Minnesota corpsman: Struggling to come to terms with war's horrors

  • Updated: June 28, 2013 - 5:12 PM

An enemy in our midst?

Coming to terms with alleged Nazi

A potential Nazi war criminal living here in Minnesota was a surprise that raised hard questions along with the surprising news. (What should happen to him? How should he be treated?) The actions of the Nazis in general and the specifics of the atrocities many of them committed are an acknowledged evil — one that time has only slightly diminished in its cultural potency.

For me, while I am not at all ambiguous about calling murderous acts committed against unarmed civilians war crimes, I am less certain of what we as a society should do to the people who committed those acts.

As a 19-year-old, I was a Navy corpsman in a stateside hospital from 1975 to 1977. As such, I took care of men and women from all branches of the service, many of them having surgery to treat conditions from wounds received in Vietnam. I had mixed personal feelings about the war, but I had nothing but compassion, admiration and respect for those who served there. As a primary caregiver and a fellow serviceman, patients several times revealed to me awful things they had done to the civilians in Vietnam. While these revelations were disturbing at the time, over time, I put them aside. I really did not know how to deal with them. They were ugly stories, but the guys telling them looked a lot like me.

I recently read Nick Turse’s painstakingly researched book “Kill Anything That Moves,” in which he uses records from the Pentagon’s Vietnam War Crimes Working Group to allege more than 300 “massacres, murders, rapes, torture, assaults, mutilations and other atrocities that were substantiated by army investigators.”

The book brought back memories of the stories I was told and made them even more awful. And while I have never been a combatant, it has become my opinion that war dehumanizes people — the victims and the victimizers. Knowing this, and having met young men who actually killed women and children, makes me think that the difference between me and those soldiers was simply time and chance. Would I have been brave enough to not follow orders to “kill anything that moves?” I am glad that I never had to find out.

And so it is with that same feeling of relief that I am glad to not be one of those deciding Michael Karkoc’s fate. Justice requires that we be responsible for our actions. But while I am not personally guilty of Karkoc’s alleged transgressions, I would feel uneasy casting the first stone.

Rob Johnstone

The writer lives in Buffalo, Minn.

  • get related content delivered to your inbox

  • manage my email subscriptions

ADVERTISEMENT

  • about opinion

  • The Opinion section is produced by the Editorial Department to foster discussion about key issues. The Editorial Board represents the institutional voice of the Star Tribune and operates independently of the newsroom.

  • Submit a letter or commentary
Connect with twitterConnect with facebookConnect with Google+Connect with PinterestConnect with PinterestConnect with RssfeedConnect with email newsletters

ADVERTISEMENT

ADVERTISEMENT

ADVERTISEMENT

 
Close