There are people in our community who thought they’d left their war experience behind them — whether it was Iraq, Vietnam, Korea, you name it — they thought it was well in their past. Some know better. After all this time, since Vietnam, after more than 40 years have passed, there are still men and women who pay regular visits to the local Veterans Administration Hospital as a result of their war experiences.
Some still have to deal with anger issues or issues of guilt — a local psychologist identifies a major syndrome as “survivor guilt.” Others are simply still seeing the sights they want desperately to leave behind.
One local former soldier found that his war came back to him in a physical way earlier this month. A former Army Ranger, he felt a bump in the back of his right shoulder that seemed to be growing. He let it go for weeks, he said, but finally it was large enough to be painful so he had to have it treated.
Surgeons at the local VA hospital — where veterans one and all will tell you they receive excellent medical care — performed an operation that found a pocket of infection had formed around a piece of shrapnel. That shrapnel was part of a cluster bomb — one of our own, the people who examined it believe.
That particular killing device hadn’t exploded when it was supposed to back in 1968. Instead, it waited for another soldier walking behind the shoulder-injury victim to step on it. That man lost his lower leg; the soldier from Louisville took a piece of metal to his back and shoulder — it marked the third time, as a matter of fact, that he’d been wounded.
So here we are, four decades or so removed from the end of the war, and it’s still having its effect both here and in countries such as Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia and other places in Southeast Asia.
You see, cluster bombs — which sometimes have as many as 2,000 “submunitions or bomblets” inside them, were used extensively in all of those places. Thousands of them, still unexploded, lie below the surface of the ground in the fighting fields of Asia. According to London’s Guardian newspaper earlier this year, the United States by itself dropped 260 million cluster bombs on Laos between 1964 and 1973, and about 80 million of them failed to explode.
Name a place of war, whether it’s in the aforementioned countries or in the Middle East, and you’ll find cluster bombs there to this day. In Vietnam, the United Nations has estimated that cluster bombs are still killing up to 300 people a year.
That’s why Pope Francis — and Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI before him — have praised the 108 nations that have signed the treaty banning the stockpiling and use of these anti-personnel weapons. And they are encouraging those 108 nations to persuade the nations that have refused to sign the treaty to reconsider their position.
Who are those nations, you might ask?
They are Russia, China and the United States. That doesn’t put us in very good company, does it?
Those nations, and the few others still making these weapons, sadden and discourage Pope Francis, he said recently. In fact, from what he said last month, they pretty much disgust him, too.
In his homily on Feb. 25, Pope Francis said he condemned “those who profit from such weapons, who ‘live large,’ lounging in their parlors while children in refugee camps starve” and still others are being killed.
“Think about the starving children in refugee camps,” the pope said. “Just think about that one thing. This is the fruit of war. And if you want, think about the huge parlors, the parties the owners of the arms industries throw, those who build these weapons” that end up where the children live.
According to the Catholic News Service, the pope then asked those gathered for the Mass to reflect on those two images he’d presented: “Think about the sick, starving child in the refugee camp and the huge parties, the ‘good life’ those who manufacture arms live.” The pope also urged those before him to “pray for peace that seems to have become just a word and nothing more,” and to mourn, lament and weep over the continuing loss of so many lives.
The United States government under the guidance of leaders both Republican and Democratic, has refused to alter its stance on cluster bombs. Apparently they are still considered a useful weapon, one that will inflict, according to an article at the Global Security website a few years ago, “maximum negative effect on the enemy.” They’re still having a “maximum negative effect” on a soldier in Louisville who has a hole in his back that doctors can’t seem to get to heal properly, after the remnant of that weapon took decades to work its way toward the surface.
Congressmen, senators and other government leaders should be urged to ask the U.S. to sign the anti-cluster bomb treaty. If you are known by the company you keep, then signing the treaty would certainly put us in better company.
Pope Francis also wants us to pray for peace, for war’s victims, and for better guidance for the nations who are so tempted to use the “tip of the spear” to get their way.
“We have become used to reading these things,” he said, referring to wars, battles and their effects. “It seems that the spirit of war has taken possession of us.”