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News ::
A Bad Mood, A Six-Pack, And A Typewriter (english)
22 Feb 2003
I begin to weary of the stories about veterans that are now in vogue with the newspapers, the stories that dissect the veteran's psyche as if prying apart a laboratory frog-patronizing stories written by style-section reporters who know all
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I begin to weary of the stories about veterans that are now in vogue with the newspapers, the stories that dissect the veteran's psyche as if prying apart a laboratory frog-patronizing stories written by style-section reporters who know all
I begin to weary of the stories about veterans that are now in vogue with the
newspapers, the stories that dissect the veteran's psyche as if prying apart a
laboratory frog-patronizing stories written by style-section reporters who know all
there is to know about chocolate mousse, ladies' fashions, and the wonderful
desserts that can be made with simple jello. I weary of seeing veterans analyzed
and diagnosed and explained by people who share nothing with veterans, by
people who, one feels intuitively, would regard it as a harrowing experience to be
alone in a backyard.Week after week the mousse authorities tell us what is wrong
with the veteran. The veteran is badly in need of adjustment, they say-lacks
balance, needs fine tuning to whatever it is in society that one should be attuned
to. What we have here, all agree, with omniscience and veiled condescension, is a
victim: The press loves a victim. The veteran has bad dreams, say the jello writers,
is alienated, may be hostile, doesn't socialize well-isn't, to be frank, quite right in
the head.But perhaps it is the veteran's head to be right or wrong in, and maybe it
makes a difference what memories are in the head. For the jello writers the war was
a moral fable on Channel Four, a struggle hinging on Nixon and Joan Baez and the
inequities of this or that. I can't be sure. The veterans seem to have missed the war
by having been away in Vietnam at the time and do not understand the combat as it
raged in the internecine cocktail parties of Georgetown.Still, to me Vietnam was not
what it was to the jello writers, not a ventilation of pious simplisms, not the latest
literary interpretation of the domino theory. It left me memories the fashion writers
can't imagine. It was the slums of Truong Minh Ky, where dogs' heads floated in
pools of green water and three-inch roaches droned in sweltering back-alley rooms
and I was happy. Washington knows nothing of hot, whore-rich, beery Truong
Minh Ky. I remember riding the bomb boats up the Mekong to Phnom Penh, with
the devilish brown river closing in like a vise and rockets shrieking from the dim
jungle to burst against the sandbagged wheelhouse, and crouching below the
waterline between the diesel tanks. The mousse authorities do not remember this. I
remember the villa on Monivong in Phnom Penh, with Sedlacek, the balding
Australian hippie, and Naoki, the crazy freelance combat photographer, and Zoco,
the Frenchman, when the night jumped and flickered with the boom of artillery and
we listened to Mancini on shortwave and watched Nara dance. Washington's elite
do not know Nara. They know much of politicians and of furniture.If I try to explain
what Vietnam meant to me-I haven't for years, and never will again-they grow
uneasy at my intensity. "My God," their eyes say, "he sounds as though he liked it
over there. Something in the experience clearly snapped an anchoring ligament in
his mind and left him with odd cravings, a perverse view of life-nothing dangerous,
of course, but...The war did that to them," they say. "War is hell."Well, yes, they
may have something there. When you have seen a peasant mother screaming over
several pounds of bright red mush that, thanks to God and a Chicom 107, is no
longer precisely herchild, you see that Sherman may have been on to something.
When you have eaten fish with Khmer troops in charred Cambodian battlefields,
where the heat beats down like a soft rubber truncheon and a wretched stink comes
from shallow graves, no particular leap of imagination is necessary to notice that
war is no paradise. I cannot say that the jello writers are wrong in their
understanding of war. But somehow I don't like hearing pieties about the war from
these sleek, wise people who never saw it. There were, of course, veterans and
veterans. Some hated the war, some didn't. Some went around the bend down in IV
Corps, where leeches dropped softly down collars like green sausages and death
erupted unexpected from the ungodly foliage. To men in the elite groups-the Seals,
Special Forces, Recondos, and Lurps who spent years in the Khmer bush, low to
the ground where the ants bit hard-the war was a game with stakes high enough to
engage their attention. They liked to play.To many of us there, the war was the best
time of our lives, almost the only time. We loved it because in those days we were
alive, life was intense, the pungent hours passed fast over the central event of the
age and the howling jets appeased the terrible boredom of existence.
Psychologists, high priests of the mean, say that boredom is a symptom of
maladjustment; maybe, but boredom has been around longer than psychologists
have.The jello writers would say we are mad to remember fondly anything about
Nixon's war that Kennedy started. They do not remember the shuddering flight of a
helicopter high over glowing green jungle that spread beneath us like a frozen sea.
They never made the low runs a foot above treetops along paths that led like rivers
through branches clawing at the skids, never peered down into murky clearings
and bubbling swamps of sucking snake-ridden muck. They do not remember
monsoon mornings in the highlands where dragons of mist twisted in the valleys,
coiling lazily on themselves, puffing up and swallowing whole villages in their dank
breath. The mousse men do not remember driving before dawn to Red Beach, when
the headlights in the blackness caught ghostly shapes, maybe VC, thin yellow men
mushroom-headed in the night, bicycling along the alien roads. As nearly as I can
tell, jello writers do not remember anything.Then it was over. The veterans came
home. Suddenly the world seemed to stop dead in the water. Suddenly the
slant-eyed hookers were gone, and the gunships and the wild drunken nights in
places that the jello writers can't imagine. Suddenly the veterans were among soft,
proper people who knew nothing of what they had done and what they had seen,
and who, truth be told, didn't much like them.Nor did some of us much like the
people at home-though it was not at first a conscious distaste. Men came home
with wounds and terrible memories and dead friends to be greeted by that
squalling she-ass of Tom Hayden's, to find a country that, having sent them to Viet
Nam, now viewed them as criminals for having been there. Slowly, to more men
than will admit to it, the thought came: "These are the people I fought for?" And so
we lost a country.We looked around us with new eyes and saw that, in a sense the
mousse people could never understand, we had lost even our dignity. I remember a
marine corporal at Bethesda Naval Hospital who, while his wounds healed, had to
run errands for the nurses, last year's co-eds. "A hell of a bust," he said with the
military's sardonic economy of language. "Machine gunner to messenger boy."It
wasn't exactly that we didn't fit. Rather, we saw what there was to fit with-and
recoiled. We sought jobs, but found offices where countless bureaucrats shuffled
papers at long rows of desks, like battery hens awaiting the laying urge, their
bellies billowing over their belts. Some of us joined them but some, in different
ways, fled. A gunship pilot of my acquaintance took to the law, and to drink, and
spent five years discovering that he really wanted to be in Rhodesia. Others went
back into the death-in-the-bushes outfits, where the hard old rules still held. I
drifted across Asia, Mexico, Wyoming, hitchhiking and sleeping in ditches until I
learned that aberrant behavior, when written about, is literature.The jello writers
were quickly upon us. We were morose, they said, sullen. We acted strangely at
parties, sat silently in corners and watched with noncommittal stares. Mentally, said
the fashion experts, we hadn't made the trip home.It didn't occur to them that we
just had nothing to say about jello. Desserts mean little to men who have lain in
dark rifle pits over Happy Valley in rainy season, watching mortar flares tremble in
low-lying clouds that flickered like the face of God, while in the nervous evening
safeties clicked off along the wire and amtracs rumbled into alert idles, coughing
and waiting.Once, after the GIs had left Saigon, I came out of a bar on Cach Mang and saw a veteran with a sign on his jacket:

VIET NAM: IF YOU HAVEN'T BEEN THERE, SHUT THE FUCK UP.

Maybe, just maybe, he had something.
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