Soul singer Edwin Starr asked this question in 1970, and I’ve spent numerous hours since pondering that query from the skewed perspective of a son of a loved and respected father, who lost a limb in World War II, and as an Air Force officer, who successfully claimed Conscientious Objector status in 1974.
The question raised new pangs of conscience after I read about U.S. Army Sgt. Jonathan Warren in this past Sunday’s LA Times (latimes.com/sgtwarren). Warren grew up in the same city and attended the same high school as my sons, which evoked a “but-for-the-sake-of” thought as I digested his story.
In a nutshell, Warren—at the time a corporal with a sergeant’s duties—took the command seat in a lead Humvee of a five-truck convoy on Nov. 25, 2006. His best friend, Scott Stephenson, huddled directly behind Warren. When the patrol became lost somewhere south of Baghdad, the commanding lieutenant radioed Warren and told him to take a right turn on to a narrow dirt road that ran adjacent to a canal. The front wheels of Warren’s Humvee cleared the IED before the ensuing explosion ripped the truck apart with the principal impact hitting right under Stephenson, spraying him with diesel from the truck and propane from the homemade bomb.
Warren, who grew up with a set of ethics that drove him to serve, escaped the ensuing conflagration; then turned back in an attempt to rescue his friend. The heat was so intense that Warren had to back away. Once Stephenson freed himself, he raced toward the canal, but Warren likely saved his life by convincing Stephenson to drop and roll.
Although Stephenson survived the ordeal, Warren continues to blame himself for not pulling his friend from the Humvee and giving up when he couldn’t knock down the flame that continued to scorch Stephenson.
For the last seven years, Warren has stumbled through life; a drunk, doped, lost soul unable to live with self-perceived failure and cowardice. He recently discovered a pilot program that may guide him from his darkness.
Warren’s story reminded me of my father’s trauma—inflicted on a 19-year-old medic who had survived storming the beach on D-Day only to become a victim two months later to a German bombing run over St. Lo. My father’s generation only knew to be stoic and, even if these warriors had recognized symptoms of PTSD in themselves, no programs existed to treat them.
Still a kid in a man’s body, my father—previously an avid athlete—spent months recuperating physically and mentally; then he returned home, married my mother, and made his way through life without a complaint about being maimed. He became a nationally recognized weight trainer and played third base for the Amputees, a team of physically challenged that competed against full-bodied foes.
In college, I volunteered for Air Force ROTC out of respect for my father and a sense of duty. By the end of my freshman year, I realized that I did not belong in the military. As a scholarship recipient, however, I was bound to my commitment even though I was willing to refund the financial aid I had received.
So, I tried to do what my father did before me and commit myself—as he and Warren had—to serving my country. Before I officially claimed CO status, I spoke with my father about my conflicted state, because I did not want my intended action to imply that I didn’t respect him, his sacrifice, or his ethics. Like only a father and a war hero could, he gave his full support.
Today, when I read stories like Jonathan Warren’s, I become conflicted again. I want to honor the selfless sacrifice and commitment men and women like Warren and Stephenson make, yet I cannot countenance war, which brings so much devastation while rarely achieving its stated goal.
Although, as it turns out, Peter Arnett apparently made up a famous quote from the Vietnam era, a paraphrase of Arnett’s creation, converted to a question, reimages Edwin Starr’s hit song:
Why must we destroy the village, the people within them, and our young brave men and women in order to save them?
Photo of Jonathan Warren by Rick Loomis, Los Angeles Times