As a young soldier I went to Vietnam. I did not have to go. At the time I was under orders for service in the Dominican Republic, an enviable assignment that might include R and R at beach resorts. I’d worked hard to earn my green beret. How could I have any self pride if I avoided the war? So, instead of taking the safe route, I tracked down a major in a closet-sized office in the Pentagon and requested the change or orders that sent me to Vietnam. I believe few people can understand that decision. I believe also that that single decision to fight in an unpopular war molded me in ways that have permanently separated me from most others of my generation and certainly from colleagues at the college where I teach.
And I believe also that more than any other the Vietnam experience shaped Twenty-First Century America. Vietnam led to this nation investing in an all-volunteer military, and it is also the clapper that rings the bell of foreign policy when potential military intervention is weighed. No one in national politics asks if the next confrontation will be another World War II; the presiding question is invariably: “Will this be another Vietnam?” The Vietnam era was also one in which those who served were vilified while those who refused to serve were romanticized, if not glorified. Even today the political left waxes nostalgic for a revival of the antiwar protests.
At the personal level, Vietnam was the reason I delayed a college education and lost the benefit of the G.I. Bill. In my one early encounter with the college classroom, I came under attack by a professor who called me a dupe and railed against “the genocide I’d participated in.” Other veterans dropped out of college or avoided it entirely for similar reasons. When finally I did return to the classroom seventeen years later and went on to complete graduate school, I found attitudes little changed. I took an MFA in fiction and participated in workshops where writing the quotidian life was the aesthetic ideal but writing about the experience of combat was treated as digressive and old hat.
Still, I wrote my stories and sent them out, ignored rejections that compared the work to those who’s work preceded mine. I wrote realistically. I wrote allegorically. Not the same, editors would say. That space was filled. O’Brien and a few others had created the literature that defined the war. But the stories of war are many. I persisted, and one by one, the stories found journals, and eventually were collected and published more than thirty years after the fact under the title story. I believe Gunning for Ho was published for the right reasons, because, as with all salient literature, it addresses the humanity of those inside the experience. After the book was published, my sister Jenny said, “But you never talked about Vietnam.” I gave her the only true response: “No one ever asked.”
Soon a new generation of veterans, men and women, will return. And while the nation’s attitude toward those in uniform is antithetical to what I experienced, those returning will carry some of the same weight. They will arrive from an unpopular war a few at a time and readjust to daily life in a world where few will acknowledge their service. They may be unfairly burdened by stories of the misdeeds of a handful of soldiers or by the miscalculations of our political leaders. And they will bring with them stories that need telling.
A scattering among them will also choose to become writers and render those stories as fact or fiction. Hopefully, their journey through college will be smoother than mine and their route to print easier. This nation needs to hear their voices, needs to read about fear and suffering and courage and loss and the rare tender or humorous moment. War cannot be reduced to the clever turn of phrase or fit in the thimble-sized psycho-fictive drama so highly celebrated by the contemporary literati. It’s large, and its stories many. Those who have been scathed, who have pulled the trigger, who have heard bullets whizz overhead, who have held a buddy’s hand and watched him fade can best attest to what war is and perhaps what it means.
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