Seeing The Elephant

By Bud Campbell


I have been around soldiers all my life. They ranged from the old Civil War vets (Yes there were Civil War Vets around when I was a kid!) who, so long ago, sat in Mobile Alabama's sunny Bienville Square swapping “war stories” while an adoring small boy sat at their feet, to my son who serves today. I listened to my father and his cronies tell of the “Great War” and to my brother, and those like him, who filled me with the stories of the air war over Europe. This is the type of oral history that seldom gets into print. I think the stories we tell here should become part of the written word. They reflect an aspect of that war, and perhaps all wars, which is seldom told except around a bar late at night with old friends who understand. Sherman said that war is hell, and indeed it is.

The Civil War veteran described being in combat as having “been to see the elephant." This came from an old Indian tale about three blind men who went to the zoo to see the elephant. One reached out and caught the elephant's trunk. To him it was plain to see that an elephant was much like a large snake. To the one who grabbed a stout leg it was obvious that an elephant was like a strong tree. The one who reached out and grabbed an ear exclaimed that it was obvious, even to a blind man, that an elephant was like a blanket. The wisdom of what those men were saying, as they described combat, and relativity long before Einstein, took me a long time to understand. I now know that they understood what every combat veteran since Caesar's legions has known. War is an intensely personal experience. What it is depends on where you viewed it from. It is also the most profound human experience of a lifetime, and for many it is the “15 minutes of fame” that Andy Warhol promised us all.

I have “been to see the elephant” and like all who have seen it I saw it from my own perspective. My job in Viet Nam was unique, one that gave me a perspective on the war that few Americans have ever had. I was a Prisoner of War Interrogator. I served three tours there. The first as an advisor during the very early years 1961-1962, the second during the hell of 1967-1968, and the last from 1970-1971. To me the enemy was not some faceless entity that fired at you from the bush or tried to kill you from a distance with a bullet, a mortar, a rocket, or artillery. To me he was a human being, another soldier, one whom I talked with daily. One whose body I searched for documents. I read the un-mailed letters to family, friends, and lovers found on his body. I searched his wallet and looked at pictures of his loved ones, like ours, far away and missed deeply. Those alive, I came to know them as individuals, and like all other people I have known, some I liked and some I didn't. I spoke their language and knew them as people who weren't all that different from all the rest of the people I knew. I learned something that Kipling knew long before me, a soldier is a soldier in anybody's army! In his Ballad of the East and West he said, “For there is neither east nor west, border nor breed nor birth, when two strong men stand face to face, though they come from the ends of the earth.”

I also learned a lot about myself during those years. I learned I was braver than I thought I was, and not as brave as I would have liked to have been. I learned that, contrary to my philosophical beliefs, when your friends' lives are at stake, the end does justify the means. I learned that it was not my country right or wrong, but it was still my country. One that I had sworn an allegiance to and one which, in spite of some personal doubt of the righteousness of this particular venture, I would serve to the best of my ability. Most of all I learned there are indeed many things worse than death.

I've lain on the ground under a rocket attack, a mortar attack, and an artillery barrage. I've sat in a hole helping to fend off an infantry attack, and known the fear that comes with the call “Sappers in the wire." I've looked down the sights of a rifle barrel at another human being and pulled the trigger, and have never touched a weapon since. I have also sat around a bar late at night with friends who shared those experiences with me and lifted a glass to “Absent Comrades.” I remember the good times as well as the bad and with equal intensity. The experiences related here are for those who will never know either the fear, or joy, that only a soldier can know. Without that experience they will never know the true meaning of the word “friend."

Therefore I invite each of you to tell your story, to post it here so that all may know which part of the elephant it was that you have seen. Perhaps, if we get enough of them we will one day publish them as a book.