Viet Nam was a contact capsule. A day will be winding along its normal route and…POP!...there goes yet another little tiny time pill and there goes that certain part of your brain careening out of control while the straight part tries to put things back together before someone notices that something is out of whack.
Each veteran adapts to this condition in his own way. I have gotten so good that I now manage with a degree of ease. Teaching a class, coaching a game—I seem quite normal when a little tiny time pill goes off, much like my alcoholic Uncle John, who can be soused to the gills and yet do his job with perfect aplomb.
Take the other day as an example. I was in the trainer’s room taping a wrestler’s injured ankle. One of the other coaches asked me if I had seen “The Deer Hunter” or “Apocalypse Now” on HBO. I replied that I hadn’t. He said that I probably shouldn’t, as the films might cause nightmares. I laughed. “With all the pretty women in this world,” I responded, “you think I’m going to waste my dreams on Viet Nam? I dream about…”—and…POP!...for no good reason at all I was thinking of Kevin.
Kevin and I had been through basic training together. Sent to Nam at the same time, we met by chance one day while we were both visiting the 101st Division base camp. We decided to stay there for the night so we could drink some beer and reminisce.
Kevin was a medic with the First Air Calvary Division. He had just returned from a trip to the boonies (the jungle) during which his unit had been suddenly and savagely mauled.
The first person Kevin had tried to save that night died in his arms while calling for a mother who was a half a world away. And then things got worse. We talked about the incident briefly. But what could you really say? After much beer and a little reminiscing, we went to sleep.
Suddenly I sat straight up, stunningly catapulted into consciousness by something I could not name. Then I understood: Kevin was screaming. The sound was full and long and high and absolutely unwavering. If a watch could speak, and you wound its mainspring so tightly that it could stand no more and burst, the watch would make a sound like Kevin’s.
I don’t know how long the moment lasted. It was one of those instants—Nam was a Pandora’s Box full of them—that made complete mockery of the stern and unbending logic of seconds and minutes. When he was done giving himself to the night, Kevin collapsed back on his bunk.
I never asked him what happened. We were tough then: one solved his own problems.
But then again, maybe one didn’t. A good friend of mine is in the anomalous position of being a lawyer and a combat veteran of Nam. (Most of the professions understandably have few Viet Nam veterans. After all, murdering fascist baby-killing drug addicts are a trifle unstable.)
David works for a top firm in New York. Smart and tough, he is an excellent lawyer with a great future. (as long, he says, as he keeps quiet about what he is.)
One day David is scheduled to interview a candidate for a position in his firm. The candidate’s resume reads like a champion’s pedigree: Choate, Yale, Harvard Law, and an initial practice with a prestigious Boston firm. If you cut his name, it would bleed blue all over its Roman numeral. The guy walks into Dave’s office and says “Hello” in a voice dripping with certainty. After all, in his world, righteousness is inevitably rewarded. From another world, Dave sits there and…POP!...
My friend, who has never this happen to him in all the years since Nam, begins questioning the kid, at first half in jest and only half seriously.
As the supportive evidence for my outlandish exaggerations, I will introduce only the unscientific “boonie barometer,” a homespun evaluative mechanism that was popular in Viet Nam’s rice paddies and bunkers. Those utilizing the boonie barometer first carefully considered the words, facts, and figures that experts would marshal to explain this particular war. Then they discarded them all in favor of the two blunt conclusions that coincided with reality was we lived it: where bullets were flying, there you would find high concentrations of minorities and low-rent whites; where bullets were not flying, there you would find everyone else.
Our opponents were not nice people, but they did a better job at making that war what war should be, a burden shouldered by the entire communal family. I don’t claim that the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong fighting force completely mirrored all levels of the society that bore it. But they tried, all of our propaganda to the contrary, and they succeeded to the limited degree that God grants human success.
Their effort and achievement explained why, year after year, as Time Magazine swayed one way, then another; as Westmoreland went and Abrams came; as Congress debated legality, morality, and practicality; the guys in the boonies bitched at the Cong with reluctant admiration and knew –I mean knew—we didn’t have a prayer in hell of winning that war. And—it galled us bitterly—we didn’t deserve to win it. They were doing it the right way and we were not.
And the beat goes on again. If you have any confidence in the new volunteer army: don’t. Most of America isn’t in this one either.
Fred, back from his conference, can’t accept such “inflamed and irresponsible rhetoric” without a response. Says he, “Who the hell put you on the stage? You catch one bad break and complain the next twenty years. I have a family. I have a job. I don’t bring the family to work and I don’t bring the job home. All you guys have a martyr complex. Why did you have to bring that stupid war home anyway?”
Is it possible not to bring a war home? While in Viet Nam I spoke with North Vietnamese prisoners and defectors. Since then I have conversed with Israeli combat vets and American veterans of World War II and Korea. We are different in so many ways, but we are all alike in one way: each of us his own Snowden.
Snowden is a character from the pivotal scene in Joseph Heller’s novel Catch-22. During a bombing mission, Yossarian, the hero, must give aid to the recently wounded Snowden. Yossarian knows that he faces a critical situation, but he has been well trained and should be able to manage. He bandages all the wounds he can find. As he works, he half-consciously congratulates himself that he has faced one of war’s worst moments and he is, nevertheless, still coping.
But the gods of War are toying with Yossarian. Snowden’s visible wounds are minor compared to the internal havoc that has been wrought: a fragment of a shell has pierced Snowden’s side, passed through his body, and exited through the other side, effectively disemboweling him. Yossarian notices a spot of blood near Snowden’s armpit and adjusts the flier’s flak-suit, a device designed to protect the heart and other vital organs. As Yossarian adjusts the flak suit, Snowden’s intestines spill out.
In a blinding instant, Yossarian understands the secret of war: whatever the preparation for it, no one can really cope. Function, perhaps, yes, but cope? No.
It is curious it had to be Heller, a former airman, who best described the disruptive thrust of an experience that is rarely a part of the impersonal air war and rarely absent from land combat. When you know Snowden, you know War. But such intimacy comes at a price, a price that makes it very difficult to come home again.
The trauma of Snowden is not primarily physical. While the terrible hurts caused by modern weaponry do befuddle the imagination, emergency rooms or random accidents can produce impressions of comparable magnitude. The hammering significance of Snowden is that this thing that has been done to a fellow human being, this savaging of the body that is the temple of the spirit, is not an accident, not a fluke, but the direct, purposeful consequence of war.
For men engaged in war the moment of knowing Snowden is not unlike the feeling of invasion and loss reported by women who have been raped. People can tell you it wasn’t “your fault,” you can know it wasn’t “your fault,” but a sense of deprivation remains and one feels soiled.
The sense of deprivation is real, because something has been stripped away: some of the moral and spiritual covering that surrounds each person’s soul is no longer present. Like the protective enamel covering a tooth, one only notices it when it is not there.
Historically, the rape victim and the soldier returning home are wrapped in and reinforced by the collective spiritual values of family, friends, and society. But, as some women say and as an Israeli tankman told me late one night, even then the process of re-entry into normality is difficult. Even then, as a Marine Corps veteran of Iwo Jima confessed to me after countless beers, you have to live with your personal Snowden lurking in the back of your mind, devilishly darting into your awareness every five or seven years, or six minutes.
Yet, as both of these men explained in their different ways, you can coexist with Snowden because those close to you provide care and concern. True, no one fully understands, but they all try, and they all somehow share the right and wrong of the experience.
Except when Johnny came flying home from Viet Nam and tried to pick up the pieces of his life. America pretended that he didn’t exist.
Perhaps it is this absence of concern that explains why, when Nam veterans mutter inarticulately into cameras and microphones, “We got screwed,” they are not as inarticulate as they seem. War is a rampant invasion of one’s secret parts. All soldiers get screwed.
But when a country refuses to come to terms with its war, when there is no reunion between the nation that accepted the war and the men who agreed to fight it, when there is no communal expiation of guilt and sorrow, then the screwing just goes on and on.
And, as with rape, one would need the wisdom of Solomon to judge who is the greater victim, the one who must accept the perversion of a love act or the one who was driven to initiate it.
The analogy with rape is, of course, imperfect. A country decides to go to war. Its citizens acquiesce in the decision, whether they care to admit it or not. Women do not choose to be raped. Yet many Nam veterans share an almost unknowing empathy with those women who have been raped and who must face the silent, looming conspiracy of thought that too often awaits them when they try to return home—after all, it was your fault; after all, it didn’t happen to me.
This value stripping without any concurrent value reinforcement represents one of Viet Nam’s most pernicious legacies. Like the war itself, this phenomenon has affected all Americans. If Viet Nam veterans must grope their way back to stability without any real help, then what conclusion must be drawn about the nation that raised them and sent them? Perhaps there was no help given because no one had any to give.
If such a conclusion is accurate—and there is considerable evidence that it is—then not all of the war’s casualties were injured in the combat zone. Can a nation’s sense of itself suffer multiple fragment wounds? Perhaps so, because in this tense and gloomy country our injured self-image is making us very strange: barren, bottomline materialism stalks the streets, the young listen to lyrics like “all we are is dust in the wind,” and too many people snort, drink, smoke, and inject themselves into a state of forgetfulness.
Dust we might be, but more than dust we have been. We forget our own heritage. To paraphrase the line from Cool Hand Luke, “What we have here is a failure to understand.”
For while we see accurately, most clearly we do not understand. We Americans are better than our own view of ourselves.
The fire that has powered the engine of America has always burned partly on coal, but mostly on dreams. And the dreams haven’t just been of another car or of a new coat, as some of us have attempted, rather successfully, to convince the rest of us. A large chunk of this country’s coal has been composed of the American Dream of truth and freedom and right and goodness and helping others.
It is a sign of these disturbing times that few Americans would give voice to these private thoughts that many of us have, and it would be a rare politician who could utter them without provoking a rage of ridicule.
But the evidence denying the moral bankruptcy of this nation is incontrovertible: if there were nothing more to America than money, cars, and cocaine, why would so many people feel such a sense of loss?
But Fred, who knows you can’t deposit dreams into a checking account, has an answer to such introspection. “Enough of the heart and flowers. Next you’ll bring out a violin. Everybody has problems, but you assume that yours are the same as the country’s. Stop with the analysis and go out and do something practical. You guys spend more time philosophizing than a Park Avenue shrink.”
While Fred has a point, he is not completely correct: few veterans devote much time to philosophizing. We have our daily bread to earn. In fact, it is the earning of the daily bread that says much about us and the lingering influence of the war.
No factor better reflects the change that has come over America in recent generations than the absence of Viet Nam veterans from three areas of activity where one could reasonably expect to find them in some numbers, and where one could have found their predecessors after World War II: in college, teaching in high school, and in politics.
Where are we? Why are we not in college? Grasping for education? Why are we not in high school, teaching American history? Why are we not in politics, giving America the wisdom we gained through sweat and blood?
There are answers that, while true, are yet not the truth: the G.I. bill benefits aren’t sufficient, teaching jobs are hard to find, you need connections to get into politics. The real answer is that we veterans cannot escape who we are.
What we are, first and foremost, is American, and to be American in this day and time is to be frustrated by a lack of faith.
Yes, we lost our faith somewhere in the swamps and jungles and then came home to find it had disappeared from America’s towns and cities. Perhaps we didn’t understand what was happening to us then, but we see it now.
Yet what we still don’t see—and America can’t come home from Viet Nam until we all see it—is that the faith we lost was an ephemeral belief grounded in the wrong source. It was a faith that others would define and create the American Dream for us, that someone would answer questions and solve problems for us.
What we had done was the most un-American thing of all: we had assigned responsibility for the American Dream to the faceless shadows who lurk behind that maliciously indefinite pronoun they.
So we—not they—made a mistake. But we will quadruple this mistake if we forget an essential point: the fact that we were wrong in our faith doesn’t mean that this quality doesn’t exist. The fact that we mourn its absence proves that it does.
Each of us must rekindle a faith in himself because, as we learned in the iron school of combat, a man must sometimes be an island unto himself; and we must all reclaim a belief in America because, as we learned when the combat was over, a man cannot live as an island unto himself.
And, although he would be the last to admit it, Fred wants to recapture his faith also. He’s not the hardass he makes himself out to be. Fred will call us “suckers” and “dummies” for believing our government and for getting caught in the web of that war, but he cried when the American hockey team upset the Russian in the Olympics (he doesn’t know I saw him, but I did).
A quick note before Fred comes back from the store (he always finds something to do when he knows I’m right): my more thoughtful non-veteran friends have often asked me about the conclusion of “The Deer Hunter,” the singing of “God Bless America.”
“Are veterans fools? Don’t they appreciate the scene’s consummate irony? Is it perhaps that they somehow see beyond the simple complexity of irony to a subtle wisdom that is hidden from those who have not been out there?”
I have no answer. We do love America and America is good. I knew this beyond question one day when I was 11,000 miles from home—tired, filthy, and miserable, with a loneliness that shriveled the heart—and I saw a tank roll by with a tiny American flag on it. I knew something then that I never truly comprehended as a child who watched the parades and listened to the speeches.
And so, although I don’t like to stand up for National Anthem, I’ll get up and sing “God Bless America.”
Note about Hamburger Hill: In a war that made little sense, Hamburger Hill was an event that still managed to shock with its utter senselessness. Fought in 1969 in a rugged, desolate region, miles from any civilian population, the battle developed on one of the many nameless hills that covered the area. While U.S. generals defended the operation as a tactical necessity designed to disrupt enemy supply lines, most American soldiers believed that its real purpose was to produce the high enemy body count the American government so often used to document the success of its military strategy. Almost 500 Americans were Killed In Action in the three days of appallingly vicious fighting that gave the Hill its name. According to survivors who fought there, the actual toll was much higher. Shortly after American troops captured the summit of Hamburger Hill, the U.S. high command withdrew them, leaving the bleak and bloody ground as a mute testament to the monumental human sacrifice that these men had poured out upon it.