“I hated being over there,” Ron Sitts said. He looked at his hands. Freckles and blond hair circled his knuckles. On his index finger a scarred-over, decades-old gash. Over six feet tall, he had a thin nose, large ears, deeply tanned skin, and a shock of silver-white hair. A man who was once a Kansas boy plowing his father’s fields; planting, cultivating, and harvesting barley, wheat, corn, and sorghum; mowing and baling alfalfa. He rocked gently, his slippers on the tiled floor. We were sitting in the house he had built in a small town in South-Central Colorado. “The massive destruction and human suffering caused a depression in me. I felt guilt that I was unharmed.” From the time I was eight years old until I left home at eighteen, I lived with Ron and my mother in New Jersey. At twelve, I was the best man at their wedding. They separated shortly after I left home but I have kept in close touch with Ron. His stories of flying a rescue helicopter over the Gulf of Tonkin in the late 1960s had kept me rapt at the dinner table when I lived with him, but this was the first time in years that he had spoken to me about the war.
“I felt guilt,” he went on, “that my job was to rescue, not to kill. I was prepared to do whatever I was ordered to do. Even if it was against my principles. Later I began to feel glad it wasn’t my job to kill.”
“I try to imagine,” I said, but I had other impressions of the war drumming in my brain—the Rolling Stones’ percussion in “Paint It Black” as fires burned in Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket, his film about Marine recruits who endure basic training and later face the Vietcong during the 1968 Tet Offensive. Sergeant Hartman tells his recruits the “free world will conquer Communism.” And here comes Nancy Sinatra singing “These Boots Are Made for Walkin.” Private Joker, played by a bespectacled Matthew Modine, wears a helmet bearing the words BORN TO KILL and a peace-symbol button on his uniform. He attempts to explain the contradictory emblems by saying he’s “trying to suggest something about the duality of man, the Jungian thing.” I try to forget Hollywood. Read More