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The People’s Bishop
Posted on May 7, 2012
By Chris Hedges
In connecting events old and new, at times the bishop drew on language from his writings. “It was pretty much the same route, only in reverse from the route we marched on Tuesday night. It seems to me emblematic of the errant course taken by our nation. I stopped on Tuesday to rest at the same spot I had rested as a marcher in 1985. I’m probably at the end of God’s list of coincidental places from which to be arrested: church property on December 17th and now the memorial for my fallen brothers and sisters on May 1st. But it all makes sense to me. The memory of my comrades from one time meets with the insistent truth of new comrades. That clarity conveyed hospitality of space. I felt required to pass this continuity on, so I ignored the police instructions to leave the park.”
I first learned Packard’s wartime story when I interviewed him for The New York Times a decade ago. He had been raised in a middle-class home in Long Island. He graduated from Hobart College in upstate New York, married, went to law school for a year and then heard ‘‘the hoofbeats of my draft board.” He enlisted in the Army during the Vietnam War and was sent, after basic training, to become an officer at Fort Benning, Ga.
‘‘I was not reflective about it,” he said. ‘‘I liked the outdoors, being part of a troop, being a body in a platoon. I liked that feeling of corporate identity. I figured I knew the lifestyle.”
It was 20 days after he arrived in Vietnam in 1969 that he led his first ambush. As he stood over the enemy bodies he viewed them with a disquieting lack of emotion.
‘‘In the war movies you see soldiers vomit after they kill for the first time,’’ he said. ‘‘I looked at those I had killed and knew it should have been overwhelming, but I felt only that I had accomplished my task. The Army trains you well to make you do extraordinary things under fire. There is no bravery on a battlefield.”
The cries of the wounded North Vietnamese or Viet Cong soldiers after an ambush had to be swiftly silenced so he and his men could avoid detection. Compassion was a luxury they could not afford.
‘‘I would throw area grenades at the wounded until they were dead,’’ he said. ‘‘I remember in one firefight killing a man who crawled toward me with his legs blown off. It was not pretty.’’
His first thought, once the shooting stopped—a thought he now finds strange—was how to tell others about the firefight. He began, in the minutes after an ambush ended, to give a coherency to the violence that took place around him, to make the chaos into a story, make it fit the movie running in his head.
He and his soldiers went through the pockets of the dead. Packard said he often found photographs, reminders that those he had killed had mothers, fathers, wives, children and lovers. The unit once discovered the picture of a young blond woman on a body, most likely taken from an American the North Vietnamese soldier had killed in an earlier firefight. Packard would collect the pictures he found on the bodies after each firefight and make a little pile on the ground.
‘‘I burned the pictures I found, although no one in my platoon saw me do this, because I felt that I had in my possession tokens of the lives of those I had killed,’’ he said. ‘‘I held in my hands something precious, something ultimate that I had taken away from another human being. I have often thought about trying to find the girlfriends or the parents of those I killed and write to say I was sorry.’’
Packard was a tiny cog in the great wheel of industrial slaughter unleashed by the United States in Vietnam. Villages were put to flame. Water buffaloes were shot for sport. Civilians were machine-gunned from the air. Grenades were tossed down tunnels where often women and children huddled in fear. Second lieutenants called in airstrikes and artillery rounds that turned thatched-roofed villages into infernos. The American military held the power to give or take human life. And with this power Packard and those around him became sick and demented. The world was turned upside down. Life was reduced to a vortex of pain or fleeting ecstasy. Human life was cheap. The gratification of the moment was the overriding impulse. Killing. Dope. Bar girls. Lies. It was all the same package of deceit and manipulation.
Packard spent a year as an Army lieutenant leading platoons. He and his men killed in each encounter from 12 to 15 North Vietnamese, Viet Cong or perhaps Chinese mercenaries. They did it clinically. He said he stopped counting how many young men and boys he killed.
‘‘But with about 30 ambushes and firefights you can do the math,’’ he said.
There was a part of him that liked to kill, that sought out the high of combat. War was at once revolting and deeply seductive.
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