The following is a term paper based on several books written about the Vietnam War; but it is just as relevant for any war… and for any time.
[Take your ego and preconceived notions out of the equation and it’s never too late to learn.]
War touches all
War is greedy. A little thing can release it, but after it is let loose it cannot easily be tamed. It has no loyalty, not even to those who cast it forth. It seeks to ravage anything and anyone it touches, and it touches everyone. And anyone touched by war will never be the same. But individuals who experience war firsthand will, inevitably, bear a bigger cross: a burden uniquely forged by their experience and perspective.
The Vietnam veteran experienced war from a surreal position. His country pushed for war, sent him with patriotic promises, sabotaged the war effort with noncommittal strategies, then parlayed any chance of victory away, and allowed him to return as a pariah to half the country. And, to top it off, the promises were broken, which made the sense of betrayal by his country complete. As a Vietnam vet, the only place I found honor during that period was in the midst of war. I found no honor at home: not with government or civilian population. And there were precious few examples of it in war, but it was there. It was in the actions of men risking all to save the life of another. It was in the bloody hands of medics, nurses, and doctors working endlessly to save lives during countless days with little or no sleep. It was there in the presence of entertainers risking their lives to uplift troops in a war zone. It was there in a handful of war correspondents and photographers: the ones who didn’t do it for the money, and did not sit on the sidelines until the battles were over before going to get their aftermath images. And it was definitely there in the anguished faces and tortured bodies of prisoners who endured captivity without breaking, then stood as upright as physically possible when set free, knowing they did not betray their fellow soldiers for a blanket or some meat.
Medical personnel experienced the war different from the combat soldier. Except for the combat medics, they were not knee deep in mud and rice paddies watching their friends get torn apart by bullets and shrapnel, they were elbow deep in chest cavities while slipping on blood soaked floors, while trying to salvage what life remained of a generation’s youth. And they had no opportunity to strike back at the unseen enemy that often kept them on the brink of exhaustion with a constant supply of wounded. And the nurses had the added complexity of being outnumbered approximately 100-to-1 at times in the gender toll: nurse, mother, sister, confessor, girlfriend, eye-candy, and, sadly, sometimes rape victim.
Countless numbers of Vietnam veterans became disillusioned. Fighting for a legitimate cause is one thing, but enduring the hell that is war for false promises and an eternity of pain is a burden that no one should ever have to bear. Thus, many vets turned against the war and, especially, the political powers that spawned it and desired to prolong it.
War correspondents and photographers, for the most part, did not have to be there. A percentage of them belonged to the military, but the rest were employed by newspaper and magazine publishers. And whoever controlled the purse strings dictated policy regarding their assignments; although the government made sure all news was ok’d before leaving Vietnam.
Vietnamese refugees are probably the least understood class of people touched by the war. Their plight was publicized, and the government enacted special legislation to get them housing, education, and even business loans (at little or no interest), but it was primarily an effort to treat only the material needs. If there has ever been a real concern for their psychological and emotional well-being – many of them suffered the trauma of war, as well as the upheaval from their country and integration into ours – I have never seen studies or programs geared for that purpose. If they exist it is not widely publicized like the financial handouts were. And while Robert Olen Butler’s book showed a variety of characters dealing with the effects of the two-culture clash, it predominantly did so with a Vietnamese slant: the elegant, ancestral, family-oriented eastern culture brutishly compromised by the individualistic, self-serving, consumer-driven, success-oriented American way of life. The negative side of the Vietnamese culture was glossed over or simply omitted. For instance, Miss Noi is portrayed as the one with the power in “Fairy Tale:” she chooses whether she will accept a man or not, which is a fairy tale version of the life of most prostitutes. Some will argue that she is a bar girl. Yep, she’s a bar girl, just like most Asian massage parlors hire girls to give a “massage only.” But the so-called legitimate job is not how they acquire most of their money. And, what about the Vietnamese gangs? Some may think they are an American invention. They watched West Side Story and believe Vietnamese gangs had to form in an effort to protect themselves, like the Puerto Ricans in the show. Wrong. Vietnamese gangs formed in Vietnam, and reformed in the United States: similar to the Yakuza and Tong. Gangs are not an American invention.
The aforementioned perspectives each have their differences, some of which have been stipulated. But they also have their similarities. They are all permanently changed by the Vietnam War. They have all lost their sense of innocence. They will never again accept political promises and patriotic smokescreens by forked-tongue politicians. And most of them, though reluctant to admit it, know more about themselves now than they ever would have otherwise, because their characters have been tested in the fiery halls of tribulation: even if it took a crutch or two along the way.
Tim O’Brien’s book The Things They Carried shows the burden endured by Vietnam veterans. It combines various material burdens with the mental and emotional burdens.
But Ted Lavender, who was scared, carried 34 rounds when he was
shot and killed outside Than Khe, and he went down under an
exceptional burden, more than 20 pounds of ammunition, plus the
flak jacket and helmet and rations and water and toilet paper and
tranquilizers and all the rest, plus the unweighed fear (p. 6).
And the stories build upon each other until the reader realizes that the very touch of war is a multi-faceted burden the soldier will carry permanently. Some can handle it, some hide it, and some slowly sink beneath the burden.
“The thing is,” he wrote, “there’s no place to go. Not just in this
lousy little town. In general. My life, I mean. It’s almost like I got
killed over in ‘Nam… Hard to describe. That night when Kiowa
got wasted, I sort of sank down into the sewage with him… Feels
like I’m still in deep shit” (p.150).
These last words are from Norman Bowker, a character who eventually hangs himself. The burden became too much to bear.
Soldiers, as shown throughout this text, are not the only burden-bearers. All who experience war are changed by it. Each bears their share of burdens. And that is why most characters throughout the various publications during this course utilized one or more of the following crutches: opiates, chemicals, alcohol, and sex to decompress.
In half an hour, between the booze and the grass, we were both
loaded (Ehrhart, p.111).
The lamplight made her skin the colour of dark amber as she bent
over the flame with a frown of concentration, heating the small
paste of opium, twirling her needle (Greene, p.5).
There were mornings when I’d do it before my feet hit the floor.
Dear Mom, stoned again (Herr, p.34).
I sleep with men in Saigon. This is true. But I sleep with only one
at a time… I give some man love when he is alone and frightened
and he wants something soft to be close to him. I take money for
this loving, but I do not ask them to take me to restaurants or to
movie shows or to buy me jewelry or any gifts (Butler, p.49).
Crutches come in all shapes and sizes, and everyone touched by war succumbs to something, whether mental, physical, or spiritual.
The various perspectives discussed have been shown to have unique characteristics as well as some similar traits. And each is further proof to the greedy nature of war, and the permanent nature of its touch upon all it comes into contact with. Thus, one fact stands out when all the perspectives are considered; it is and will always be a permanent fixture in the American culture. It is impossible not to see the lasting effects on our society. A large portion of the US male population either died in ‘Nam or became part of the walking wounded. Countless families were altered. Political systems were unmasked. Education has changed. Innocence died. In fact, there isn’t a single area in our society that has not felt the touch of the Vietnam War and the scandalous fallout. And we have gone on to witness that those who fail to learn from their mistakes are doomed to repeat them, like the adage states.
Will humans ever learn? If the last class during this course is an example, perhaps there is still a glimmer of hope. All who took this course seriously witnessed a cooperative communication – and we have changed. But to what degree remains to be seen.