After the end of the last really big war, WWII, where something like sixty million people died, America had a very nice stretch of about twenty years. We were on top of the world, didn’t need to rebuild bombed-out cities, needed only to go forward into comfort and prosperity. President Ike warned against the “military industrial complex” but nobody paid attention or knew what he was talking about. John F Kennedy led us into a new youthful tomorrow with the Peace Corps and the idea that America could share its vitality and good fortune with the world. It was to be the “New Frontier” where the old problems would be fixed; civil rights accomplished, wars ended.
That surely did not last long. ‘People can stand anything but peace’, someone said, and it seems to be true. If there is no problem we will make one, and make one we did in Vietnam with big help from the aforementioned military industrial complex. We sent “our boys” as Lyndon Johnson referred to them, ‘over there’ to “preserve our freedom”, and fifty thousand of my generation died in the jungle mud. Rarely mentioned is the fact that over one million Vietnamese “boys, and girls too” died killing our fifty thousand. If you want to win you have to be able to die and they died a lot more than we did. What chance could we ever have fighting on their home turf where, as the Vietnamese poet said, “ every blade of grass is a human hair and every drop of rain, human blood.”
And, not learning anything, we have been at it constantly ever since, first in Iraq and then in Afghanistan where we hang on endlessly, taking over from the Russians in a contest to see who is the biggest fool. Did we gain anything from any of this senseless bullshit? Not that I can see. The talking heads on TV are expert public relations people, the best in the world, and they haven’t been able to sell it to us so that it makes sense. “To preserve our freedom?” How does any of it preserve our freedom? Are the Taliban trying to take our guns away? No way! And that is what we really care about as far as I can tell. We love our guns. What is that all about? And we use them. Yes, we use them, and often too, when the world “is too much with us” and we lose our job, or our wife doesn’t love us anymore. And we use them beyond just neatly putting our beloved gun to our own head. Now we also kill a bunch of innocent, random people just to show everybody how pissed off we are.
Something like one percent of the American population serves in the military and the rest of us “honor” them. Is there anything easier and less time consuming than “honoring” the troops? Two hundred and fifty thousand of them, it is estimated, are coming back with irreversible brain injury resulting from repeated concussions caused by homemade “improvised explosive devices” like the pressure cooker bombs made by the Boston Marathon dingbats. All the honor in the world is not going to make their ruined lives better.
My generation was in the front lines of Vietnam. In 1964 I was a freshman in college waking across the green pastures of Brown University with a pleasantly rotund rosy-cheeked fellow frosh named Phi Gamble. Phil was, like me also probably, not sure what he was doing in college other than it was expected of him. So, a few weeks later, he dropped out and joined the army, the USA equivalent solution for a coming of coming of age ritual such as practiced in ‘primitive societies’. I am sure Phil’s dad said something like, “Join the army son. It will make a man out of you.” And Phil probably said, “Ok Dad. I will!”
I don’t think it was more than a couple of months after that when Life Magazine published on its cover a montage of pictures of the first US soldiers to die in Vietnam and there was Phil looking out at me from the shiny cover of Life, but dead. What did that do to me? It made me god-damned angry and that anger has not gone away.
Over the many long ensuing years I began to know as friends some of my generation who served in Vietnam, but it took a long time because for many years they were about as hidden as ivory billed woodpeckers. They were not the popular warriors of today. They generally did not want people to know they had even been in “Nam”.
My friend Richard was there but I didn’t know it for a long time and neither did his wife who had been happily married to him for thirty years before things started to fall apart, starting slowly with “ailments” and reaching a very low point of mental and psychosomatic illness. Finally and slowly he started to connect the dots- that it probably had something to do with Vietnam. “Oh, were you in Vietnam?” his wife, Marcia, asked.
It turned out that his father was an army guy, a real prick, and Richard, who was very talented in music and singing and handsome and very likeable, could do nothing to please him. So he did what would please his dad; he joined the army. Bad timing. He got there just after the Tet offensive, the turning point in that losing war. Another combat vet friend told me, ”Before Tet we were hunting them. After Tet they were hunting us.”
The next thing that happened is that he was on guard duty at night, supposedly watching the perimeter, checking on things. But he got drunk and fell asleep, a real no no in that situation. “Ok Richard, you hapless motherfucker,” barked his superior officer. “ You can either go with the LRRPS,(long range reconnaissance patrols where you get sniped, fall into booby traps and get stuck with feces smeared punji sticks), or you can be a door gunner in a helicopter. Which will it be dick wad?” And that is how my buddy spent the next two years, mowing down all kinds of life with his fifty caliber machine gun from the revolving seat in the open door of a chopper.
Richard and I are good friends, like brothers although we live a long ways apart these days. He never talked about the war and I wouldn’t know anything about it except that we were close and I always was gently pushing since I was sure it was at the heart of his problems- his back, his knees, his neck, his chemical sensitivities etc. etc, etc. Finally he went to the Veterans Administration. After his interview, instead of going home he came by my house. I saw a dead man walking. He said,” I killed people over there and I can’t forgive myself.” And I said, “I would have killed them too.” And we did some meditation together and he went home. He had qualified for every benefit ever invented for the Vietnam Veterans but, of course, so what?
Most of us who have not been in combat are curious about it. Some of us wish we had gotten into it, that we might have been good at it and won honor, fame, and glory. But the ones who did all that almost never talk about it, at least not much. And the reason is that it is not about those wonderful , ephemeral Hollywood ideals. It is about survival. All I ever got out of Richard were a couple of things. He said that when he showed up every day for his “shift”, ( because it is actually a job), his helicopter would be in the process of being hosed out, washed of the blood of dead and wounded soldiers who had been picked off the battlefield from the previous “shift”, washed out the same door through which he would soon be aiming his big gun. They would also wash the chair where sometimes the previous door gunner had been killed, shot dead by a fifteen year old girl hiding in the trees. One time he came back from his duty in the sky and found a bullet lodged under his seat a couple of inches from his prostate gland if you know where that is. He said he “worked” with a pilot who was the most crazy and macho of them all, that they “liked working together”. He said, “ The worse it got the more you had to get into it. That was the only way. We avoided the new guys coming into the unit. For us they were already dead.”
Richard’s marriage finally fell apart but lately he has had a good stretch, a few years of relative health walking the calm beaches of Baja. Recently, I heard that once again things are turning against him and that the psychosomatic traumas are coming back. I really hope they don’t.
“I killed people and I can’t forgive myself.” Can we forgive ourselves anything? I wonder about that. I feel like I have lived through purgatory here on earth regretting the things I did or didn’t do. It seems like an accumulation of karmic dust or original sin, something like that. Simple minded motherfuckers who are satisfied with a six pack and a football game are lucky. A cow happily chewing its cud in a green field is lucky too. May the Lord bless and keep them. For the rest of us it is not so easy and all we can do is pick up the burden every day and move it along the path of time, one day at a time, to the end of our days. It is not the whole story of our life but a true part of it. It is.
Port of Spain, Trinidad and Tobago