A lot of novels are about war, and many history books cover war too. As writers we need to understand war and our attraction to it, but can it really be understood without being in one?
I recently watched a harrowing documentary about Vietnam titled First Kill. There are some graphic images here, and some unpleasant truths, yet it's one of the most important documentaries I've ever seen and I highly recommend it.
"If war were hell, and that was all there was to the experience. . .I don't think people would continue to make war," says Michael Herr, former war correspondent and screenwriter of Apocalypse Now and Full Metal Jacket.
The several veterans interviewed in this documentary seem to agree. While they all admit to fear, they all seem to have enjoyed it to a certain extent. There's a certain lure to sanctioned killing that pulls people and whole societies into fighting again and again. Few show much regret even when they reminisce about killing children or taking Vietcong ears as trophies.
Intercut with the interviews are images of tourists, most of whom had probably never heard a shot fired in anger, visiting the Vietcong tunnels and American torture chambers. Their fascinated faces are a strange contrast to the haggard looks of some of the veterans, yet the veterans talk about their experiences as a sort of peak experience, when all their senses were at their highest level.
"One does not have to learn how to survive in a jungle, those things is already there," says one veteran, who says that not only did his sight and hearing become more acute, but he developed a sixth sense for danger and a heightened libido.
"Everything is full throttle," he says.
Kerr says, "It can't be an accident that the bloodiest century in history was also the century of the movie camera. I've heard for years that pathetic claim by television journalists that because it was on the news every night that they were responsible for shortening the war. My feeling is that they were actually instrumental in prolonging it."
A telling exchange comes near the end. As one of the veterans arranges a small pile of pills with a trembling hand, he says he wishes the government would send him back to Vietnam.
"Why?" the interviewer asks.
"I miss it," he says.
Photo of Vietnamese prisoners courtesy U.S. Army.