Thursday, April 20, 2017

Bruce Richardson - Vietnam War Perspectives: From the Battlefields to Shakespeare’s Warrior King

Bruce Richardson is the project leader for the Minnesota Humanities Center’s Vietnam Veterans’ Voices project. He is a director of the St. Louis Park School Board, works with the Military Action Group in the Legislature, and is Chair of the West Point Student Leadership Seminar. He lives in St. Louis Park with his wife Audrey, and they have a brand new granddaughter.

In February 1969 I arrived in CuChi, Vietnam. It’s hard to believe that was almost half a century ago, but I was just a young soldier who happened to be one of the most highly trained warriors in the world. I was a U.S. Army Airborne, Ranger, artillery officer—and I thought I was tough. I was, however, also the closest thing West Point had to an English major at the time, and I loved Shakespeare.

One of my favorite plays was the history play, Henry V, written by William Shakespeare in 1599. After King Henry’s cousin complains that their men are outnumbered by the French (in 1415 they were—three or four to one.) Shakespeare’s Henry gives a rousing speech before the Battle of Agincourt. He explains why he fights: “If we are mark'd to die, we are enow. To do our country loss; and if to live, The fewer men, the greater share of honour. God's will! I pray thee, wish not one man more.”

Is it honorable to go to war? King Henry thought so, “But if it be a sin to covet honour, I am the most offending soul alive.” As cadets at West Point we discussed honor often. It is the centerpiece of the Military Academy’s motto, “Duty, Honor, Country.” Before I went to Vietnam, duty, honor, and country were all part of what I thought we fought for, but within a few seconds of our first contact with North Vietnamese soldiers, I quickly realized that we were fighting for each other. We fought for the guys in the squad, the platoon, and the company.

This change from fighting for our country to fighting for each other is not limited to men in combat. Army nurse Anne Simon Auger found herself building figurative walls to protect herself from the trauma of the war wounds of the troops she treated. As she told Keith Walker in her oral history, included in his book, A Piece of My Heart, “I got to realizing how vulnerable everybody was. And how vulnerable I was....every patient on that ward, when they left, took a piece of me with them.” I read her story when I was being trained for the “Echoes of War” project developed by the Minnesota Humanities Center, and I was amazed how an Army nurse could feel the same stress and pain and build the same walls as I had. When a North Vietnamese soldier attacked her, she realized that she was vulnerable to hate.

This feeling woke me up. I realized that I was not as tough as I thought I was. When one of my friends was killed in Vietnam, that hate became a reality for me. When I went to war, I was fighting for my country. Once I got there, I was fighting to protect my brothers. When my friend was killed, I started fighting for revenge. That motive is not healthy for any of us.

Shakespeare had King Henry continue to build on his soldiers’ relationships, “From this day to the ending of the world, But we in it shall be remembered; We few, we happy few, we band of brothers; For he to-day that sheds his blood with me, Shall be my brother….” Anne Auger’s story taught me that we are not just brothers—we are brothers and sisters. And trauma does not just impact combat Veterans—it hits us all, including our families.

The Humanities Center is doing its part to connect our communities, families, Veterans, and others through the humanities. We can all learn that war is not glorious. As Auger said, “I know I can’t forget those experiences, but I understand why I have them, and that they’re part of my life. I also know that I’m a better person, actually, for having lived them.”

Shakespeare said it too, “Then will he strip his sleeve and show his scars, And say ‘These wounds I had on Crispin's day.’ Old men forget; yet all shall be forgot, But he'll remember, with advantages, What feats he did that day… And gentlemen in England now a-bed Shall think themselves accursed they were not here.”

In February 1970, 364 days after I arrived, I left Vietnam a very different person. Today the hate and arrogance are gone, and I will do everything in my power to never let this happen again. And I am committed to help our brothers and sisters make the transition from warrior to civilian without the trauma we had to endure and many still do.

Learn more about the Humanities Center’s Echoes of War project and apply to become a Discussion Leader.

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