Winter 1995, Volume 12.1
Vietnam Aftermath: Confessions of a Noncombatant*
Donald Anderson (M.F.A., Cornell University) is Director of Creative Writing at the United States Air Force Academy. He is editor of War, Literature, and the Arts. His fiction has appeared in The North American Review, PRISM international, Fiction International, and Western Humanities Review, among others. See other work published in Weber Studies by Donald Anderson: Vol. 18.0.
The closest I got to Vietnam was Beale Air Force Base near Yuba City, California: the placid, rural town where Juan Corona courted, then hacked and buried all those faceless, nameless, randomly hapless male fruit-pickers in the local peach orchards. The nation picked up this body count too—all the victims past draft age—the count beginning at 1, then rising to 2, then 9, 18, 24, 25. Corona's work became the grisliest mass murder known to date in the United States. The nation gasped at this reasonless act, pulled back.
The week the 25 orchard graves were unearthed along the Yuba City banks of the Feather River, 29 GIs were killed by a North Vietnamese rocket at Charlie Two, a tiny fire base near the Demilitarized Zone. The average weekly U.S. death toll that year (1971) in Vietnam was 49, down from a weekly average of 81 the year before.
Stationed at Beale, I began to meet people who had served or were on their way to serve in Vietnam. For one, there was the Marine Corporal in a night class I enrolled in at Yuba City Community College. In this class, we read and wrote stories and poems. The Corporal had come home from the war, mustered out of the Corps after a voluntary second tour. In class, he read aloud harsh, unrhymed, unmetered lines he wrote about death and Vietnamese women. "YEA, THOUGH I WALK THROUGH THE VALLEY OF THE SHADOW OF DEATH, I FEAR NO EVIL… 'CUZ I'M THE MEANEST MOTHERFUCKER IN THE VALLEY," was the silk-screened quote that read split on the front and the back of a T-shirt the Corporal had made and brought home. Every time I saw him, he was wearing the shirt. In this T-shirt, he bestrode the campus. If you gazed his way, he would thump his chest and grunt. He was looking for fights.
Unlike the Marine, I'd not stood in battle, but Vietnam was the reason I was on his campus. I joined the Air Force to avoid the draft to avoid the Army tour of Vietnam—my choices ruled by the distant battle, its awful, final toll of 58,000 dead, 200,000 wounded. Two hundred fifty-eight thousand is 12/100ths of 1% of the U.S. Vietnam-era population, yet how often I meet someone who knows someone who died in Vietnam or who came home in some way damaged. What happens to soldiers also happens always to others who know or love them.
My father's best friend died in World War II at Pearl Harbor. As I heard things, my father's friend Sidney had been selected, then situated in Hawaii in 1941: the nation's sole and brave, though inadequate, defense. In time, I learned it was Sidney and the U.S.S. Arizona that had been struck. Attack!: An Island Boy's View From Oahu, was the title of a child's account of the Japanese sneak bombing I read in junior high. I read the boy's story, then discussed it with my father. A different Sidney emerged: a smaller figure but a more significant loss. This revised view introduced me to the place of the common person in history. My father had let me know that the sweeping facts of history are accurately written not in the omniscient, third-person plural, but in the singular first.
Sometime during the nine minutes after the U.S.S. Arizona was initially struck, my father's best friend, Sidney, died. "Drowned," guessed my father. At 8:10 a.m., December 7, 1941, a 1,760-pound bomb pierced the deck of the ship to explode a fuel tank. Seven seconds later, when the forward ammunition magazines blew (1.7 million pounds of ignited gunpowder), heads and other human parts and random metal debris rained down on the sailors and the seemingly steelier decks of adjacent ships. The few Arizona crewmen to survive swam to shore naked, their clothes stripped from them by the force of the ship's detonations. By 8:19, the Arizona had settled to the bottom of Wai Momi, as the early Hawaiians had titled the "pearl waters" of the Harbor.
All you find above water of the Arizona today is its anchor, displayed conspicuously ashore. Cast in 1911 in Chester, Pennsylvania, and weighing in at 19,585 pounds, the Arizona's dry anchor is exhibited near where you catch the National Park Service's 150-person boat shuttle for transport for the strictly managed 15-minute tours above the submerged wreck. Aboard the U.S.S. Arizona Memorial—a concrete-and-steel floating bridge—you can study the sunken ship: a gray and algaed lump, its stern and bow marked in Day-Glo orange. There's a peacock iridescence to the water, for the Arizona has bled oil for 50 years. Above the Arizona, a wall of white marble stands engraved: a permanent listing of the dead. You can find and touch names.
In 1940, the next planned step for my father and Sidney was the Navy. A month apart in age, my father and his friend were 20-years-old. In Butte, Montana, the Navy was teaming up pals, promising buddies assignments aboard the same ships. But my father was unable to join Sidney. A wood chip caught in the eye in a wood lot mishap blinded my father enough to disqualify him for war. He served (wearing safety glasses) in copper mines in Montana. The loss of battle in World War II has always seemed to me a galling and double privation for my father: he not only lost his best friend, he also missed his one good chance for war. Not one to dodge fights or forget friends, my father still speaks of both losses. But if he had been accepted for enlistment as he had wished, my father would have sailed with Sidney. Whatever would have happened to my father aboard the Arizona would have happened to him more than four years before my birth. Although some 20 ships were destroyed or damaged (as well as most of the parked aircraft at all nearby air fields), the deaths inflicted upon the Arizona account for half of all U.S. casualties at Pearl Harbor. Aboard this one vessel, 1,170 men died. Of this number, 1,102 remain entombedbelow water, below deck. The average age of the ship's dead was 23. Among the ship's victims were 22 sets of brothers and uncounted sets of friends. Seventy percent of the ship's crew perished.
A summer of '46 birth, I supposed myself an emphatic consequence of armistice—my father and mother properly delaying my birth until their upheaved world became a habitat safe for me. This dreamy version of my parents' decision about my conception seemed to me sound and true for years. Actual military events in Korea and French Vietnam and Hungary and Poland and the Suez seemed distant and unmournful as I confronted them from within the high-windowed walls of my schools through my Weekly Reader.
Sputnik, though, and the discovered presence of Soviet ballistic missiles in nearby Cuba quailed me. Weapons which could climb to space to descend unimpeded to earthbound targets pressured up dread, particularly when my father pondered aloud (during family meals) the constructing of an underground shelter, then actually began storing water in emptied Clorox jugs and stashing canned and dried foods in an interior room in our basement, along with a box of bullets, and bottles of aspirin and vitamin C.
At school there were inflexible drills during which we ducked under our desks (pushing our own heads with our own hands towards the floor), as though the just drawn black blinds and our desks and our suppliant positions would protect us from nuclear doom.
Then: 1963. John Kennedy's dead. Eight months later, in what seems an unknowable world, I register (within five working days of my 18th birthday) with the Selective Service. With that act, I become aware of a new factor in the situation of my possibly being in uniform: the United States is involved in Vietnam. Before Kennedy died, I find, he had positioned "advisers"—15,000—in Vietnam and had authorized hundreds of millions of dollars in aid. Kennedy, I mused? Our Kennedy in Vietnam? Had he thought he'd found a way to respond in safety to the hectoring Khrushchev?
Now, one month after I register with the Selective Service, U.S. aircraft begin bombing North Vietnam. Within another seven months (March 8, 1965), U.S. Marines land at DaNang. By December 1965, there are 200,000 American soldiers on the ground in Vietnam, a figure that takes but one year to double. By the next December (1967), there are 500,000 U.S. soldiers assigned to Vietnam—12 times the population of any city I've ever yet lived in, 50 times the 10,000 students enrolled at the university I then attend.
1968. The U.S.S. Pueblo is seized by the North Koreans. The Tet offensive begins. The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff announces the request for additional soldiers (200,000 more is what Westmoreland asks his boss for). Martin Luther King is murdered. Robert Kennedy is murdered. Fear and peril feel yeasty, viral. A small victory: Westmoreland is refused the request for 200,000 new soldiers, though he does command, by year's end, 540,000: the additional 40,000 representing for me every resident of the town I was raised in. Nonetheless, this reduction in U.S. military reinforcements I accept as personal relief, for as 1968 closes, there is hard talk of a draft lottery and the termination of all college deferments.
Draft lottery "number one" in the 1970 drawing is July 9: my birthday. I immediately join Air Force ROTC. My plan is to stay clear of the Army (more soldiers being buried than airmen). And: if forced to Vietnam, I mean to be forced there as a Lieutenant—an officer in charge of his future. The month I sign up for the Air Force Reserve Officer Training Corps, the Pentagon releases the public news of 34 deaths in 209 incidents in Vietnam of officer "fraggings"—that is, U.S. officers being attacked by their own soldiers. (Attacks by their own troops on officers in time of war reached unprecedented proportions in Vietnam, some historians reporting as many as 2,000 incidents a year.) During my time in Air Force ROTC, more officers are killed by their own soldiers. Four students are shot to death at Kent State. William Calley is tried and convicted. D.C. is marched upon by unhappy citizens. The New York Times begins publishing the Pentagon Papers.
All the time I was enrolled in ROTC, I believed I had, in an acceptable way, dodged war. But when I received my first ROTC check ($100 a month), I felt bothered enough to donate the sum to the American Red Cross. But I needed the money, so after giving away the first check, I began to keep them. I did, though, donate blood every six weeks or so when the Red Cross set up to collect in the gym. All-Service ROTC classrooms were housed in the same building as the gym, and everyone knew the blood collected was being shipped to Southeast Asia. I donated the blood (drank the Tang, ate the Oreos), and tried not to chafe at the Marine ROTC midshipmen who would arrive in noisy squads, an enthusiastic arrangement which allowed for competition as to which midshipman could fill his blood bag the quickest. These embryo Marines brought handballs to squeeze and clipboards and charts and stopwatches. I worried for the Marine midshipmen then, as I would worry for them now: they could hardly wait to give blood.
After some classroom military training, I'm commissioned: a newly coined Air Force Second Lieutenant. It is July 14, 1971. Not lost on me is that on this date, French peasants stormed the Bastille. One hundred eighty-two years later, I review my standing: I'm on active military duty, but not in Vietnam; I'm Air Force, not Army; and, especially, this: in Vietnam, U.S. forces are cut to 200,000. Of course, as I know now, when I reported in for active duty, we were less than a year away from the arrests at Watergate, and less than two years away from the important date of March 29, 1973: the day U.S. ground troops leave Vietnam.
Because I had served a few years as a church missionary before attending college, I was older than my college peers. What I failed to grasp when, in my panic, I contracted with the Air Force was that the draft lottery dates drawn applied primarily to that year's (1970's) newly turned 19-year-old males. I turned, that summer, 24, and could have completed school and soon, especially with the war winding down, moved past the specified (19 to 25-year-olds) draft-age window. I'd been born on July 9 all right, but July 9, 1946, not 1951. I joined the Air Force because I misinterpreted what the lottery meant for me.
About halfway through the poetry class at Yuba City Community College, the Marine Corporal died while driving his car: a gruesome, solo wreck. He'd been drinking because a friend had been killed in Saigon. The Corporal died on the highway one morning outside Beale Air Force Base's main gate. As though the Corporal had died in the bush instead of in a ditch in California, Air Force medics swooped in to pick him up, brought him home.
When I was later stationed in Washington, D.C., I thought of the Corporal. Knowing better, I once actually checked at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall for his name. I have since forgotten the Corporal's name, so even if his name were on the Wall in D.C., I couldn't now find it. But if this Marine did not die in Vietnam, he died because of it. I don't remember his name, but I remember his face. I can see his face. I can see his lyrical T-shirt. I see it now as the best poem he wrote.
After the Marine died, I began looking in undisciplined and, I think, largely unconscious ways for stories and poems about the war. In the early '80s, I remember coming upon John Gardner's short story, "The Art of Living." What struck me was that this was not an account of actual battle in some Asian swamp, but, rather, an account of a soldier's father's grief, a mourning of a son's death. The father, a chef who carries the notion "that food made peace between nations" (272), is driven to the preparation of an ancient Chinese recipe called Imperial Dog. The dish, sampled by the chef's son in Vietnam before he died, had been described to the father in a letter. A dog is procuredstolen from a pet shopkilled, skinned, baked, then eaten. John Gardner's narrator tells Arnold, the father, that he's crazy, that sitting down to a dinner of Chinese black dog will not make him one with his son, nor return the boy.
…Rinehart was dead, and soon we'd all be, two years or seventy, though the programmed anguish would go on and on for centuries, like a heatwave around the planet, until at last the sun went out, or some scheme from the Pentagon knocked it out, and there would be no more babies, no more sorrow or misuse of the gift of life, just a big, dark, wheeling stone. It was pity that made me yell, pity for the innocent tables and chairs that would be left, afterward, and couldn't so much as move an inch unless human beings helped them. (304)
After "The Art of Living," I found myself alert for other stories treating the ranging consequences of U.S. involvement in Vietnam's war. There were, remarkably, 8.5 million U.S. participants in the Vietnam War. Without knowing the depth or scope of what psychic and spiritual damage lies spidered within a number like 8.5 million, we do know that more than 200,000 U.S. soldiers were wounded in Vietnam—and we know, too, that 33,000 of these persons are permanently paralyzed, para- or quadriplegic. What is the calculus to compute the limits of the effects of America's longest war (a 15-year affair, spanning the reigns of 5 U.S. Presidents—Truman to Nixon)? Naturally, we have focused on our own 58,000 dead and 200,000 wounded, but the war cost the Vietnamese too—cost them as many as 2 million dead and another 3 million wounded. By what factor do we multiply to arrive at an accurate sum of hurt? Do we count survivors—mothers? fathers? sisters? brothers? lovers? soldiers who didn't die? all the rest? To the 58,000 American names inscribed (1/2 inch high, .015 inch deep) in the black wall in D.C., shouldn't we add more?
In "Vietnam No Big Deal," James Park Sloan's fictional veteran protests too much that Vietnam has had no effect on him. He claims to have it all in perspective—in fact, has written and sold a Vietnam War novel. In the end, though, what this vet can't escape is the story of Private Scarborough, a soldier Sloan's narrator knew in basic training. Scarborough, an inept and unable soldier, is threatened by his training sergeant that if he doesn't shape up he'll be shipped to Vietnam. Scarborough responds politely, "Vietnam ain't no big deal" (208). Scarborough's shipped to Vietnam. He dies there. Should his name, like the dead Marine's, be on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall? Should yours? mine? How I've been affected by my generation's war as well as by my father's seems no longer unique. All our lives are, I see now, framed by war.
Robley Wilson, Jr.'s "Despair" depicts a character who serves a tour of duty during Vietnam, but gets only as near to Vietnam as Oakland, California where he copies "information off the shipping tags of dead soldiers" (8). Despite this former soldier's continuing belief in the rightness of Vietnam, everything slipping in America—domestic auto sales, belief in government, the job market, his own marriage, his wife's miscarriages—vaguely but surely seems the consequence of U.S. involvement in Southeast Asia.
Such consequence is Elliot's lot in Robert Stone's story "Helping." Elliot's alcoholism is presented as unshyly connected to his Vietnam experience. Now a licensed social worker, Elliot's education and practice as a counselor seem hardly antidotal. In fact, in his professional life, Elliot is forced to abide a patient who pretends to be a Vietnam vet and to suffer from it. In "Helping," Stone's America is wild-eyed and doleful, infected by war.
In "Soldier's Joy," Tobias Wolff's PFC Hooper, on the other hand, misses Vietnam profoundly. While trying to talk down a suicidal and armed Army cook, Hooper is asked what his best time in 20 years of military service was. He informs the cook: Vietnam.
"Everything was clear," he said. "You learned what you had to know and you forgot the rest. All this chickenshit. This clutter. You didn't spend every living minute of the day thinking about your own sorry-ass little self. Am I getting laid enough. What's wrong with my kid. Should I insulate the fucking house. That's what it does to you, Porchoff. Thinking about yourself. That's what kills you in the end." (116)
To warn him off, Porchoff, the armed cook, points his rifle at Hooper's chest. Trac, a G.I. who has been backing Hooper, shoots Porchoff in the head in a move he believes necessary to save Hooper. Trac, Porchoff's killer, escaped Vietnam as a 9-year-old boy by clinging to the skids of a rising U.S. helicopter during the Fall of Saigon.
In his story "Frog Level," Robert Morgan tracks a cheating husband, a Vietnam vet named Fielding. Fielding's wife recalls her original attraction to her husband: "Fielding had just come back from Vietnam and he was the most exciting person I'd ever met" (121). In Vietnam, Fielding served on a rescue team for downed pilots. During one especially dangerous rescue attempt, Fielding feigns an injury, staying distant from the burning plane. Everyone but Fielding is killed when the plane explodes. There is in the story the suggestion that betrayal, individually or collectively, is a safe, if not preferred, route.
Unlike other of the selected Vietnam aftermath stories, Thom Jones' "The Pugilist at Rest" includes a most vivid battle scene, actual combat. Prompted by the witnessed, sacrificial death of his best pal in Vietnam, the narrator—after three tours—conducts his later life in such a way that he finds himself about to chance brain surgery—a kind of "lobotomy"—to alleviate his "feelings of guilt and worthlessness, and the heaviness of a heart blackened by sin" (25). This narrator thinks about his dead buddy, the artist-turned-Marine, Jorgeson.
It has taken me six months to put my thoughts in order, but I wanted to do it in case I am a vegetable after the operation. I know that my buddy Jorgeson was a real American hero. I wish that he had lived to be something else, if not a painter of pictures then even some kind of fuckup with a factory job and four divorces, bankruptcy petitions, in and out of jail. I wish he had been that. I wish he had been anything rather than a real American hero. So, then, if I am to feel somewhat indifferent to life after the operation, all the better. (26)
Stephanie Vaughn's "Kid MacArthur" is the story of not only a Vietnam vet's post-war adjustment, but of his noncombatant sister's as well, for, of course, noncombatants also suffer when nations wage war. Early in the story, MacArthur's sister sums up the marred fortunes of a generation of American youth. "[W]hen I left high school I went to college. When MacArthur left high school, he went to war" (103). MacArthur's sister becomes a graduate student teaching freshman composition. One bright June day, near the end of the school term, one of her appreciative students—a three-tour Vietnam vet—presents her a gift of a human ear.
"You probably have heard about the ears they brought back with them from Vietnam" (106), MacArthur's sister reflects.
You may have heard how the ears were carried in pouches or worn like necklaces, the lobes perforated so that they could be threaded on a leather thong. You may have heard that the ears looked like dried fruit, or like seashells, or like leaves curling beneath an oak tree. The mind will often make a metaphor when it cannot make anything else. (106)
"A human ear, though," MacArthur's sister knows and tells, "still looks like a human ear" (106).
Lynne Hanley juxtaposes in "War Torn" the experiences of two women, noncombatants both—but: one of the women lives in Berkeley, California, the other in Tan Son Nhut. After watching the Fall of Saigon on TV all night, Elizabeth, the American, flees to the Sierras. The Vietnamese woman, unable to escape Saigon, is "found in the morning and sent north. In ten years she will be a different person" (127). Then:
Elizabeth went, of course, to American mountains. Had Berkeley been Saigon, the mountains would not have been green. Had the Central Valley been the Plain of Jars, the mountains would have been littered with crater lakes and live guava, pineapple, and orange cluster bombs. But being American, the mountains were breathtaking and relatively unmolested, and the sky was as safe as it's been since 1945.
The sky is not safe as they race across the tarmac at Tan Son Nhut the day Saigon falls. People are falling out of it, and money and guns and babies and boots. (128-29)
In describing these stories, I have too simplified even a sampling of post-Vietnam War fictions in which are represented but a fraction of the 8 1/2 million U.S. participants in a war in a strip of a nation you could drive the length of on a good highway in ten hours (the width of in three). These stories are more complex than I have made them seem. They are about memory and love and resentment and loss and disbelief and defiance and humiliation and earnestness and blame and shame and blood and sacrifice and courage and sorrow. These are stories that, even if set in a past, seem to be written in an urgent and immortal present. Such stories are about what we must live with after any fought war. They identify us. They are about us.
I joined the Air Force to avoid Vietnam and, with the Corona butchery as an anniversary mark, then spent the next 22 years in the service (atonement for my comfortable war?). My military service wasn't, I think, a mistake for me, though it would have hardly surfaced as a career choice without the undeclared 15-year war in southeastern Asia. In 1970, besides confusing the rules of the lottery draft, I also managed to select the single service then willing to commission colorblind officers—or, as the government now puts it, color-vision-deficient persons. I'm colorblind, but that's not what kept me out of war. It wasn't ROTC or the Air Force either. It was luck.
*An adapted version of this essay will appear in the Introduction to AFTERMATH: An Anthology of Post-Vietnam Fiction to be published by Henry Holt and Company in 1995.
and Additional Selected "Vietnam Aftermath" Short Fiction
Anderson, Donald. "Baby Teeth." The North American Review 275.3 (1990): 40-41.
Erdrich, Louise. "A Bridge." Love Medicine. New York: Holt, 1984. 130-42.
Gardner, John. "The Art of Living." The Art of Living and Other Stories. New York: Knopf, 1981. 270-310.
Hanley, Lynne. "War Torn." Writing War: Fiction, Gender, and Memory. Amherst: The University of Massachusetts Press, 1991. 127-132.
Hannah, Barry. "Testimony of Pilot." Airships. New York: Knopf, 1978. 17-44.
Jones, Thom. "The Pugilist at Rest." The Pugilist at Rest: Stories. Boston: Little, Brown, 1993. 3-27.
Kumin, Maxine. "The Missing Person." The Best American Short Stories 1979. Boston: Houghton, 1979. 234-42.
Morgan, Robert. "Frog Level." The Mountains Won't Remember Us. Atlanta: Peachtree, 1992. 109-130.
O'Brien, Tim. "Speaking of Courage." The Things They Carried. New York: Penguin, 1990. 155-73.
Sloan, James Park. "Vietnam No Big Deal." Moral Fiction: An Anthology, Bellamy, Ed. Canton, NY: Fiction International, 1980. 201-208.
Stone, Robert. "Helping." The Best American Short Stories 1988. Boston: Houghton, 1988. 285-313.
Vaughn, Stephanie. "Kid MacArthur." Sweet Talk. New York: Random, 1990. 100-36.
Wilson, Robley Jr. "Despair" Dancing for Men. New York: Ecco, 1983. 3-9.
Wolff, Tobias. "Soldier's Joy." Back in the World. Boston: Houghton, 1985. 95-119.