Narendra Modi visits America, Madeleine Albright says a world roiled by conflict needs these two great democracies to commit to moving their partnership forward
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 1404 GMT (2204 HKT)
John Sutter: Lake Providence, Louisiana, is the parish seat of the "most unequal place in America." And until somewhat recently, the poor side of town was invisible on Google Street View.
September 29, 2014 -- Updated 1311 GMT (2111 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says in the run up to the 2016 election the party faces divisions on its approach to the U.S.'s place in the world
September 29, 2014 -- Updated 1419 GMT (2219 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says Common Core supporters can't devise a new set of standards and then fail to effectively sell it.
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 1329 GMT (2129 HKT)
Earlier this month, Kenyans commemorated the heinous attack on the Westgate Mall in Nairobi.
September 29, 2014 -- Updated 2057 GMT (0457 HKT)
David Wheeler says Colorado students are right to protest curriculum changes that downplays civil disobedience.
September 27, 2014 -- Updated 0158 GMT (0958 HKT)
Sally Kohn says when people click on hacked celebrity photos or ISIS videos, they are encouraging the bad guys.
September 26, 2014 -- Updated 1155 GMT (1955 HKT)
Loren Bunche says she walked by a homeless man every day and felt bad about it -- until one day she paused to get to know him
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 1332 GMT (2132 HKT)
ISIS grabs headlines on social media, but hateful speech is no match for moderate voices, says Nadia Oweidat.
September 29, 2014 -- Updated 1233 GMT (2033 HKT)
A new report counts jihadists fighting globally. The verdict? The threat isn't that big, says Peter Bergen.
September 23, 2014 -- Updated 2137 GMT (0537 HKT)
Ebola could become the biggest humanitarian disaster in a generation, writes former British Prime Minister Tony Blair
September 26, 2014 -- Updated 1658 GMT (0058 HKT)
ISIS has shocked the world. But will releasing videos of executions backfire? Four experts give their take.
September 26, 2014 -- Updated 1439 GMT (2239 HKT)
Eric Holder kicked off his stormy tenure as attorney general with a challenge to the public that set tone for six turbulent years as top law-enforcement officer.
September 26, 2014 -- Updated 1309 GMT (2109 HKT)
LZ Granderson says Obama was elected as a war-ending change agent, not a leader who would leave behind for his successor new engagement in Iraq and Syria. Is he as disappointed as the rest of us?
September 24, 2014 -- Updated 0910 GMT (1710 HKT)
Gayle Lemmon says the question now is how to translate all the high-profile feminizing into real gains for women
September 25, 2014 -- Updated 1900 GMT (0300 HKT)
John Sutter says the right is often stereotyped on climate change. But with 97% of climate scientists say humans are causing global warming, we all have to get together on this.
September 25, 2014 -- Updated 1257 GMT (2057 HKT)
Andrew Liepman and Philip Mudd: When we declare that we will defeat ISIS, what do we exactly mean?
September 26, 2014 -- Updated 2040 GMT (0440 HKT)
Thailand sex trafficking
Human trafficking is a multibillion dollar global industry. To beat it, we need to change mindsets, Cindy McCain says.
September 26, 2014 -- Updated 2242 GMT (0642 HKT)
The leaders of the GOP conferences say a Republican-led Senate could help solve America's problems.
September 25, 2014 -- Updated 1401 GMT (2201 HKT)
Nicholas Syrett says Wesleyan University's decision to make fraternities admit women will help curb rape culture.
September 25, 2014 -- Updated 1302 GMT (2102 HKT)
Mike Downey says New Yorkers may be overdoing it, but baseball will really miss Derek Jeter
September 29, 2014 -- Updated 1232 GMT (2032 HKT)
Quick: Which U.S. president has authorized wars of various kinds in seven Muslim countries?
September 24, 2014 -- Updated 1817 GMT (0217 HKT)
Women's issues should be considered front and center when assessing a society's path, says Zainab Salbi
September 23, 2014 -- Updated 1805 GMT (0205 HKT)
A catastrophe not making headlines like Ebola and ISIS: the astounding rate of child poverty in the world's richest country.
ADVERTISEMENT