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Abigail B. Calkin

A Blog of Flashbacks

What Does Danger Close Mean?

October 2019

I took the first Danger Close workshop offered in Alaska. What does danger close mean? To a friend who is a Vietnam veteran, it means what the sign above his 1962 platoon barracks door said. “To close with and kill the enemy by any and all means available.” The Department of Defense definition says it means friendly forces are within close proximity of the enemy.

What interested me in a workshop titled Danger Close? I’m a writer and a willing learner. I was about to be part of a yearlong project researching suicide in the military. And yes, since I’m the wife of a multiple tour veteran, the military has been a part of my life for almost fifty years.

Matthew Komatsu was the originator and leader of the 2016 Danger Close workshop in Anchorage, Alaska. The question he posed ahead of time was: Do we have an obligation to read about war? Matt is a veteran and at the time was a grad student working on his MFA in creative writing and, all in all, a pretty casual fellow. That description belies his other persona, a serious writer and a lieutenant colonel in the Air National Guard. Not only did he outrank my husband, he’s also someone who turned his idea into the reality of a writing workshop for veterans, active duty present or past, and others with a military connection. Later, I saw a news release of him with his unit assisting in the aftermath of a Texas hurricane and more recently a picture of him and his wife looking very spiffy at a formal military event, the kinds of events my husband avoided. My husband probably thought he’d rather be back in Vietnam doing his duty than even in his Class A uniform. Yes, Matthew impressed me and this year, he leads his third Danger Close workshop.

Do we have an obligation to read about war?  We who? Wives, children, parents, veterans, or civilians? I can’t answer for veterans. As a civilian and wife of a soldier, I have an obligation to read about war. As a member of the twentieth and twenty-first century, I have an obligation to know history, current events, and the impact war has on society and culture.

I’ve read war literature from Homer to the present. I’ve read current research including cognitive behavior therapy and am involved in behavior analytic research primarily in the areas of suicide and post-traumatic stress disorder.

I know I’ll never comprehend the personal impact of being in a war zone—the 900-day siege of Leningrad, living in Syria in 2017 or the terror of being a wounded civilian in what we now call, politely and obliquely, collateral damage.

There’s not a pacifist country on this planet. As long as people continue to fight, all of us have an obligation to know and understand the rules and ramifications of small and large wars. Would we Americans repeatedly vote for war if each of us personally knew the impact it has on lives? Evidently, yes. Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, and G.H.W. Bush fought in wars; Ford was in World War II, but did not have a military conflict during his presidency. Those who did not serve in a war zone but were in the military were Carter and Reagan. Over 11% of US men and women were in World War II and everyone seemed to know someone who deployed. Today it is 1% of our population who serve. Many of us live in ignorance of the impact of being deployed or sitting at home waiting for the loved one to return.

Six months before the 2003 US invasion of Iraq, my husband and I listened to Scott Ritter, the chief weapons inspector for WMDs in Iraq in the 1990s. He was against the invasion because there were no WMDs left. My husband was against the invasion because “it’ll turn into another Vietnam and we’ll be there for ten years.” It’s now been over fifteen years since the US first sent troops to Afghanistan and Iraq. They were both right.

A friend read some of my poems and prose about being the wife of a soldier and veteran. Having always been an active war protester, she shuddered, felt horrified, and didn’t comprehend those who fought. Her eyes opened and she now sees people can neither ignore nor castigate those who fight. I think the reading of war literature is essential—Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, poems from World War veterans and writers, Van Winkle’s Soft Spots about his time in Iraq, Erich Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front, and E. B. Sledge’s With the Old Breed. Or watch the movie Conscientious Objector, the movie about Desmond Doss, the only medic and conscientious objector to receive the Medal of Honor. He refused to carry or fire a weapon in training or even on Okinawa.

My answer to whether we need to read about war is yes. Everyone in any country has an obligation to read about war. We need to remain informed beyond our daily lives. We need to be aware of the world even though we are no longer fighting in Europe, Korea, or Vietnam. Consider our borders. Canada lies to the north, Mexico to the south. The last war we had with one of them was almost 200 ago. The last war on our soil ended 155 years ago. We have no war to the east or west for fish populate those border territories. Other than island nations, we are unique in our lack of border conflicts.

What brought you to this blog post on war? I was surprised when I looked at my backstory. I thought I had no relationship to war, but I have many connections extending from the Revolutionary War to today. My father, grandfathers, and uncles did not go to World War I or II. Although in the military, my brother and brothers-in-law were never deployed. My father-in-law was a pilot in World War II. One of my closest friends was a flight engineer and POW. Ancestors were in the Revolution and historically known to be active. One of my father’s cousins was killed in World War I. In World War II, one cousin-in-law was killed and one came home. One day I met and fell in love with, then married a two-tour Vietnam veteran who deployed again to Desert Storm. He still expresses astonishment that when we met in 1970, I told him I’d never met anyone who’d been to Vietnam. My excuse is that I am a birthright a Quaker, lived in Scotland for two years of the Vietnam War, and worked full-time while in graduate school on return.

War may be about winning, but it is also about surviving. This was true thousands of years ago when people had to protect their food source, their villages, their walled cities, even their own families. As civilization progressed, however, the protection of life and food sources became more and more remote and the reasons why most conflicts and wars occurred grew far removed from the simplicity of daily life. Ten thousand years ago people scrapped, scraped, and fought for food. Today war is based on abstract principals of protection and thus camouflages a country’s desire for border expansion, economics, religion, or greed. No longer do we think war is about survival. We think we’re cultured and civilized and don’t need to fight, but war is about the survival of people, cultures, and civilization. There are many places in the world where fighting still occurs; it’s just far fewer of us who do it. All of us, each individual, each person alive needs to understand why war takes place and what happens to those who go. We need to recognize the feelings of those we send to battle, their and our feelings when they walk off the plane or ship. We need to know the residue when some come home in a box under a flag and others come home with PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) and drug or alcohol problems. For those reasons, we need to continue to read about war.

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