A few weeks ago I picked up the morning paper and, for the first time in months, there was no front-page story on
American troops were firing on crowds of demonstrators; armed looters were still rampaging; children accidentally detonating unexploded ordnance; shoot-outs over gas evidently commonplace. But our Top Gun president had landed on the USS Abraham Lincoln, victory was all but declared, and troops were headed home. The war was over, it seemed, so what was going on with the Celtics? How easy it can be to avert our eyes from suffering. “How everything turns away quite leisurely from the disaster,” W.H. Auden observed in his great poem (“Musee des Beaux Arts”) about Brueghel’s “Icarus.” “Something amazing” had happened, “a boy falling out of the sky,” yet even those who must have “heard the splash, the forsaken cry. . .had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.”
We’ve turned away most obviously from the casualties. Of course, even during the race to
As for the Iraqi military dead, it’s impossible to find an estimate. Even antiwar critics have concentrated mainly on civilian casualties. We know the total is in the “thousands,” but whether five, ten, or twenty thousand may never be determined. Somewhat more attention has been given to counting those war-related civilian deaths. Several sources, including a carefully reported count in the Los Angeles Times, put the figure in
American officials refuse to calculate civilian deaths or to initiate an investigation of which ones were directly caused by the
Of course, adding up the dead and wounded is but the narrowest way of measuring the costs of war. Haidar Tari, of the Iraqi Red Crescent, has been tracing Iraqis killed in the war who were buried without documentation. With a single example she focuses our attention on the legacy such a war leaves its survivors. “On one stretch of highway alone,” she told a Los Angeles Times reporter, “there were more than fifty civilian cars, each with four or five people incinerated inside, that sat in the sun for 10 or 15 days before [the victims] were buried nearby by volunteers. That is what there will be for their relatives to come and find. War is bad, but its remnants are worse.”
Even the shortest wars produce wounds of every imaginable sort that extend years, even decades beyond the cessation of combat — wounds to the body, to the emotions, to the land, to witnesses and relatives, to every human relationship, to historical memory, to the generations that follow.
My work has made me acutely aware of war’s long afterlife. For the past five years I’ve been crisscrossing the
Whether talking with former grunts in small Appalachian towns, veterans of the North Vietnamese Army in dilapidated convalescent homes near Hanoi, or journalists in fancy hotel lobbies, what struck me was how visceral the memories still were, how close to the surface the emotions of war remain. It was often hard to believe that the accounts I was listening to were drawn from a many -decades-old war. Strangely enough, I found some of the most painful stories inspiring. The sheer struggle to make meaning of history’s hardest moments — the moments that don’t go away when we turn to the sports pages — is one of the greatest gifts anyone can offer the future. In the presence of those struggles I felt hope. Out of the wreckage emerged a few remnants of war with enduring value.
With Memorial Day upon us, and in the wake of our most recent war, one that will not end soon for many Iraqis and some Americans, it’s worth turning back to the suffering caused by another war, now long distant but still painfully present, to help us recognize the kinds of realities we are too easily tempted to ignore. Here, then, are three of the 135 voices from Patriots: The Vietnam War Remembered From All Sides.
“That sand was probably the only thing that saved me” George Watkins
He was a grunt with the 196th Light Infantry Brigade. In April, 1968, near
My daddy built this house. He built it from the ground up, a piece at a time. We moved down here when I was three-years-old. He wanted to get all us kids out of the coal camps. He was a coal miner for thirty-six years and he did not want us in the mines, period. That’s one thing Daddy would not let. He told the man who run his division of Westmoreland Coal that if he hired any one of his sons, that’d be the day he’d walk out of the mines. I have a brother in the railroad, and one that makes mining equipment, and one that just retired from the highway department. So we all stayed out of the mines.
I was drafted on
I knowed very little about
I went to
Our worse time was about the entire month of December, 1967. We stayed in the field. Everything we had, we had on our back. Where we stopped, that’s where we slept. It was just a continuous patrol and ambush at night. Search-and-destroy in the day, and every third night you was on an ambush. You was lucky to get four hours sleep. It was nothing to go thirty to forty hours with no sleep. As a matter of fact, the longest we ever went was seventy-one hours. We lost quite a few people that time. Seemed like everywhere we moved, they was right behind us. Seemed like we couldn’t get away from them. We went from ninety-three men down to forty. They brought one Chinook in and took us all out. One Chinook. As they say in the army, we was no longer an effective fighting force. Then we was in one valley, called the
They had to be some good people to withstand all that. They come right back to nothing and start over. Go out and get some thatch or find some that wasn’t burnt, tie it together with a couple branches over some poles and sit up under it with their little beat up aluminum pots. They’s some of the most determined people I’ve ever run into. I don’t hate them. They did what they had to do. It’s the politicians that put everybody in that place. Although I would like to get ahold of that one that set the booby trap. [Laughs.]
They moved us up to
It was real early, just after day break on a Sunday morning. We moved out in two platoons to that road we were supposed to sweep. My platoon was last and I was second or third from the very last man. We had just moved about a hundred feet when I hit it. Seems like I remember looking at my watch and seeing seven-thirty. Sometimes I think that’s why I was looking down–why it got in my eyes. I was unconscious for just a couple minutes. I come around and I was laying in a hot hole with my arms up on the side. There was absolutely no pain, just numbness–total numbness. It was hot from the blast. That’s the only thing I remember. I told them to get me out of that hole because it was hot. I got some burns on my back from that.
They tell me I hit a pressure-detonated mine–one of our duds, a 105-millimeter round that had been booby-trapped. Its about twenty inches long and 105 millimeters in diameter. Roughly forty people walked by it before I hit it. It also hit a boy in front of me and one to my immediate right. That boy lost a left eye, his left ear, and I think some movement. And I had just mentioned to him to move because he was way too close, just about shoulder to shoulder. I met him later at the hospital in
I’ll tell you what’s surprising. I didn’t think about my legs. Legs was a second thought. For some reason my sight meant a lot more than my legs. That’s all I can say. All my thoughts and worry was on my eyes.
I still had my right leg for seven days. The doctors told me there’s four inches of bone missing, but there was a little bit of tissue still holding it together. They tried to save it, but after seven days gangrene set in and my temperature got up to a hundred and six. I was plum out of it. The next thing I remember is running my hand down to my leg and feeling with my fingers. I just said, “It’s gone.”
I don’t have much bitterness. Well, I don’t think I do. I just wish that none of it ever happened–for everybody’s sake. It was a bad political mistake. Have you been to the Wall? I was there in ’85. I guess that made me feel the worst that I had felt since I’d been home. I sat right in the middle of it, right at the “V” of it, and run my hands up a ways on it. All those names. And then we went from end to end and picked out some that got killed in our outfit. I felt them. Spelled them out even. Each letter. I sat right there and just tried to think, ‘Why did all these people die?’ The majority were my age. Their lives and their families all messed up. What was gained from it?
At the end of the interview, he worries about how the published version will turn out. “I say things that don’t look good in print.” He cannot be convinced otherwise. On my way out, he makes a request I do not know how to honor: “Fancy it up,” he says.
“They carried me the whole way back to the North”
Ta Quang Thinh
A broad-shouldered man with silver hair wearing a white pullover jersey, he sits with three companions in the courtyard of a convalescent home for war invalids about twenty kilometers outside
Later my friends told me that we were hit by a bomb from a B-52. There were six of us in that room–myself, two male nurses, and three patients. I was crouched over
I stayed in the South another four years, treated that whole time in a jungle hospital, just wishing the war would end quickly. I couldn’t communicate with my family for six years. Even if they had carried letters South, how would they have found us? We moved all the time.
In 1971, they were finally able to take me home. I was flat on my back in a hammock, two people at a time carrying me. They carried me the whole way back to the North. A third porter went along to relieve the other two. There were many stations along the way and I was relayed from one group of porters to another. It took us seven months. Of course it was very painful to be carried like that. I took painkillers but they didn’t help much.
When I got home, I think everybody, including myself, was sick of the war. We abhorred it. It was not only cruel, it was absurd. Foreigners came to our country from out of the blue and forced us to take up arms. Don’t you think that’s absurd? We just wanted to be prosperous and live like other people. Of course we had to fight to protect our country but we were really sick of the war. Deep down we didn’t like it. Casualties were enormous. And not just that–our savings, our houses, our plants and animals, everything was wasted by that war. I have many memories but I don’t want to remember them. It sounds like a paradox to say that, but it’s because I don’t like war. I don’t think anyone liked the war.
“I got married before going South. After I had been hospitalized in
Memorial Day 1968
In the 1980s, he co-authored seven books for The Vietnam Experience, a twenty-volume series published by Time-Life Books. Now an editor for a university press, we meet at a conference of the Organization of American Historians. He relishes conversation on any number of topics, so we talk late into the night, but this was the story he wanted most to tell.
I went to
I think we sensed that we were all pawns of forces much larger than we were, and over which we had no control. It all seemed somehow like a roll of the dice. Some would go, some wouldn’t, and it depended on accident, on how well we did in school, on what our parents’ expectations were for us, lots of factors–but none of us were really that different from one another.
There was this one guy who sat next to me in homeroom named Greg Fischer. I played basketball, he played hockey. We didn’t know each other very well, but because my last name began with D and his with F, we were in the same homeroom for three years. Toward the end of our senior year I remember talking with him about our plans for the future.
I said, “Well, actually I’m going to college next year. I just went down to visit this place called Kenyon and it seemed kind of cool. What are you going to do?” He said, “Ah, I don’t think I’m going to go to college. I’m thinking about going into the marines.”
“The marines? Really?”
“Yeah, I mean, I’m going to get drafted anyhow, so if I’m going to get drafted, why not the best, you know?”
When we heard those obituaries over the school intercom it was a reminder that the war was there, and it was real. But one of the ways we coped with it was through a sort of black humor. It was almost as if the humor was an effort to make it go away, to make it unreal. For example, a few months after my talk with Greg Fischer, all eight hundred and thirty-five of us marched into Cleveland Public Auditorium for commencement–the Class of 1967. Suddenly some kid starts whistling the theme song to The Bridge On the River Kwai–the movie about British prisoners of war. And we all joined in! Believe me, it’s not easy to whistle when you’re laughing. This was followed by a very low, teenage, guttural version of “The Caissons Go Rolling Along.” I’m not kidding. Meanwhile, in the background, the high school band is wailing away on “Pomp and Circumstance.” You can just imagine all these guys in bright blue caps and gowns with the gold tassels, laughing away. It was fantastic.
So I go off to my first year in college and I’m really kind of oblivious of the war. The Tet Offensive is raging across
On Memorial Day 1968, I opened up the Cleveland Press and there was this really angry editorial on the front page with the title “He Was Only 19–Did You Know Him?” It turns out to be about Greg Fischer and how he died at Dong Ha up near the DMZ. It just hit me like a hammer. I remembered that conversation in homeroom and it suddenly had this profound significance. I had gone off to this cloistered college while he was going off to die in
The Cleveland Press article concluded by quoting a letter Greg had left in the drawer of his desk. On the envelope he had written, “Open this if I don’t come back from
The editorial was really asking, how many more people like Greg are we willing to waste? This is just an ordinary kid we’re talking about. He wasn’t an Eagle Scout, or a class president, or an all-American athlete. He was a kid who had worked in the local pharmacy. We all know the high school kid who works in the pharmacy, even if we don’t know his name.
I think that was the moment when “
In 1982, I went to Greg Fischer’s grave. What struck me more than anything else was the simplicity of Greg’s marker. There’s just one small plaque on the ground surrounded by hundreds of marble headstones. It has his name, the dates of his life, and one word: “
I felt good about having gone. And stood there. And remembered. The only tribute you could really pay, and I can still pay, is to remember. What else is there?
Copyright (C) 2003 Christian G. Appy, used by permission of Viking Penguin
[Chris Appy is the author of Patriots: The Vietnam War Remembered From All Sides (Viking, 2003). This article was written for www.tomdispatch.com a weblog of the Nation Institute, which offers a steady flow of alternate sources, news and opinion from Tom Engelhardt, long time editor in publishing and author of The End of Victory Culture.]