Wednesday, November 25, 2009


A few days ago, I read for the first time The Things They Carried, Tim O'Brien's powerful collection of short stories about the Vietnam War. I recall that Jessica had read it in school. As I sat in the "Flying Goat" coffee shop recording some notes from my reading, Jessica's friend Shannon came in and joined me during his lunch break. "Great book," he said looking down at the well-worn library copy on the table. When Shannon had to return to work, our mutual friend Chris, took his place. "Great book," he said. They too had read the book in school. It was encouraging that a glimpse of this "truth" about war had worked its way into the school curriculum.

After Chris and Shannon were gone, I opened up "Google Earth" and explored satellite images of the former war zone, including Chu Lai and the Song Tra Bong valley, the setting for O'Brien's writing.

40 years on, the remnants of massive American bases are still clearly evident; the giant air fields, port facilities and supply depots. Da Nang, Chu Lai, Cam Ranh Bay, Tan Son Nhut, Bien Hoa. Nature is slowly reclaiming some of these human-inflicted scars.

The next day, I went for a hike in Annadel Park. I often access the park via the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Trail. At the entrance, a dedication reads:
We gave you our lives.
It is for you, the living
to give our deaths meaning.
We were young. We have died. Remember us.

This time, I paused before the sign. With emotions welling up, the only words that came were "what a waste."

Brother Jeff in Vietnam, circa 1968

I will never know what it was like on the ground in Vietnam. I will never know the horror that Tim O'Brien (or my brother Jeff) experienced while fighting "the spread of Communism." Or the terror rained upon millions of innocent Vietnamese, Cambodians and Laotians courtesy of our "military-industrial complex".

The closest I came was as a brief participant on the margins, aboard "the Number One Gunship in the Seventh Fleet". But even there, I witnessed war's utter waste, the absolutely mindless devastation that is unleashed under the feeblest of premises. I saw the insanity that the thrill of war begets. It was exemplified by our captain's insistence that we be the last ship to fire in the Vietnam War. One minute before the ceasefire went into effect, he ordered a final salvo from our five-inch gun. I stood by in wonder. Who might die for his vainglorious distinction?

Timtraveler aboard the U.S.S. Turner Joy (aka "Eternal Joy"), circa 1973. Photo by Drew Kampion.

And today, pursuant to some lofty-sounding but always vaguely-defined ideal, we send our children to do the very same dirty work. Our industry and economy, now so heavily invested and complicit in the war-making - its promotion, execution and reconstruction from the rubble - fails utterly to question or doubt the source of its largess. Industry has no morals.

These days, nearly everyone can agree "The American War" in Vietnam was, for all the foreign nations involved, an ideological proxy war and misguided exploit.

Yet why, in the case of Iraq and Afghanistan, is it so unclear? (How can it be that we are even debating this issue?) For anyone who really studies these wars, the parallels are astounding. The deceptions, propaganda, prejudices, corruption, covert operations and assassinations, the escalations - all born of the same greedy pursuit of resources, wealth and regional dominance. Only the technology has advanced - the sophistication (and cost) of the weapons systems we use.

Where are all the voices of those who know (because they have been there) the waste and life-long cost of war? Where are all the veterans of Vietnam and our subsequent illegal and unconscionable war-making campaigns? Why are we not keeping our children at home, in school, in honorable professions, creating instead of destroying? Have we relinquished hope of halting this juggernaut?

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