"What did you ever do for us when we came back? Nothing, I tell you, nothing! You wrangled about victory! You unveiled war memorials. You denied your responsibility." Erich Maria Remarque from "The Road Back" (1931)
ON SATURDAY, MARCH 14, 1981, Vietnam veteran and former Marine James Rogers Hopkins, in full battle dress, attacked the Wadsworth VA hospital in Los Angeles, backing his Jeep through the entrance, and shattering two plate-glass windows. After clearing the lobby of the building, saying that his assault was on an institution, not on people, he opened fire with his M-14 rifle, blasting nine bullet holes into the wall. James Hopkins, after years of mistreatment by the Veterans Administration, culminating with the VA's refusal to issue him a telephone-typewriter device to assist his war-related hearing problems, had made his statement, and was arrested for it. The Vietnam War had come home once again. For anyone who thought the war was over, Hopkins reminded us on that Saturday afternoon that Vietnam veterans are only beginning to speak out.
The truth is we are just beginning to comprehend the full brunt of that awful tragedy. There have been many interpretations and explanations, many books and movies about the Vietnam War and the men and women who fought in it. The writers, the filmmakers, the politicians, the psychologists, all the professionals and experts, many of whom had never been to that war, all attempted to dissect and interpret one of the most devastating historical events in American history. Everyone seemed to have something to say, except the men and women who were actually there. "The veterans know too much truth," a woman told me once. "Vets are a threat to everything we believe in; they want to keep them quiet," she whispered to me. Fabrication and fiction became truth. Authenticity and truth became nonexistent.
Now there are two books in which we hear the authentic voices of the men and women who were there. They are Everything We Had, by Al Santoli and Nam, by Mark Baker.
Everything We Had is simply a magnificent achievement. One of the most powerful and truthful documents to come out of the Vietnam War, it should be read by every American, every representative and senator, and the president of the United States. It is personal, it is authentic, it has great dignity, and it will last. In Everything We Had we come to see Vietnam veterans as human beings, men and women experiencing and articulating the terror of that war and its cruel aftermath. Al Santoli, himself a Vietnam veteran, knows what they are talking about and has been deeply touched by it. The 33 voices he shares with us tell the story of a generation betrayed, and of a war no one wanted to talk about.
In the preface to his book, Santoli writes, "Please understand that we are not asking for a parade, a monument or pity. But we do ask for you to remember in your own way the 57,661 Americans who died in the war. Perhaps all of them died in vain. But if we as individuals and as a nation learned something of human value for having been in Southeast Asia, their sacrifice, we maintain, was not futile. At least thirty-three of us feel that we are wiser people for not running away from our memories of combat and those who died in it."
All 33 veterans make statements that are unforgettable, but there are a few that I cannot fail to share with you:
Here is Thomas Bird, a rifleman in the 1st Cavalry Division, in Vietnam from August 1965-August 1966, describing his unit's capture at An Khe by the North Vietnamese Army: "The thing that bothered me most was that as we started to come into a perimeter but didn't make it because they kept dropping mortars in, we kept leaving wounded guys out there that were crying, asking for help. They kept asking for medics and some of them started screaming, 'Shoot me. Kill me.' I got very confused returning fire because they were out there midway between the opposing fire. . . . When [the NVA] made the rush there was a lot of shooting. They shot all our wounded, killed them. During the course of the fighting all the horror of people being wounded, parts of their body being blown off, became a blur. I think I stopped seeing that after some guy got shot in the midsection and doubled over and he caught all kinds of blood and crap coming out of him."
There is the story of Jonathan Polansky, another rifleman, for the 101st Airborne Division, stationed in Vietnam from November 1968-November 1969. His unit was guarding a bridge in the lowlands of Vietnam near "a little fishing village called Lang Co. A beautiful, beautiful place, on the coast of the Gulf of Tonkin. It was a peaceful little village, a combination of French and Vietnamese architecture."
Plandsky fell in love with a young Vietnamese woman there, the daughter of a scholar who was running a school. He and another GI began helping out at the school, teaching English to the children. Then Polansky's unit was sent away for three months, and when they returned, they found that the Viet Cong had destroyed the village "because all the people were American sympathizers. . . . I couldn't believe it -- The village had been so picturesque, the most beautiful little town. Destroyed. Everything was destroyed. Every living thing was gone. I walked into the schoolhouse. I started crying and crying. It couldn't come together for me, after three months in the mountains just thinking about this village. I had totally forgotten home by that time, after eight months in the country."
Finally I think of Lynda Van Devanter, a nurse with the 71st Evacuation Hospital at Pleiku, stationed in Vietnam from June 1960-June 1970. "Vietnam was the first place I delivered a baby by myself . . . [The mother] looked over at me and said, 'Baby come, baby come.' I looked down and there was the head. I just grabbed myself a sterile towel and held it under, and that kid just popped his little head out and turned around on his side, and popped his little shoulders out, and there was this little squalling bundle of humanness. And the life came back again. It was creation of life in the midst of all that destruction. And creation of life restored your sanity.
"Those moments when we had a little baby around were very precious. I have a couple of slides of me sitting in the operating room with my foot up on the table, in my fatigues and combat boots, with a scrub shirt over the top of me, holding a little tiny bundle in my arms, feeding it. Those were the things that kep you going. That there was still life coming. There was still hope."
If there are to be any heroes in America, then let us begin with the 33 men and women in this book, and millions of others like them who never had a ticker-tape parade or a homecoming celebration, but only darkness and pain for what seems like forever.
Al Santoli tells us that we have not given our youth, our bodies, everything we had, for nothing. Even if you do not listen to us, he says, even if you do not care, we will triumph because after everything we have given, everything we have lost, we can still love, still feel, see, reach out. Most of all, the voices in this book say, we can still dream and still believe in a country that has learned the bitter lessons of that war. All that has befallen this land and our generation can be redeemed if only we decide to listen and learn.
Before I had even begun reading Nam I had questions about Mark Baker's introduction. Baker, a college student during the Vietnam War years, writes, "These people are not extraordinary, except in the fact that they survived Vietnam and continue to survive." What he means by that is that many veterans have been able to live normal lives in spite of their experiences in Vietnam. But what Baker does not consider is something that filmmaker Francis Ford Coppola said about Vietnam veterans in a recent newspaper interview: "America should use its resource of these extraordinary people. They have to be extraordinary people because they went through an extraordinary event."
In Nam I hear the voices of the veterans Baker interviewed cry out, but I cannot see their faces, I do not know their names. Who are they? Where do they come from? Unlike Santoli, Baker does not give us this important information that makes these veterans individuals, something more than statistics. I hear their voices, but they are distant and impersonal. Still, they are voices we should listen to:
"Sam died. To add insult to injury, he was real tall. So we had a lot of trouble getting him into a body bag. It was a real struggle to crunch him in there. I couldn't imagine what it must be like for his wife to be waiting for him in Hawaii and get nothing but a telegram." Nam is filled with the violence of Vietnam. It is difficult to read. Especially if you have been there.
There are some powerful parts of Nam that must not be overlooked. At one point Mark Baker writes, "The war in Vietnam left a wound on my generation that hasn't healed. It has closed with the infection still raging inside. The longer we ignore it the worse the infection grows. The healing process seems so simple. All we have to do is open the stinking thing up, wash it out, and keep it clean until we're well again." It may not be that simple for America. Some people think it may already be too late.
But I believe these terrible sufferings and sacrifices do not have to be in vain, that all that has befallen this land and our generation can be redeemed. We gave everything we had and more. We asked what we could do for our country, and we did it. We learned to believe in peace rather than war, hope rather than cynicism.
Listen to these voices of Vietnam. They are the new heart and soul of this country. They are your own children. Listen carefully, they are trying to say something.