First published in my memoirs volume, Warbaby, Talking About My Generation. This was written in 1998 at a time that I was in the process of confronting the realities of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. This blog post is being published 18 years later. I can scarcely remember how I felt back then, and for that I am eternally thankful.
June 2, 1998. Two days ago the little town of Spencer, South Dakota, was reduced to rubble by a tornado. Today I listened to someone on the news who flew over Spencer remarking that the remains of the town looked “just like a war zone.” It’s a common phrase used to describe disaster areas. When we want to convey the utter devastation of a place, whether Spencer or the South Bronx, or Detroit after the ‘67 riots, we say it looks just like a war zone.
In my profession I have had many occasions to study hundreds of Union and Confederate photographs of Richmond, Petersburg, Fredricksburg, Mechanicsville, Hopewell, Cold Harbor, and other towns and countryside locations of Virginia taken during, or immediately following, the Civil War. Most of these photos depict landscapes so strange as to be surreal. Looking at familiar hillsides and roadways where I drive and walk routinely, I am disconnected from them by the depth of their devastation. Scarcely a tree stands. Grass doesn’t grow. Fields lay wasted and roads rutted. It all has a trampled, abused appearance. In many of the pictures there are people—haunted, defeated, exhausted people. Often bodies lie about the landscape, twisted in forms that no living shape could take. My home, Virginia, appears in ghostly form in prints from Mathew Brady’s glass plates. It looks just like a war zone.
This laying waste to a country shocked me as much as anything else in Vietnam. When I arrived in An Khe, the place looked like something out of National Geographic. Within a matter of weeks, a few months at most, it looked like some burned, tortured, brimstone-poisoned, post-volcanic landscape. I no longer noticed anyone in the fields with their buffalo. Bicycles were rapidly replaced by motor scooters driven by slicked-up pimps with decked-out baby-sans on back. Tea houses gave way to opium dens and whore bars and black-market stalls. Trees and bamboo thickets were cleared by the thousands of acres with defoliants, bulldozers, rome plows, even napalm.
Villages became prisons for pawns needing not to be pacified, but, rather, to pacify both Uncle Sam and the VC in order to prevent their being laid waste. The economy was trashed. The culture was deeply wounded. The fields were flooded when the rains came because nobody was tending to the canals and sluices of the paddies. Roads became impassible because they were so deeply rutted by convoys of military vehicles day in and day out. Where we kept the roads paved, they became nearly useless for a passer-by who could be caught in the crossfire of those who fought to control the roads. Market days with their trips to neighboring towns disappeared. Holy days with their pilgrimages and temple visits vanished. The towns and temples themselves were often lost, or appropriated for other purposes.
As the trees were removed the thin topsoil that sustained the fields washed away in monsoon rains leaving behind the gullies, eroded, blood-red laterite of sterile tropical subsoil. When the rains stopped, any useful soil quickly baked to iron rust or blew away in the wind, depositing itself in the eyes, mouths, and hearts of anyone trying to live in that newly barren country. Families, communities, congregations, parishes, neighborhoods, and nations were swept aside by politics and war. Even the social, cultural, and spiritual landscape looked just like a war zone.
I have enjoyed hearing the stories of those who have traveled back to Vietnam, and to see their photo albums and slide shows. Many say that it is great to walk the vaguely familiar streets of Vietnam with a thriving and proud culture growing new in what was once a wasteland. But there remain many booby traps and mines. The forests and soil are saturated with poisons. Whole regions, populations, language groups, and ethnic groups have disappeared, been removed and shifted, resettled, and reprogrammed. Children have grown up scarred, physically and psychically mangled by war and its ongoing, inter-generational effects. I have not been back, but I need only think about my scant memories of Vietnam to know that, despite the changes of thirty-one years that have passed since I was there, many more lives will pass into the earth before that place is healed.
I was not so stupid or innocent as to think that my tour of duty in Vietnam would be a picnic. I was scared to go. I didn’t want any part of killing; even less of being killed. But, I thought, we are there to do some good. Maybe it is wrong-headed. Maybe, I thought, if elections were held, Ho Chi Minh might win. Who knows? But we would do what we could. We would purify the water, improve the agriculture, cure diseases, teach democracy, and point the way to prosperity. Okay, maybe I was naïve, but I don’t think I was alone.
So what is it that has taken the place of naïveté? I am not sure. Basically I am a sane, healthy, functioning human being with a life I am thankful for. But when I look into certain recesses of my mind all I can see are child prostitutes, hungry people, dead or crazed comrades, and ravaged countryside. When I try to make sense of it, to write it all off as an aberration, of politics gone awry, of a flaw of the human spirit that sometimes manifests itself on earth, I am brought up short. I think: This is me. This is my doing. This is the way we “helped” Vietnam. There is no arrangement or reason or meaning to it. It’s just death and disorder and boundless havoc. When I try to view my own past, it is as ghostly strange, lifeless, and unfamiliar as a Mathew Brady photograph. It looks just like a war zone.