Of all the distinctive experiences in my life, there have been only two that have totally brought me to a halt, changing my landscape to the point that the line before and after are dark and broad strips as though made with a blunt and heavy magic marker. There is no ambiguity that the line is one of separation. One was my tour of duty in Vietnam from 1968-69. The other was the death of my late wife, Lilian.
In our world today, so full of warfare and all the horrors that befall the innocents caught in the carnage, I cannot help but think of what I saw and did way back then whenever I watch the news reportage on the conflicts in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, and now the Central African Republic. What brings me to a standstill, though, are the pictures of individual U.S. soldiers, marines, airmen and sailors who have been killed. There is a special kind of sadness looking into the eyes of these men and women knowing that they are gone and that their families and loved ones will never be the same again.
I’ve bumped into a few old veterans from time to time who talk as though they’re “homesick” for war. Their bravado says they’re anxious to jump back into the fray, almost any fray, for some inexplicable reason. But these guys are few, I believe. The rest of us learned long ago of the futility of war. The only real result is that someone will get killed. And with the passage of time, we come to know that our efforts haven’t meant much in the long run. Besides, most people barely remember the names of the wars let alone the reasons that so many people were blotted off the face of the earth, youngsters who never had a chance to grow up, let alone to grow old, to enjoy the children and grandchildren they never would have. Battles such as Hamburger Hill or places like the Ia Drang Valley conjure up no collective memories. They are just places lost in time.
So when a childhood friend who had been in Vietnam at the same time I was there visited recently, we got to talking about our experiences. Bill had always been attracted to the military life and had become a Marine officer. I, on the other hand, had had no interest in the military and during the early sixties when we were both in university I was one of those who protested against ROTC on campus.
Fast forwarding just a few years, I found myself drafted right after the Tet Offensive in 1968, just a few weeks before Martin Luther King was assassinated. By October, with King and Bobbie Kennedy both gone and LBJ throwing up his hands and telling the country he wasn’t going to run again, I found myself in the Army in I Corps, along the “demilitarized zone” that separated North from South Vietnam. Bill’s Marines were not all that far away, but we never saw one another.
Although there are quantum differences between us, we found some commonality in the uniforms we both still owned. He was recently in Quantico, home base of the Marines, where he found a pair of dress blue trousers to replace the pair that had disappeared over the years. He still had his Class A jacket, as I do, but wanted a complete ensemble. When I showed him my jacket, looking almost fresh from the “outprocessing” point in Oakland where Army troops went through when they returned back to “the world” as we called the United States, he saw the medals that were pinned on it. Knowing the antipathy I feel toward military “solutions” to global problems, he was surprised to see I had been awarded the Bronze Star and the Air Medal. It took some time to convince him that I did not hold the military in contempt. It was the attitude of so many of our politicians to unleash the dogs of war without much thought of the long-term results that was contemptible. The armchair warrior construct is all too often devoid of the old verity encapsulated in not forgetting the law of unforeseen consequences. It seems to be easy for those in charge to send someone else’s son or daughter off to war and then go home to a warm meal, a family gathering, and then to sleep in one’s own bed. Decision makers come and go, but dead people are dead forever as a result of decisions made in haste or based on myth.
Another dear friend has urged me for some time to write more about my experiences of warfare, all of which started now close to forty-six years ago when I first reported for induction at Fort Hayes in Columbus, Ohio. Whenever I try, though, I’m never quite comfortable with how to structure the words on the page. I don’t seem to be able to get beyond the current day’s appalling TV images that we have almost grown inured to through overexposure.
What has gotten me a bit more focused, though, was a recent BBC America program which featured an interview with Andrew Carroll, the director of the Center for American War Letters housed on the campus of Chapman University in Orange, California. In the BBC excerpt, Carroll says that sadly the one thing that comes across in the letters (the collection totals more than 90,000 pieces of correspondence) is that every generation seems to have forgotten the horrors of war and is doomed to relearn the lessons.
Carroll says he believes the public may never have a full understanding of what veterans experience in wartime, but he hopes the letters will help explain the reality and consequences of each war for those who fought:
“They have seen so much that it really matured them very quickly. They wrote these incredibly beautiful correspondences filled with philosophical insight about human nature. They have seen the extremes of the human condition, and war intensifies all experiences…because of the life and circumstances of which they lived.”
I also have a large envelope of letters I wrote that are neatly tucked away in my attic. My sister recently sent me yet another packet she found that I had sent to my mother. Up till now, I haven’t had the courage to read any of them. Perhaps they will be my portal into revisiting this time in my life when my world was different and so was I.
In so doing, I am grateful to another friend who sent me an e-mail stressing the importance of time, measured from years down to seconds. Here are the concluding lines:
The value of one minute:
Ask a person
Who has missed the train, bus or plane.
The value of one second:
Ask a person
Who has survived an accident.
Time waits for no one
Treasure every moment you have.
I add another under “the value of the one-second category,” “Ask a person who has been shot at or shelled.”
As I try to gather my thoughts in some organized way and continue to record my inner feelings, I will be calling on a recently published book entitled Poetry of Witness, edited by Carolyn Forché and Duncan Wu, both professors at Georgetown University. Wu describes the effort as
“the work of those marked by history. It contains poets whose lives were shaped by insurmountable forces, thrown off course, even–at worst–destroyed. Some of these poems were composed at an extreme of human endurance, on the brink of breakdown or death; all bear witness to historical event, and the irresistibility of its impact.”
As Wu points out, the experiences that compel these poets to write are frequently beyond “the containing power of language.” He goes on to quote Paul Celane, one of the major German-language poets of the post World War II era:
“One thing remained attainable, close and un-lost amid all the losses: language.Language was not lost, in spite of all that happened. But it had to go through its own responselessness, go through the horrible silences, go through the thousand darknesses of death-bringing speech.”
In these poems, Wu notes the unease with which former combatants harbor their insights of war in times of peace. What resonates with me is the continuing theme of how we measure time in moments of such great extremity. Again, there can be great significance in that one-second moment. I find insight into the example Wu provides from some lines Samuel Menashe, the American poet who fought in the Battle of the Bulge, wrote as he cast the problem in suitably direct terms:
“Of course, as a survivor of an infantry company, I was marked by death for life when I was nineteen. In the first years after the war, I thought each day was the last day. I was amazed by the aplomb of those who spoke of what they would do next summer. Later, each day was the only day. Usually, I could give the day its due, live in the present, but I had no foresight for a future. Perhaps it is why I still live in the flat to which I moved when I was thirty-one years old.”
So as I fast approach seventy, I hope to continue to write about my journey of understanding and how I fit into this great drama of why mankind seems hellbent on waging war. I know I can never solve this mystery but I’m driven to understand the human cost. In delving into this conundrum, we can only try to make sense of why leaders too often ignore the reality of warfare which validates in its own special way how the arbitrary, the random, and the meaningless dictate one’s existence. As we watch the news and hear daily of unspeakable cruelty, displacement, and horrific death, we should all bear witness in our own ways to these senseless losses in order to come to terms with what evil and its various embodiments are and how we can oppose them. After all, our ground time here is brief.
As I venture forth in future essays, I invite you to come along as my companion on this trek.