The Vietnam War officially began on November 1, 1955 and ended on April 30, 1975. I was there for most of 1969 as a soldier with the 4th of the 9th Infantry along the Cambodian Border in Tay Ninh Province and, for the last four months of my tour, wrote daily combat reports in the office of the general at the headquarters of the 25th Division.
These assignments allowed me to participate in and witness the war as a soldier in the field and as a fly on the wall in the office of a division command. I do not claim to have done anything particularly heroic. It is enough to say that I was there.
Some days I think the war only happened yesterday; other days I wonder if I was in Vietnam at all, or if I just dreamed it. Not a day goes by when I do not think of a mama-san or Vietnamese child or of the soldiers who were killed or lost body parts or plain disappeared, or of those who still serve in nightmares, flashbacks, broken lives and addiction. These tragedies occur after all wars, especially wars of no account. But the Vietnam War is my war. There is a saying that one does not have to have cancer to cure it. Yet I have met oncologists who have found themselves fighting or dying from cancer. Sadly, now they know a lot more about cancer as I now know a lot more about war.
The escalation of the Vietnam War began in 1964 with a lie known as the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution that was based on an unverified report that the destroyer USS Maddox had been fired upon at night in poor visibility by North Vietnamese torpedo gunboats. A year later Johnson himself privately remarked, “For all I know, the Navy was shooting at whales out there.”
The war that followed was conducted with arrogance, incompetence, political motive and deception and ended in complete chaos and disgrace in a surrealistic event atop the U.S. Embassy in Saigon in 1975 that was televised for the whole world to see. Subsequent disclosures revealed that the 1968 Republican candidate for president, Richard Nixon, may have prolonged the war by negotiating privately with South Vietnamese leaders to wait “until after the election” to pursue further peace talks, very possibly prolonging the war to its 1975 end date. In an off record discussion in the oval office with his 1970 Political Group, then President Nixon stated that, “I do not intend to be the first American president to lose a war.”
For most U.S. citizens the war was not much more than a television war anyway, broadcast and watched in snippets on the evening news. Estimates of Vietnamese, Cambodians and Laotians who died as a result of the war range from two to five million. 58,159 U.S. Armed Forces were killed. In 2011 it was estimated that as many as 150,000 Vietnam War veterans have committed suicide. The number of broken marriages, displaced children and cases of PTSD resulting from the war can only be inferred but anecdotes are many.
The injustice, waste and corruption I witnessed during the war created so much fury within me that for many years I could find no words to describe what I had seen and felt and heard except for one long poem I wrote the first month back called, “Red Autumn,” that I have since lost, found, and lost again. The bombing of the Marine barracks in Beirut in 1983 unleashed that fury and I wrote a series of poems that was published in a book by BkMk Press in 1986 entitled, “The Eye Of The Ghost.” The book ended with, “Last Poem,” because I wanted the whole matter to be over and done with.
But the poems kept writing themselves and BkMk Press published a second book in 1997 that incorporated the original poems along with many others entitled, “Last Lambs: New and Collected Poems of Vietnam.” The title of that book which is also the title of this Second Edition comes out of a line in a poem I wrote called, “The Last Days of the Eisenhower Administration,” in which I refer to Vietnam soldiers as “…the last lambs of the nation of sheep.” It derives from a book published in 1960 entitled, “Nation Of Sheep,” by the sociologist, William Lederer. His book revealed to the general public a clandestine war that the U.S. was conducting in Laos beginning in 1953. In his book Lederer famously raised the issue of the passivity of the American people after World War II and their fear of challenging the government and figures of authority.
Some years later I began a short memoir called, “My Welcome Home Steak,” which documents the four days and nights I spent on my return from Vietnam at Oakland Army Base where I was ordered at three in the morning to eat a charred steak provided by the Chamber of Commerce as a gesture of gratitude for my service. Refusal to do so would have kept me from going home because it was a requirement on my out-processing checklist. After I told this story to a psychiatrist at VA in 2006, he leaned over his desk, shook my hand and said, “Welcome home.” That was the first time I could recall anyone saying that directly to me and I wept in my arms on the worn wood of his desk shaking with the fury of all that had been stolen from me and my comrades in arms.
Here in 2013 I fear that not much has changed for the U.S. soldier coming home from a questionable conflict. Except for World War II veterans, support and assistance for returning soldiers has been inadequate, shabby, hit-and-miss, and often staged for political show. Parades, yellow ribbons, medals, memorials and similar gestures of appreciation are fine but flag wavers have proven to be tight with their time and wallets. I can only wonder what will become of the veterans of the wars in the Gulf, Iraq and Afghanistan. They will need access to ongoing medical and psychiatric care, protection from banks, scam artists and others who feed off their vulnerability, assistance in finding meaningful jobs and holding onto their homes, families and legal rights.
I have little knowledge of what occurred in Iraq and Afghanistan other than what I have read and seen on television and what I have heard from returning veterans expressing their true feelings and opinions about how it has affected their lives and families. I tell them history has a way of settling scores. The eventual release of Lyndon Johnson’s Vietnam War tapes, McNamera’s book, “In Retrospect,” and other exposes confirmed years later what many suspected had been hidden from the American public. The truth of how the most recent wars came to be and whether they contributed anything to the national security will one day also come under the magnifying glass of history’s critical eye.
Veterans may well ask: what can a poem do to right the wrong of a war or prevent future wars? Not very much. What it can do is help to keep the record straight and give soldiers a way of expressing their anger and ambivalence without committing further violence. It can fill in the blanks, give color and imagery to the black and white page. A war poem can show the day-to-day life of a soldier; the sights, stench, sweat, grime and degradation of warfare, make real the fear, disgust, loneliness and true bravery of anyone with the courage to face the treachery of a bullet, mine or rocket propelled grenade. It can tell the history of the war inside.
Once home, returning soldiers will likely face the apathy of most of the citizens they have been sworn to protect. And not long after, generational forgetting. It is said that younger generations of Cambodians have already begun the process of forgetting the atrocities of the Khmer Rouge. For many younger Americans, World War II is almost as distant as last week’s email. And yet without the enormous nationwide effort to bring about a victory against the Axis powers, life today as they know it might not even exist. Three lines in a song written by John Prine, the folk troubadour poet, describe a common fate of many fallen soldiers in the aftermath of war:
“We lost Davey in the Korean War
Don’t know what for
Doesn’t matter anymore”
I personally do not uphold pacifism as an absolute principle. The right of self-defense is inherent in human nature as a matter of survival.
I subscribe to Gandhi’s statement, ” Self-defense is the only honorable course where there is unreadiness for self-immolation.” What I object to with the Vietnam War and other wars based on theories and speculation are conflicts initiated and prosecuted by individuals who have never been in a war and who start wars based on policy alone, personal agendas or ideology. If our leaders are to commit this country to wars like those in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan, they must be damn sure that they know their history, that they have their facts straight, that they know the enemy, that our troops are well protected and that they have achievable goals. They need to be willing to listen to the advice and experience of those who have actually been in wars and stood on the battlefield. One would think that the lessons of the Vietnam War would have been lesson enough. Those leaders who want to wage war based on politics, economics or ideology need to be careful and scrupulous before they are quick to accuse others of being incompetent or weak on national defense.
I am often asked if it has been cathartic for me to write these poems. It has not. The insightful VA psychiatrist who welcomed me home advised me not to write any more Vietnam war poems, not to listen to any folk or rock and roll songs of protest or remembrance or see any movies or read any books relating to that era, not to listen again to the Lyndon Johnson tapes or go to Vietnam War memorial services for the reason that such events might only reinforce my PTSD symptoms. That may be a fine psychological tactic but my anger is my best friend, the fellow soldier that has my back, and I will not let it go soon. I will instead keep my head down, my poems clean, well oiled and at the ready. Once a soldier, always a soldier, like it or not.
It seems that whenever there are protests or disagreements with waging unnecessary wars, the instigators turn to the flag, the Star Spangled Banner and to accusing protestors of being enemies of our country’s soldiers. But soldiers in phony wars know it is not so. We know that the protest is not against us; it is for us. Many war poems written by soldiers hold up the same protest signs and sing the same protest songs, hence organizations like Vietnam Veterans Against The War. We know a little bit about fighting injustice.
No, I wrote these poems for many other reasons. For one, I am a poet by nature and writing poems from life is what I do. I wrote these poems in anger at those who perpetuated the war out of arrogance, self-promotion and greed. I wrote them as a matter of personal history, so that the boys, men and women who died or were wounded in so many horrible ways will not be forgotten to the extent that I have any say so.
As my poems strike their closing lines, they are not about me. They are about them.