The Inescapable Redundancy of War by Mark Scheel at

The Inescapable Redundancy of War

The Inescapable Redundancy of War

written by: Mark Scheel


It was an unthinkable gambit I along with many had hoped against hope not to see, Putin’s Hitlerian invasion, under the flimsiest pretext, of the sovereignty of Ukraine. A flagrant act introducing the consequent and ongoing destruction, dislocation and carnage of so many innocents. Then the recent Hamas attack on Israel and the resulting retaliation in Gaza. For those of us who long ago saw war up close and personal, down in the mud and blood of it, those wanton scenes ring all too familiar—a wicked reprise from which humanity seems unable or unwilling to lose itself. It stirs the sleeping dogs within our collective consciousness to once again rise up and rip at our souls.
The year was 1970 when I was stationed with the American Red Cross in Bangkok, Thailand, following a six-month tour of duty with the Thai Panther Division in Vietnam and just prior to a new assignment in Germany. The Red Cross mission consisted in providing on-site humanitarian support to American military personnel deployed overseas—the communication link between the troops in the field and their families back home. And I was grateful to have emerged from the combat zone unscathed. Nevertheless, as I was coming to discover, one can leave the battlefield behind, but the war will always be with you. One afternoon there in Bangkok, quite unexpectedly, I experienced once again a vivid immersion in the violent sights and sounds of Vietnam.
It was my day off, comp time after having had the after-hours duty coverage the night before, and following lunch I’d leisurely repaired to the Officers’ Club bar in the Chao Phya Hotel to relax before catching an afternoon nap. As my eyes adjusted to the subdued lighting, I perceived the club was nearly empty, only one lone patron in civvies seated at the bar, and so I sauntered up and claimed a spot a stool away. As the Thai bartender poured my bourbon and Coke, I detected a glint off metal reflected in the bar mirror and quickly identified it as having come from the man seated at the bar, or rather, from a hook protruding from his right sleeve.
After a moment or two, we exchanged glances and perfunctory nods, and then one of us—I don’t remember which—offered a conversational starter with the standard “how’s it going?” And that initiated mutual introductions and some get-acquainted queries. It turned out he was a young medically retired Army vet residing in Spain and had hopped a military flight to Bangkok to sightsee. He was curious about what my Red Cross service entailed and where I’d been stationed in Vietnam. One topic led to another, and eventually he related in brutal detail about his wounding and the loss of his right hand.
He’d been a second lieutenant, a platoon leader, only in country a few weeks, when his unit underwent a nighttime assault by the NVR. He was at the forefront of the defense, M-16 in his left hand, a plastic flashlight in his right, directing return fire. Flares were up and the din of machine gun fire was deafening. Then all at once, an incoming mortar round burst just to his right, nearly on top of him. His helmet and flak jacket warded off most of the shrapnel to his head and torso, but his legs caught fragments and the flashlight shattered along with much of his right hand.
“I remember,” he said, “the surgeon working on me in the MUST area saying, ‘I’ll try to save as much of your hand as possible.’ But it was futile, not enough left. So, we decided to trade it for this.” He gestured with the steel hook, and exhibited a wry smile. And added, “This and a medical discharge, a disability check every month, and the complimentary privilege of hopping aboard a military flight anywhere in the world they fly on a space-available basis. Military standby. All courtesy of good old Uncle Sam.”
As he spoke in graphic descriptions about the night of his wounding, my own memories of other nights in Vietnam began flooding before my eyes. Playing poker with warrant officers in their hooch when a B-52 bombing strike not far away interrupted the game, shaking dirt down from the crossbeams like an earthquake. And, minutes later, a contact on the nearby berm, sounds of frantic shouting and 50-caliber tracer ricochets burning up into the sky like Roman candles. Another night when Thai guards had spotted a sapper crawling under the concertina wire in the mud cradling a charge and the next morning his boyish, bloody, naked body stretched out on the ground like a trophy coyote pelt displayed on a barbwire fence. The night a Thai ambush patrol had surprised a Viet Cong supply detail and killed all but one, me witnessing the later interrogation of the survivor—a black-cotton-clad, exhausted, dirt-smeared 14-year-old girl! Memories all tattooed onto the mind to the grave.
The young man beside me then spoke of some of the places he’d visited and the sights he’d seen—the Taj Mahal, Stonehenge, Hagia Sophia Mosque, on and on. I related to him about my pending transfer to Germany and my hope I might avail myself of seeing some of those same attractions in the coming months. He nodded and took out a matchbook from his shirt pocket, tore off the front cover and, procuring a pen from the bartender and pinning the cover to the bar with his hook, he wrote his name and address on the inside and handed it to me. “If you get down to Spain by chance,” he said, “look me up here and I’ll show you around Madrid.”
“I’ll certain do that,” I replied enthusiastically, and tucked the matchbook cover into my wallet.
At that point we finished our drinks, bid each other good-bye, and went our separate ways.
The impression he’d made with me hung in the back of my mind over the ensuing months. So on one occasion while on leave from my office in Wildflecken, Germany, and traveling by auto with a companion down through Spain, I did indeed attempt to reconnect with that young vet of the bar in the Chao Phya Hotel. We located a courtyard behind a row of shops above which an apartment matched the address he’d given me. But it was vacant. I queried an old man resting on a bench in the shade nearby, and surprisingly he spoke sufficient English to convey that, yes, he remembered the man we spoke of with the hook on his right arm. But he no longer resided there. And he didn’t know where he’d gone.
Well, I’d tried to make good on my intention, but a reunion was not to be. My companion and I moved on, just as the young vet had done, to some new location and perhaps to a new life. But he had left me pondering a philosophic question and one of balancing values.
My desire to become a writer, a novelist actually, had only deepened with the years. The opportunities that that expatriate vet possessed to vastly broaden one’s experiences, gain real-world perspective and accrue subject matter galore without financial concerns would be any aspiring writer’s dream. And the time, precious time, to devote to pursuing that cherished dream. However—would I give up my right hand to get it? And philosophically speaking, upon reflection, my answer would always have to be “never.” But the ultimate question, the one that eternally begs humanity for an answer, is quite simply, why should anyone have to do so? Especially those innocents caught in the crossfire. And why is this cycle of human tragedy, once more sadly playing out in Ukraine and Gaza, so recalcitrantly impossible to break?



An excerpt from a memoir-in-progress

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