IT WAS UNSETTLING to be reading these two novels while the country was going through its orgasmic celebrations over the release of the hostages in Iran. On the television, in the papers, every time one turned the dial on a radio, there was some new piece of thanks to the hostages for having sat out 444 days of their lives. Free baseball tickets forever -- good seats. Free trips to Florida. Here is hostage calling home. There is hostage jogging. Here is congressman proposing special benefits, gold medallions. Gold medallions? Parades. Yes, real motorcar parades.
And here to be reviewed are yet two more books that attempt to examine What Went Wrong for Vietnam veterans, why they have experienced the now widely-publicized panoply of serious readjustment difficulties following their service. Reading the books, thnking of my experiences and those of my friends, bombarded by media oversaturation with respect to Iran, haunted by the data that has permeated much of my professional life working with veterans, I could not help but become profoundly cynical. Honest, Commissioner Kuhn, none of us really had the audacity to expect we might get a free baseball ticket when we got back. But at least you could have noticed that we went.
A society that ratifies a difficult experience enables those who endured that experience to undergo catharsis, to cleanse their spirits and rejoin their community with dignity. A society, on the other hand, that is unable to assimilate the experience leaves those who underwent it on their own, to sort out its complexities in isolation, and then to render hopeful answers to the society, so that they might finally be accepted. This has been the tragedy of Vietnam. It is also the basis for both Sergeant Back Again and walking Wounded, two diverse first novels by Vietnam-era veterans, which address the process of psychological healing.
Walking Wounded begins in the wilds of South Dakota, where protagonist Sherwood O'Neal has retreated along with his friend Art Johnson. O'Neal has shrapnel scars inside his heart from a training accident on Okinawa that has also caused him amnesia and frequent blackouts. He is convinced he will die at any moment because of the damage to his heart. Art Johnson lost both his legs in combat. O'Neal and Johnson have developed something of a symbiosis, with occasional moments of warmth, after having met while under treatment at a Veteran's Administration hospital. It is essentially a friendship of convenience: O'Neal is Johnson's legs, Johnson is O'Neal's nurse during his blackouts. O'Neal has withdrawn to South Dakota because he believes that any intimate association with relatives or lovers will eventuate with his quick death, and others' pain. Johnson is on the run from an overbearing father who wants to put him away as a cripple.
O'Neal's sister is killed in an automobile accident, necessitating his return to California to care for her young son, whose father had deserted him years before. From here the major focus of the plot line shifts, and Walking Wounded becomes a story of O'Neal's mental repair as he fights for custody of his nephew, Jamie. Jamie has himself been scarred, by mistreatment in a foster home. Through a series of incidents which also involve the tribulations of Erica, a divorced neighbor whose daughter and Jamie are playmates, O'Neal wins Jamie from the government, Erica from another man and himself from the demons that haunt him.
This is a structurally intricate book told with an often tedious present-tense style. Thorpe has a tendency to over-write many scenes, giving the reader unnecessary, and sometimes irritating, clues to a character's condition. Frequently the plot loses its focus: the reader has difficulty with the relevance of some characters and scenes.
Art, whose relationship with his father seems peculiar (a 30-year-old with his own disability income continually hiding from special detectives out to bring him home), is mysterious and not fully developed. At the same time he provides most of the insights regarding the readjustment difficulties of Vietnam veterans. Toward the end of the book he admits a painful secret: that he liked the Army and had found meaning in the very things that eventually crippled him.
"Once I got in, I never wanted to be on the outside . . . The Army was easy. It was home. Family. Uncomplicated. It gave me the best years of my life. Then in the field there were the guys who had lost girls or buddies. mHad a good platoon. Sergeant who took care of us like he was a father . . . Sure I counted days. That was part of it. But I didn't want out, and look at us now."
It is this sort of honest reaching, devoid of political trappings, that makes Walking Wounded worth reading.
Sergeant Back Again, a more carefully crafted and literary work, unfortunately fails in the very area where Walking Wounded succeeds. Author Charles Coleman violates, perhaps unwittingly, the most fundamental rule of literature: that the artist, having a duty to deal in the complexities and ambiguities that form the truth, must avoid overtly politicizing his work. Sergeant Back Again is an essay of damnation which again and again asserts a nihilistic view of the Vietnam effort and presumes that the body of American soldiery was corrupted by the Vietnam experience and left the war wrecked and guilt-ridden. Coleman, who served far away from the combat zones as a hospital medic, views the American soldiers there as the perpetrators of a litany of demented crimes: routine atrocities, regular murders of captured, wounded and surrendering enemy soldiers, in short, all the worn-out bar tales of 10 years ago. My Lai was "a drop in the bucket," according to one of Coleman's characters. Another character reflects the author's view of returning veterans with an even more chilling distaste: "'We all brought home an infection. It'll be around for a long time. Ha. Just take a good look around this room,' he said sadly. 'Just look in the mirror.'"
Such rhetoric becomes tiresome and distracts from the author's obvious talent. Charles Coleman, who worked as a medic in the psychiatric ward at Fort Sam Houston, Texas, after his return from Vietnam, uses a group of mental patients as a microcosm of burnt-out losers to address the psychological damage of the war on its participants. As a story that examines the travails of that small percentage of humans who are crushed by the dynamics of war, this is an often moving, occasionally unbelievable narrative, written by a man with a gift for scenes and metaphor. But to suggest, as the author does in several places and as his publisher's promotional materials do also, that this collection of personal disasters is typical, is nothing short of obscene. The medic driven mad by casualties he cannot save, the former professor who became a murderous maniac, the colonel who killed his own men as they stood in formation, the sergeant who was overwhelmed by his participation in Agent Orange defoliation missions, the truck driver who began viewing Vietnamese children as rats, and then started shooting them randomly -- all are to be pitied. But none offer up a universality that would provide the key to catharsis.
Evidence has been accumulating for years regarding the source of the Vietnam veteran's more frequent psychological turmoil, and it now rather conclusively points not at the war experience itself, as Sergeant Back Again suggests, but to the failure of our society to accord understanding and dignity to those who gave of themselves in a war whose politics have yet to be fully resolved. One hopes for other books from Charles Coleman, for his talent outstrips his subject matter. And one thanks Stephen Thorpe for a somewhat rough effort that nonetheless has its finger on the proper pulse.