Combat veterans tell us what we need to know about war

"Enough of the horror!"

Image Credit: Nancy Hill

harles Battle’s voice, gentle and soft, is little more than a whisper when he recalls his time at war. No visible scars give testimony to his tour in Vietnam, but when he talks about his combat experiences, his eyes glaze with tears. He pauses as another resident of the North Carolina veteran’s home in which he temporarily lives ambles past the picnic table where we talk.

“I saw so many awful things I can’t forget. I don’t want to burden you. Are you sure you want to know what war is?”

Battle was one of 65 participants in a photographic series I have worked on for more than three years in which I asked combat veterans and those who have worked with them a single question: “What should we know about war?” I asked each person to write a brief answer.

Some took months to put their response on paper as they struggled to answer the question. Every response came from a deep place in the heart and mind of the participant. Some spoke of the politics of war, others of personal experiences. Some looked back on their military service, still trying to make sense of their time in combat. Some have spent their lives protesting wars and advocating for peace when their time in the service ended.

I think of comforting Battle, telling him there’s no need to relive trauma. But I do need to hear his answer. We all do. Being ignorant of the horrors of war makes us complicit. And so I listen.

All of the project participants still grapple with events that changed them forever. Here are the things they want us to know.

Charles Battle
Vietnam veteran

Stay alive.

I saw one of my friends get blown up. He stepped on an anti-tank mine and it killed him. Half of his leg was in his boot. Another friend drove a Jeep into a pine tree. He had twin daughters he never saw. Then another one of his buddies is in a hospital in Raleigh. He killed a 12-year-old girl who came into camp strapped with dynamite. She was a suicide bomber. We all would have been killed. He was the only one with a heart to shoot her. It messed him up in the head and he’s in a mental hospital.

Fred Kempe
Air Force

War is the greatest evil in the world. It contains all other evils within it. The fact it is left to our youth is obscene.

Allen Hallmark

You should know first that war is a lie. Please read the book War is a Lie by David Swanson before enlisting in the military. The book is a thorough refutation of every major argument used to justify wars, drawing on evidence from numerous past wars, with a focus on those wars that have been defended as just and good. Recruiters start the lying because they have to meet the quotas. I was lied to by my recruiter and the lying by drill instructors, officers, and NCOs continued throughout my four years in the Army.

You should know that war is not a romantic adventure. You become part of a killing machine and are complicit in the killing of innocent civilians, the destruction of cities, the devastation of the environment even if you never pull a trigger or drop a bomb.

You should know that joining a service to straighten out your life and get money for college or vocational training quite possibly won’t work out that way. Thousands of soldiers and vets commit suicide every year, inflict violence on family members and are otherwise tormented by their experiences. It’s not worth it!

Roberto Casillas

War is what some countries use to help big businesses gain resources needed to make filthy amounts of money. War is also used to control and to further oppress the disenfranchised. War has not been about restoring freedom or peace to any other country. War has to end so we can unify and focus our energy on promoting peace.

Amelia M. McDanel

I think it is too simple to think of war in such large-scale terms. Wars are about governments and economies, to the detriment of individuals. Even when you feel like you are doing the right thing, for the right reasons, the truth is people are dying. That has to be the most important thing. People are dying and people are killing and cities are being leveled. No one is safe from the devastation. I joined the service as a young person thinking I was among the best of the best. But we are all just people trying to get by. Though I was never in direct combat, my service was not without consequences. As a woman, I’m not sure that was ever possible. It’s also not possible for me to say if it was worth it. Fifteen years later, I still don’t.

William H. Woods Jr.
Army sergeant first class, retired

I served in the military during the Vietnam War, Iraq War, and the Persian Gulf War. Although I never engaged in combat, I served with trained personnel who did. I had the honor to associate with soldiers who came back from Vietnam and listened to the horrors of what it was like. Likewise some of the fellow soldiers I associated with who went to Vietnam were killed. Iraq and the Persian Gulf some of the troops whom I personally trained went to those places some of whom never came back, some who came back injured and some who lost families, and some who suffered mental problems.

People think that if you never engaged in combat that you didn’t suffer, but if you lived with or worked with buddies, friends, or comrades, or loved ones, you will feel a lot of pain even though you were never engaged in a combat zone. War affects everybody.

Letty Martinez

War breaks us. It detaches us from our core humanity. War removes us from ourselves and programs us to find enemies in anyone or anything that is unfamiliar. It robs us of our humanity and empathy. War poisons our hearts, minds, and spirits. It reduces us to cold shells – unfeeling, unloving – of ourselves first and then other others, and back around. We can break that cycle though. The opposite of war is creation, nurturing, and healing. When we do our work to slow down, feel, and see ourselves in others, we can end wars. But we all have to do it. We all have to do the work to end wars.

Harvey L. Thorstad
Navy, commander

War is for the corporate elite for their exploitation of other countries. Look beyond the noble propaganda of our politicians to the real motives for war.

James Toler

War is not the answer to peace or happiness. Once you enter into war, there is no returning to normalcy. Your life will change forever, and your innocence will be lost.

Michelle Fusco
Air Force, retired

War is a never-ending evil. It puts money in the pockets of politicians and the companies that produce the items to supply the war machine. War is not a video game; it is not an adventure. Bullets and bombs kill and maim. I have never shot my weapon in order to kill, but I have carried bodies off planes, bodies in transfer cases, body bags, and buckets. “War is not healthy for children or other living things.”

Mike Hastie
Army, medic

You do not bring the enemy to the peace table by just killing military combatants. You ultimately bring the enemy to the peace table by killing innocent civilians. They are military targets. The primary goal of the aggressor nation is to break the spirit of the people, and its ability to defend its homeland. This strategy is as old as warfare itself.

Nathan Fritog

War is reality. War is at times beautiful, heartbreaking, and messy. It is filled with love, hate, peace, desperation, and overwhelming sadness. There is no cause for these recent wars except to put money in politicians pockets. If history shows us anything, it’s that it’s violent. Maybe we should try something different.

Tammy D.

It may be reasonable to argue points of justification for war. The sacrifices may be necessary. The commitment to serve one’s country is certainly a most honorable way to live. Any of these tangible, logical, socially acceptable conversations that have been spoken (and unspoken) over the decades and centuries are not actually the most important things to know about war. What is most important to know (and honor) is that when war occurs, the energy of that war, the effects of that war, the hells of that war, ripple through our soldiers, their families, their generations of families, their towns and cities, their places of future employment, their governments. Even when human memory fails, the universal energy of war remains. War is man-made hell, regardless of the intention.

Larry Kerschner

The first man I killed was small and
Hidden in the tall grass.
Being a killer forever changes you.
Even if you learn to be kind and considerate and civilized
that part of you is always
hiding down inside
awaiting a chance.
A normal person does not want to kill and
will avoid it at all costs.
The military won’t allow you to remain normal.
It doesn’t matter if you think
you are smart enough
not to get caught up in their lies.
They will change you.
Don’t be sucked into the biggest myth and lie
that dying for your country is somehow heroic.

Edward Tick
PTSD psychotherapist for veterans since 1970

Military service and warfare change us forever. Combat is more unspeakably horrible than anyone can imagine. Its “glory” is all sham. Service brings out the best and the worst in human beings. War is indeed hell on Earth. Once the inner warrior is awakened, she/he will never become dormant again, and we must evolve into a higher spiritual identity. There can be homecoming and healing, but it is a long, slow, difficult road home. This is a 5,000-year-old story that we all must serve and transform.

Francessca Lee

The wounds a military person suffers are not always seen by the outside world. The pain inside is not always revealed. We as a country have never really counted the damage war leaves behind. It’s not just on the battlefield. This pain is carried back home to the wives, husbands, and children, parents, and siblings. PTSD and depression affects everyone connected but is just beginning to be understood. Everybody deals with stress differently, and it leaves loved ones feeling helpless. It can lay dormant for decades and surface from stimulation from any of the five senses.

Napoleon Hodgers
Marines, sergeant

I find no glory in war. In wars, people die. Unfortunately, there will always be those who are strong, that prey on the weak. And it is necessary for others to take up their defense. This is the world that we live in. However war—simply for the sake of conquest—is wrong. There is no honor in these actions. Protecting your family, your loved ones, your country—and those who cannot protect themselves—brings honor in this life and what follows, when we stand before the creator and are judged for the life that we have led.


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