Need not battle to understand war horrors

When I heard the song  “Still in Saigon” the other day, I could have sworn a Vietnam veteran had written about his flashbacks and a need to process what was unprocessed as a young man.

Little did I know that the writer never set foot in Southeast Asia, let alone serve in the military. That got me wondering about the performing arts and how someone who never experienced war could capture its long-term effects on those who faced combat.

The song was written in 1981 and made popular a year later when performed by the Charlie Daniels Band. The songwriter, Dan Daley, was a journalist and author who generally wrote about the music industry. His protagonist soldier in this song recalls the war during the summer months when it rains, and when he hears certain aircraft flying nearby, despite having been discharged from the military and served in Vietnam 10 years earlier.

I took notice of the lyrics because I, too, left in 1971. But my flashbacks did not reach a crescendo until some 25 years later, when I sought help for “anger management,” and years later for the correct diagnosis, PTSD (post-traumatic stress [I’ve dropped the term disorder because of the stigma attached to it].)

The song captures the feeling many veterans experienced when settling back into civilian life. They live in the world “back home,” but are still in the war zone when certain triggering events and stressful circumstances flare up.

Actor Gregory Peck, who was honored this week by President Barack Obama for his portrayal 50 years ago of Atticus Finch in the movie To Kill a Mockingbird, captures a wounded soldier’s true mindset while earlier performing as a television adman in The Man in the Grey Flannel Suit. The movie depicts an up-and-coming operative whose thoughts often drifted back to Italy 10 years earlier and the war he and his generation had fought in, World War II.

Not all flashbacks were bad, particularly those of the girl he met and left behind in the war-torn country. (He later learns of the child their relationship had resulted in.) Unfortunately, his mind also dredges up incidents from combat, and he finds himself needing to deal with experiences not fully processed back home in peacetime. The war’s aftermath affects not only him but also his family, who struggles to understand how the young man (or boy in the Vietnam War case) had changed into someone at times  unrecognizable.

Singer/songwriter Bobby Darin presented us with the essence of war in the movie Captain Newman, M.D.  The  1960s creator of the songs “Splish Splash” and “Mack the Knife” was nominated for an Academy Award for portraying a serviceman in World War II who watched his entire aircraft crew die when their plane was hit, and he survived. He’s admitted to a military hospital where he’s treated for something previous generations had called “shell shock” and “battle fatigue,” terms used before medical professionals in 1981 formally recognized it as post-traumatic stress.

Darin fights images of nightmares projected from his subconscious. He cries out, swings at invisible enemies, and wishes he could have died along with the others. In time, he appears cured in the movie, and is sent back into battle, only to have his death wish granted.

By the way, neither Darin nor Peck, who played Dr. Newman, ever fought in war. But each understood it and helped non-combatants see its long-term effects. There really are no winners in most, if not all, wars. Ask those who are “Still in Baghdad.”

4 comments on “Need not battle to understand war horrors

  1. bob palumbo says:

    mike still digging on bobby darin i see. found a letter the other day you sent me Easter sunday of 71 you had a “free (calley) stamp on it that i found amusing. i still tell the story of our triple date, me you and carl disler somewhere near fort polk glad to see your doing well. lumbo


    • contoveros says:

      Nineteen Seventy One! What a year and what a memory.

      Throw in a “Free Calley” stamp to boot. Little did we know then about what actually had transpired in the 23rd Division known as the “Americal.” The killing of 17 innocent Afghanastan civilians by a rogue US sergeant palls in comparison.

      Let’s not forget Fort Polk, Louisiana, which some called the “armpit of the army.” It was a jumping off point for me to Vietnam and for Carl Disler to return to the states.

      You had already served one tour there and got shrapnel that you carried with you the next, I don’t know, 30 years or so?

      Why were we among the only few drafted? There were many others in our old neighborhood, but how did those in our age bracket avoid it? In a way, I feel sorry for them. They may just have missed out on one of the greatest experiences life could ever teach us about truly living.

      Along with Bobby Darin who truly lived the short 30-some odd years he was with us. I have written four articles about him — my teenage idol — including this one . . .

      Good to hear from you Bob.

      See you around soon!

      michael j contos


  2. Raven says:

    Contoveros (what does that word mean?), I, a 65 year old women who has definitely not been to war can tell you that I have felt what many have felt while at war. In western society we are taught “not” to feel. It is sissified … to feel that is. But it is only when one can feel, that we can develop true compassion for others. And I mean feel deeply.

    So much of who we are is about what we can feel. With me it was a sort ask and you shall receive. When we are willing to give up our own feelings and receive the feelings of others is the time when we truly can learn of others and develop compassion and empathy. I know that we have spoken of this before. This was a really good piece. I hope that it gets a wide readership and that people have one of those “ah hah” moments when they read it.


    • contoveros says:

      My dear Raven,

      Contoveros” was the name my father brought with him from Greece until it got shortened to “Contos” by workers in Ellis Island, NY. (Or was it NJ?)
      It has been translated by some to mean “Singer” or “Teller” of “Truth.”

      I heard somewhere that one percent of the population are empathetic by nature. Only one percent of those act upon their empathy by performing random acts of kindness and compassion. I see you are among them and can not only “feel” the hardships and sufferings of others, but do something about it in your daily life.

      Thanks for your understanding and your active support of all veterans.

      michael j


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