Friday, May 28, 2010

Marine Lt. Alan Kroboth's POW Experience, and Pat Conroy's Man In The Mirror Realization

While I struggle to write a fitting Memorial Day post for the sacrifices and valor of the Marines 3rd LAR, Delta Company, White Platoon, there are stories of other wars in other places where American citizens took up arms for the cause of Liberty and saved our world, by doing their part when the time came.

People deserve to be free in their own countries. They should not have to come to the USA for those unalienable rights with which they are endowed by their Creator, but should be given whatever help we can offer that they obtain a government in their own land that derives its just powers from the consent of the governed.

This was true in The Great War, it was true in World War II, it was true in the Korean War, it was true in the Vietnam War, it was true in Desert Storm, it is true in Iraq and Afghanistan. For citizens of a country that since its founding has continually championed individual liberty, the idea of abandoning others to their fate is intolerable.

In each of these, some in America marched against US involvement in the conflict. The shouting can obscure the ugly details and shocking conditions that led to war. Examples of these conditions are often found in how prisoners and prisoners of war are treated.

Opposition may arise from an unrealistic but sincere wish that diplomacy can prevent totalitarianism, a protective reaction from mothers, a way of rebelling for youth, an eagerness to follow a fashionable trend.

Pat Conroy discovered it can also arise from plain, unrecognized cowardice.

The son of a much decorated Marine, Colonel Donald Conroy, Pat Conroy is a writer whose novels set in the South Carolina low country, such as The Water is Wide and The Great Santini, have been made into acclaimed movies. His parents groomed him for a life of military service, although his temperament was not suited to this discipline, and he rebelled. He joined the Peace Corps instead of the Marines. He helped organize an anti-war protest. His acts of rebellion were sincere, small, and harmless - it was his talent for building a story around them to support his own point of view that led to his fame.

Some years ago, he interviewed former classmates from The Citadel in preparation for his book "My Losing Season". One of those was Marine Lt. Alan Kroboth, who in 1972 was shot down in Vietnam and spent the next 9 months as a prisoner of war. Conrad shares Kroboth's true, unvarnished story in his essay "An Honest Confession of an American Coward":

"....When Al awoke, he couldn't move. A Viet Cong soldier held an AK-47 to his head. His back and his neck were broken, and he had shattered his left scapula in the fall. When he was well enough to get to his feet (he still can't recall how much time had passed), two armed Viet Cong led Al from the jungles of South Vietnam to a prison in Hanoi.

"The journey took three months. Al Kroboth walked barefooted through the most impassable terrain in Vietnam, and he did it sometimes in the dead of night. He bathed when it rained, and he slept in bomb craters with his two Viet Cong captors.

"As they moved farther north, infections began to erupt on his body, and his legs were covered with leeches picked up while crossing the rice paddies.

"...In the meantime, Al and his captors had finally arrived in the North, and the Viet Cong traded him to North Vietnamese soldiers for the final leg of the trip to Hanoi.

"Many times when they stopped to rest for the night, the local villagers tried to kill him. His captors wired his hands behind his back at night, so he trained himself to sleep in the center of huts when the villagers began sticking knives and bayonets into the thin walls.

"Following the U.S. air raids, old women would come into the huts to excrete on him and yank out hunks of his hair.

"After the nightmare journey of his walk north, Al was relieved when his guards finally delivered him to the POW camp in Hanoi and the cell door locked behind him.

"It was at the camp that Al began to die. He threw up every meal he ate and before long was misidentified as the oldest American soldier in the prison because his appearance was so gaunt and skeletal. But the extraordinary camaraderie among fellow prisoners that sprang up in all the POW camps caught fire in Al, and did so in time to save his life.

"When he told me about the C-141 landing in Hanoi to pick up the prisoners, Al said he felt no emotion, none at all, until he saw the giant American flag painted on the plane's tail. I stopped writing as Al wept over the memory of that flag on that plane, on that morning, during that time in the life of America.

"It was that same long night, after listening to Al's story, that I began to make judgments about how I had conducted myself during the Vietnam War. "

The interview caused Conrad to reappraise his long-held assumptions about his own self. He blurts out "I now revere words like democracy, freedom, the right to vote, and the grandeur of the extraordinary vision of the founding fathers. "

The essay is well-represented on the net. it is not long, and if you have only time to read one thing today, it would be well to read it all.

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