Go quickly around the room and ask each of your students to share an association they have with the Vietnam War. If a student does not have an association, they can say “pass” and you can return to them after all their classmates have spoken.
Perspective taking with slide enclosures:
Place your students in pairs, and give each pair a slide enclosure (a small cardboard square with a rectangular cut out for a transparency that was used in slide projectors). Ask them to look through the opening to focus on something close to them, then on something far away. Ask them to write down the details they see close up, and do the same for what they notice from far away.
Hold a large group discussion: What kinds of details do they see up close? What kinds of things do they see from far away? What is the difference? Introduce the idea of perspective—that the vantage point from which you look at something influences what you see.
Practicing close noticing:
A. With photographs:
Show your class the image from the National Archives of bombs falling. Ask them to write down the details they notice—not their interpretations, but what they actually see.
Show them the image of the Vietnamese children and ask them to write down the details they notice is this photograph.
Ask your students to get back in their pairs to share what they noticed and think about the differences in perspectives.
Whole group discussion: What is the perspective of the photograph of the bombs? Using the details they just noticed for reference, what is the evidence for their conclusion? From where do your students think this photo was taken? What is the perspective of the photo of the Vietnamese children? From where do your students think this photo was taken? What can we learn from the focus of each of the photos? How does each perspective make us feel?
B. With military prose:
Ask your students to silently read pages 8-9 of “After Action Report, The Battle of Hue, 2-26 February 1968” twice. Each time they read, they should circle the things that jump out at them, including vocabulary they might not know.
Ask your students to gather in small groups to share what they have noticed and modify their own lists as they learn from each other.
Cover any or all of the following questions with your students in a whole-group discussion:
- What are the details you noticed in the writing?
- What is the perspective of the writer (close/far/both)? (Make sure your students cite the details they discovered when they read the document.)
- What do you notice about the language that has been used? Is it the same throughout the document? Does it change at any point? If so, where? Why do you think the language changes at this point?
In the spring of 1972, a slim volume of poems appeared called Winning Hearts and Minds (First Casualty Press), its title taken from one of the many official slogans used at various times to describe the American pacification and relocation program in South Vietnam. Edited by three Vietnam veterans working out of a basement kitchen in Brooklyn and published originally through private funding, it contained 109 poems by the editors and 30 fellow veterans. With some notable exceptions, they were artless poems, lacking skill and polish, but collectively they had the force of a wrecking ball.
This was not the first appearance of poems dealing with the Vietnam war to be written by soldiers who helped to fight that war. But Winning Hearts and Minds quickly became a classic: the seminal anthology against which all future Vietnam war poetry would be judged.
“[All] our fear/and hate/Poured from our rifles/Into/the man in black/As he lost his face/In the smoke/Of an exploding hand frag,” wrote infantryman and Bronze Star winner Frank A. Cross, Jr. “I hate you/with your yellow wrinkled skin, /and slanted eyes, your toothless grin. . ./Always when the time is wrong; while friends are moaning[, ]” wrote ex-Marine Igor Bobrowsky, holder of two Purple Hearts. “I’m afraid to hold a gun now,” wrote Charles M. Purcell, holder of the Vietnamese Cross of Gallantry, “What if I were to run amuck here in suburbia/And rush out into the street screaming/”Airborne all the way!”/And shoot the milkman.”
Most of the poems in Winning Hearts and Minds are carried by raw emotion alone, and most of the soldier-poets were not really poets at all but rather soldiers so hurt and bitter that they could not maintain their silence any longer. Some, however, stand out more sharply than others. Bobrowsky, Cross, and Purcell contribute powerful poems. Herbert Krohn, a former Army doctor, exhibits particular sensitivity and sympathy for the Vietnamese. In “Farmer’s Song at Can Tho,” he writes:
Co-editor Jan Barry (the other two editors were Basil T. Paquet and Larry Rottmann), who had served in Vietnam back in the days when U.S. troops were still called advisors, speaks of earlier occupations by the French, Japanese, Chinese, and Mongols “In the Footsteps of Ghenghis Khan,” but concludes:
What is a man but a farmer
Bowels and a heart that sings
Who plants his rice in season
Bowing then to the river.
I am a farmer and I know what I know.
This month’s harvest is tall green rice.
Next month’s harvest is hordes of hungry beetles.
How can peace be in a green country?
Barry is perhaps the single most important figure in the emergence of Vietnam veterans’ poetry, not only for his own pioneering poems but especially for his tireless efforts to encourage and promote the work of others.
Unencumbered by history
our own or that of 13th-century Mongol armies
long since fled or buried
by the Vietnamese
in Nhatrang, in 1962, we just did our jobs[.]
But the two most noteworthy poets in the collection are Paquet and Michael Casey. Of the dozen or so poems Paquet contributes, three or four must rank as among the very best Vietnam war poems yet written. Literate without being literary, Paquet was, at the time, far and away the most skillful and practiced of the soldier-poets. His “Morning—A Death” is a masterpiece, capturing at once the new, sophisticated battlefield medicine of Vietnam and the ancient, ageless human misery and futility of all wars:
You are dead just as finally
As your mucosity dries on my lips
In this morning sun.
I have thumped and blown into your kind too often.
I grow tired of kissing the dead.
Casey, a former military policeman, works exclusively with the truncated matter-of-fact speech rhythms that mirror the Vietnam grunts’ favorite phrase: “There it is”—no further explanation offered. “School children walk by,” he writes in “On Death”:
Some keep on walking
Some adults stare too
Over their nose
Out of the stomach
The penis in the air
It won’t matter then to me but now
I don’t want in death to be a
Public obscenity like this[.]
With the passage of time, Casey’s poems seem less substantial than former medic Paquet’s, but back then they were deemed good enough to earn him the Yale Younger Poets Award, and his collection Obscenities appeared almost simultaneously with Winning Hearts and Minds.
Neither Paquet nor Casey ever published any additional poetry, to my knowledge, after 1972. But for others in the volume, and for Vietnam-related poetry in general, Winning Hearts and Minds proved to be only the forerunner for a body of poetry that, 15 years later, is still growing. Many of the poets, like Paquet and Casey, surfaced briefly, then disappeared. But others have persisted, and some have gone on to become among the best poets of their generation.
Even before 1972 ended, D. C. Berry’s saigon cemetery appeared from the University of Georgia Press. Another former medic, Berry offers a vision of the war in which “hope” (and almost everything else) appears in lower case:
In many of Berry’s poems, lines, pieces of lines and words are scattered across the page like dismembered body parts, mimicking that all-too-frequent reality of the war.
the boy’s ma said may
be he’s one of the Lord’s
pretty flowers’ll rise
”God woman ain’t
no dead bulb gonna rise this May
pity you Martha!”
Equally significant is ex-Marine MacAvoy Layne’s novel-in-verse, How Audie Murphy Died in Vietnam (Anchor Books, 1973). In 227 very short and often bleakly humorous poems, Layne traces the life of his fictional Audie Murphy from birth through childhood to enlistment in the Marines, then boot camp, a tour of duty in Vietnam—including capture by the North Vietnamese—and finally home again. Some of the poems are as short as “Guns”:
None is longer than a single page. Though few, if any, could stand up alone without the support of all the others, their cumulative effect is remarkable and convincing.
When the M-16 rifle had a stoppage,
One could feel enemy eyes
More durable a poet—indeed, one of the very best—is John Balaban. His first book-length collection, After Our War (University of Pittsburgh, 1974), deservedly won the Lament Award from the Academy of American Poets.
Balaban is an anomaly: a soldier-poet who was not a soldier; indeed, he opposed the war and became a conscientious objector. But he chose to do his alternative service in Vietnam, first as a teacher of linguistics at the University of Can Tho, then as field representative for the Committee of Responsibility to Save War-Injured Children. Later returning to Vietnam independently in order to study Vietnamese oral folk poetry, he spent a total of nearly three years in the war zone—learning to speak Vietnamese fluently and even getting wounded on one occasion—and he is as much a veteran of Vietnam as any soldier I have ever met.
Because of his unique situation, however, Balaban brings to his poetry a perspective unlike any other. “A poet had better keep his mouth shut,” he writes in “Saying Good-by to Mr. and Mrs. My, Saigon, 1972”:
unless he’s found words to comfort and teach.
Today, comfort and teaching themselves deceive
and it takes cruelty to make any friends
when it is a lie to speak, a lie to keep silent.
While Balaban’s poems offer little comfort, they have much to teach. Years before Agent Orange was widely acknowledged for the silent killer it is—the deadly seed sewn in Asia only to take root at home among those who thought they’d survived—Balaban wrote in “Along the Mekong”:
And his “The Guard at the Binh Thuy Bridge” is a frightening exercise in quiet tension—the way it was; the war always a hair-trigger away, just waiting to happen:
With a scientific turn of mind I can understand
that malformations in lab mice may not occur in children
but when, last week, I ushered hare-lipped, tusk-toothed kids
to surgery in Saigon, I wondered, what had they drunk
that I have drunk.
How still he stands as mists begin to move,
as morning, curling, billows creep across
his cooplike, concrete sentry perched mid-bridge
over mid-muddy river.
Anchored in red morning mist a narrow junk
rocks its weight, A woman kneels on deck
staring at lapping water. Wets her face.
Idly the thick Rach Binh Thuy slides by.
He aims. At her. Then drops his aim. Idly.
Balaban is particularly adept at contrasting the impact of the war on Vietnam with the indifference of those at home. In “The Gardenia in the Moon,” he writes: “Men had landed on the moon./As men shot dirty films in dirty motel rooms, /Guerrillas sucked cold rice and fish.” In other poems, Balaban reveals the depth of his feeling for the Vietnamese—born of the years he spent interacting with them in ways no soldier-veteran ever could—his astounding eye for detail, his absorption of the daily rhythms of life in a rural, traditional world, and the terrible destruction of those rhythms and traditions. In “Orpheus in the Upper World,” he offers perhaps an explanation for the hundreds and even thousands of poems written by those who fought the war:
For when his order had burst his head,
like sillowy seeds of milkweed pod,
he learned to pay much closer watch
to all things, even small things,
as if to discover his errors.
Not all the poems in After Our War deal with Vietnam. But if some of the non-Vietnam poems occasionally reveal the graduate student laboring to flex his intellectual muscle, they also reveal the poet’s ability to transcend Vietnam and reach out to the wider world around him.
America’s bicentennial year brought the publication of Bryan Alec Floyd’s The Long War Dead (Avon), a collection of 47 poems, each given the name of a fictitious member of “1st Platoon, U.S.M.C.” Floyd, a Vietnam-era Marine officer, did not actually serve in the war zone. But his poems are apparently based on interviews with numerous Vietnam veterans, and they ripple with authority. “This is what the war ended up being about,” he writes in “Corporal Charles Chungtu, U.S.M.C.”:
Floyd’s poems have marvelous range, giving voice to those who supported the war and those who detested it, lashing out with equal vehemence at American generals and North Vietnamese diplomats, the antiwar movement and the failed war. He succeeds, like no other poet I know of, in offering the full breadth of feelings and emotions of those who fought the war.
we would find a V. C. village,
and if we could not capture it
or clear it of Cong,
we called for jets.
Then the village
that was not a village any more
was our village.
Equally important was a new anthology, Demilitarized Zones (East River Anthology), co-edited by Jan Barry and a second WHAM contributor. Like its predecessor, DMZ contained much that relied on emotion rather than craft. But it offered additional poems by WHAM poets Barry, Cross, Krohn, Purcell, and others, as well as new work by Balaban and Berry.
It also introduced a handful of good newcomers. Ex-infantryman Steve Hassett contributed half-a-dozen poems, including his eerily ironic “Christmas,” in which “The Hessian in his last letter home/said in part/”they are all rebels here/who will not stand to fight/but each time fade before us/as water into sand[.]”” Former Airman Horace Coleman writes of his “Saigon daughter” in “A Black Soldier Remembers”:
In “Death of a Friend,” ex-artilleryman Doug Rawlings writes, “his death/begs me to follow/pulls me toward him/my hands grow weak/and/cannot break/the string[.]” There are also excellent poems by Gerald McCarthy and Bruce Weigl, both of whom would later publish book-length collections of their own.
She does not offer me one of the
silly hats she sells Americans and
I have nothing she needs but
the sad smile she already has.
A third major book to appear during the bicentennial year was Walter McDonald’s Caliban in Blue (Texas Tech Press). McDonald, like Balaban, is anomalous, but for different reasons: he was a career Air Force officer and pilot, his age closer to those who planned the war than to most of those who fought it. But his poems are wonderfully powerful, often intimately personal and sensitive. In “Faraway Places,” he writes:
This daughter watching ducks knows
nothing of Vietnam,
this pond her only Pacific,
separation to her
only the gulf between herself
and ducks that others feed.
to leave such gold, he thinks.
There is no gold for him
turns on him like swimming ducks,
forcing his touch again.
She does not feel his claim
upon her gold
that swirls upon her face but cannot blink
so full of ducks.
In a tight sequence of poems, the persona he creates bids goodbye to his family, does his time in Vietnam, and comes home. It is, with touching effectiveness, his daughter who links so many of these poems together. In “Rocket Attack,” he first describes the death of a young Vietnamese girl, then cries out:
—and there the poem ends, abruptly as consciousness at the moment of impact. Finally, home at last, “The Retired Pilot to Himself” wonders:
Daughter, oh God, my daughter
may she never
safe at home
Never hear the horrible
sucking sound a rocket makes when it
Bombs so long falling; after falling,
O for tonight—
sidling heel and toe in graceful
acceptance of herself.
In one particularly striking poem, “Interview with a Guy Named Fawkes, U.S. Army,” McDonald captures—as well as any young “grunt” could—the grinding frustrations of guerrilla war:
In addition, a number of very good non-Vietnam poems in Caliban in Blue attest to McDonald’s great skill and expanding field of vision.
—you tell them this—
tell them shove it, they’re
not here, tell them kiss
my rear when they piss about
women and kids in shacks
we fire on. damn,
they fire on us.
what do they know back where
not even in their granddam’s days
did any damn red rockets glare.
Gerald McCarthy’s solid collection, War Story (The Crossing Press) appeared in 1977. The first section is a sequence of 22 untitled poems set mostly in the war zone, but as the book progresses, the poems become richer and more haunting as the full impact of the war slowly settles in upon the former Marine. In “The Sound of Guns,” he writes:
At the university in town
tight-lipped men tell me the war in Vietnam is over,
that my poems should deal with other things[. ]
At nineteen I stood at night and watched
an airfield mortared. A plane that was to take
me home, burning; men running out of the flames.
Seven winters have slipped away,
the war still follows me.
Never in anything have I found
a way to throw off the dead.
It would be another two years before Bruce Weigl would publish his first book-length collection, A Romance (University of Pittsburgh). Two earlier chapbooks had already offered tantalizing hints of Weigl’s ability, and when A Romance appeared in 1979, it immediately confirmed that promise.
Again, one finds the particular hallmark of the very best of the soldier-poets: scattered among the war-related poems are numerous excellent poems on other topics, suggesting an ability to transcend Vietnam. Indeed, of the 36 poems, only ten deal with the war. Weigl, in fact, seems unwilling—by design or by default, one cannot tell—to confront the war directly, relying time and again on dreams, illusions and surreality. “Sailing to Bien Hoa” is typical:
In my dream of the hydroplane
I’m sailing to Bien Hoa
the shrapnel in my thighs
like tiny glaciers.
I remember a flower,
a kite, a mannikin playing the guitar,
a yellow fish eating a bird, a truck
floating in urine, a rat carrying a banjo,
a fool counting the cards, a monkey praying,
a procession of whales, and far off
two children eating rice,
I’m sure of the children,
their damp flutes,
the long line of their vowels.
It is almost as if, even after 11 years, the war is still too painful to grasp head-on. Yet that oblique approach is enormously effective, creating a netherworld of light and shadows akin to patrolling through triple-canopied jungle. In “Mines,” he writes:
And in “Monkey,” a complicated five-part poem, he writes:
Here is how you walk at night: slowly lift
one leg, clear the sides with your arms, clear the back,
front, put the leg down, like swimming.
Each one of these ten poems, scattered as they are among the others, is like stepping into a punji pit or triggering a tripwire.
I like a little unaccustomed mercy.
Pulling the trigger is all we have.
I hear a child.
I’m tired of the rice
falling in slow motion[.]
Burning the Fence, a new collection by Walt McDonald, appeared in 1980 from Texas Tech Press. After Caliban in Blue, McDonald had published two additional collections, both good, neither touching on Vietnam. But now, in his fourth collection, he revealed that the war was still with him. In “The Winter Before the War,” he talks of raking leaves in late autumn, the approach of winter, the first snow and ice-fishing, concluding:
Only in “Al Groom,” in fact, does he write of Vietnam directly, and the word “Vietnam” appears nowhere in the collection. But the war is there, nevertheless, like a dark and brooding presence.
was where we thawed.
in mugs we wrapped
our hands around.
Our children slept.
The news came on.
each other’s eyes.
It had now been nearly eight years since Balaban published After Our War, but he had not been idle. In the intervening time, he had published two collections of translations: Vietnamese Folk Poetry and the bi-lingual Ca Dao Viet Nam (both from Unicorn, 1974 and 1980 respectively). And in 1982, his Blue Mountain (also from Unicorn) ably demonstrated the growth of his own poetry over the years. Here are poems ranging from the American West to the southern Appalachians, from Pennsylvania to Romania, along with eloquent elegies to friends and family members.
Still, lingering memories of Vietnam persist. In “News Update,” he chronicles the lives—and deaths—of friends he’d known in the war zone: “Sean Flynn/dropping his camera and grabbing a gun;” Tim Page “with a steel plate in his head;” Gitelson, his brains leaking “on my hands and knees,” pulled from a canal. “And here I am, ten years later,” he muses:
written up in the local small town press
for popping a loud-mouth punk in the choppers.
Oh, big sighs. Windy sighs. And ghostly laughter.
In “For Mrs. Cam, Whose Name Means “Printed Silk,”” he reflects on the dislocation of the refugee Boat People:
And in “After Our War,” he writes:
The wide Pacific flares in sunset.
Somewhere over there was once your home.
You study the things which start from scratch.
After observing wryly that “all things naturally return to their source,” he wonders, “After our war, how will love speak?”
After our war, the dismembered bits
—all those pierced eyes, ear slivers, jaw splinters,
gouged lips, odd tibias, skin flaps, and toes—
came squinting, wobbling, jabbering back.
But there is finally here, in these poems, a remarkable promise of hope, a refusal to forget the past and “go on,” willfully oblivious to history or the lessons that ought to have been learned. In “In Celebration of Spring,” he insists:
Swear by the locust, by dragonflies on ferns,
by the minnow’s flash, the tremble of a breast,
by the new earth spongy under our feet:
that as we grow old, we will not grow evil,
that although our garden seeps with sewage,
and our elders think it’s up for auction—swear
by this dazzle that does not wish to leave us—
that we will be keepers of a garden, nonetheless.
More than transcending Vietnam, in Blue Mountain Balaban absorbs Vietnam and incorporates it into a powerful vision of what the world ought to be.
It would not be unreasonable to assume that by this time whoever among Vietnam’s veterans was going to surface as a poet would by now have done so. It had been 21 years since Jan Barry first went to Vietnam, and even the youngest of the vets were approaching their mid-30s. But the appearance in 1984 of D.F. Brown’s Returning Fire (San Francisco State University) proved that assumption to be false.
Former medic Brown is particularly interesting, having remained in the Army from 1968 to 1977, and one can only wonder why he stayed in and why he got out. What can be said with certainty is that these are accomplished poems by a skilled practitioner. All of them deal with Vietnam and its aftermath. “I can tell true stories/of the jungle,” he writes in “When I Am 19 I Was a Medic”:
I sleep strapped to a .45,
bleached into my fear.
I do this under the biggest tree,
some nights I dig
in saying my wife’s name
over and over.
I never mention
the fun, our sense of humor
embarrasses me. Something
warped it out of place
and bent I drag it along—
keep track of time spent,
measure what I think we have left.
In “Eating the Forest,” he speaks of “soldiers/trained to sleep/where the moon sinks/and bring the darkness home[.]” In “Still Later There Are War Stories,” he warns: “We grow old counting the year/in days, . . . The jungle/loaded, nobody/comes away in one piece.” And in “Coming Home,” he notices:
Someone has stacked his books,
Records, souvenirs, pretending
This will always be light
And zoned residential[.]
The shortest poem in the book is “L’Eclatante Victoire de Khe Sanh”:
The longest poem, from which the book’s title is taken, runs over three pages. In between are some of the best poems to come out of the war. Whether Brown will eventually expand his reach to include other subjects and themes remains to be seen, but Returning Fire is a strong beginning.
The main thing
is the jungle
has retaken the trenches—
think it forgiven
look on it healed
as a scar.
Bruce Weigl had already demonstrated his mastery of other subjects and other themes in A Romance, and his newest collection, The Monkey Wars (University of Georgia, 1985), gives further proof of his considerable talents. Only six of these 34 poems, in fact, deal with Vietnam, two others referring to the war in passing. Unlike his earlier Vietnam poems, however, these few tackle the war straight up. Absent are the dreams and illusions, the surreality. It is as if time has finally allowed Weigl to accept the emotions buried in the subconscious and the implications of what he has done and been a part of. In the tellingly brutal and straightforward poem, “Burning Shit at An Khe,” he describes in painful detail the repulsive task of cleaning makeshift outhouses:
I tried to light a match
And it all came down on me, the stink
And the heat and the worthlessness
Until I slipped and climbed
Out of that hole and ran
Past the olive drab
Tents and trucks and clothes and everything
Green as far from the shit
As the fading light allowed.
Only now I can’t fly.
I lay down in it
And finger paint the words of who I am
Across my chest
Until I’m covered and there’s only one smell,
Even more chilling is “Song of Napalm,” in which he tries to appreciate the wonder of horses in a pasture after a storm:
But the poem continues, “the lie swings back again,” and finally:
Still I close my eyes and see the girl
Running from her village, napalm
Stuck to her dress like jelly,
Her hands reaching for the no one
Who waits in waves of heat before her.
So I can keep on living,
So I can stay here beside you,
I try to imagine she runs down the road and wings
Beat inside her until she rises
Above the stinking jungle and her pain
Eases, and your pain, and mine.
. . . she is burned behind my eyes
And not your good love and not the rain-swept air
And not the jungle green
Pasture unfolding before us can deny it.
Perhaps because he has come to terms with the worst, he can also now remember with a certain amusement “The Girl at the Chu Lai Laundry,” who wouldn’t give him his uniforms because they weren’t finished:
Who would’ve thought the world stops
Turning in the war, the tropical heat like hate
And your platoon moves out without you,
Your wet clothes piled
At the feet of the girl at the laundry,
Beautiful with her facts.
These are wonderful poems, made more so by their juxtaposition with touchingly beautiful nonwar poems like “Snowy Egret” and “Small Song for Andrew.” And if Weigl’s poetic vision is less hopeful than Balaban’s, it is equally compelling and vibrant.
Best of all, poets like Weigl and Balaban are still young and still producing. One hopes for the same from Brown, McCarthy and others. A poem of McDonald’s appeared recently in The Atlantic. And other poets may yet emerge. Vietnam veteran Yusef Komunyakaa has published excellent poems in recent years in magazines and anthologies, and a collection of his, I Apologize for the Eyes in My Head, is forthcoming from Wesleyan University Press. Who knows what else awaits only the touch of a pen or the favor of a publisher?
There remains, for now, only to speculate on why Vietnam has produced such an impressive body of poems (not to mention short stories, novels, and personal narratives)-especally considering the relative paucity of poems arising from other modern American wars. Korea produced almost nothing at all. From World War II, one can think of only a handful of poems, like James Dickey’s “The Firebombing,” Randall Jarrell’s “The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner,” and sections of Thomas McGrath’s Letter to an Imaginary Friend. The contrast is even more remarkable when one considers how very few members of the Vietnam Generation ever actually served in Vietnam in any capacity at all. Where then do these poems come from?
Surely it has to do with the peculiar nature of the war itself. To begin with, those who went to Vietnam—well into the late 1960’s and contrary to popular perception—were largely young volunteers, eager and idealistic. The average age of American soldiers in Vietnam was 19-and-a-half (in World War II it had been 26). They had grown up in the shadow of their fathers’ generation, the men who had fought “the good war” from 1941 to 1945. Most had been in grade school or junior high school when John F. Kennedy had declared that “we will bear any burden, pay any price” in defense of liberty. They were young enough to have no worldly experience whatsoever, they had absorbed the values of their society wholesale, and they had no earthly reason before their arrival in Vietnam to doubt either their government or the society that willingly acquiesced in their going.
All of that was about to change forever. Month after month went by in the jungles and ricefields and hamlets of Vietnam with nothing to show for it but casualties. Men fought and died for nameless hills, only to walk away from them when the battle was over. Men taught to believe that American soldiers handed out candy to kids found themselves killing and being killed by those very kids. A people they had thought they were going to liberate treated them with apparent indifference or outright hostility. Progress was measured in grisly official body counts, and any dead Vietnamese was a Viet Cong. Torture, assault and battery, malicious destruction, murder and mayhem—the very things young Americans had always been taught only the enemy did—were widespread and tacitly or openly sanctioned. Worst of all, as time passed, it became obvious even to the most naïve 18-year-old that the war was going nowhere.
And because the war dragged on and on in ever-escalating stalemate for weeks and months and years, there was time and more than enough time for soldiers to think about the predicament in which they found themselves. Who in the hell was fighting whom? Why?! And for what? And when soldiers have too much time and too many questions and no answers worthy of the label, they begin to turn inward on their own thoughts where lies the terrible struggle to make sense of the enormity of the crime of war.
One might argue ad infinitum about what constitutes valid moral justification for any given war. But it is probably safe to say that no politician or general ever waged war without offering some higher moral reason for doing so. Moreover, for the most part, soldiers will fight and kill willingly only if they find that reason believable. Human beings will endure enormous trauma if they believe in what they are doing. But the explanations given by those who’d sent the soldiers to fight in Vietnam became ever more surreal and absurd until they were revealed for what they were: nothing but empty words, bereft of reason or any semblance of higher moral authority.
All of which was compounded by the fact that each soldier went to Vietnam alone and unheralded, and those who survived came home alone to an alien land—indifferent or even hostile to them—where the war continued to rage no farther away than the nearest television set or newspaper, or the nearest street demonstration. Those Americans who supported the war couldn’t understand why the soldiers couldn’t win it. Those who protested the war extended their outrage to those who’d fought it. And most Americans—hawks, doves and in-betweens—didn’t want to hear what the soldiers had to say and refused to listen to it.
In short, those who had been asked and ordered to pull the trigger were left alone to carry the weight of the entire disaster that was America’s war in Indochina. The American people turned their backs on the war long before it ended. Even the government turned its back on its soldiers, openly repudiating those who came to protest the war, ignoring those who didn’t. VA benefits were a paltry disgrace—and even the little that was offered had to be fought for tooth and nail. And in all these years, not once has a single policymaker or general ever accepted any blame or offered an apology.
Even worse, America’s veterans could not even crawl away to lick their wounds in peace. Without even the illusion of a satisfactory resolution, the war ground on for years after most veterans had come home, and the fall of Saigon has been followed by one reminder after another: the boat people, the amnesty issue, Agent Orange, delayed stress, the occupation of Cambodia, the bombing of the Marine barracks in Bierut, the mining of Nicaragua’s harbors. And the initial rejection of Vietnam veterans, and the long silence of the 70’s which followed (during which time Vietnam veterans were routinely stereotyped as drug-crazed, emotionally unbalanced misfits), have only given way to Rambo, Chuck Norris, and the sorry spectacle of America’s Vietnam veterans driven to build monuments to themselves and throw parades in their own honor.
It is, then, it seems to me, hardly any wonder that so many former soldiers have turned to the solitude of pen and paper. Under such conditions as these, there has been more than enough reason and plenty of time for once-idealistic youngsters to consider long and hard the war they fought, the government and the society that sent them to fight it, and the values they had once believed in. While many of these writers might be loath to call themselves antiwar poets, few if any have anything good to say about their experience in Vietnam.
In 1963, John Kennedy said in a speech at Amherst College, “When power corrupts, poetry cleanses.” Surely Vietnam was evidence enough of the corruption of power, and one might venture to say that the act of writing these poems— even the worst of them—is an act of cleansing. One would like to think that the soul of the nation might somehow be cleansed thereby, but that is hardly likely. More realistically, one hopes that in writing these poems, the poets might at least have begun to cleanse their own souls of the torment that was and is Vietnam. Surely, in the process of trying, the best of them have added immeasurably to the body and soul of American poetry.