Thursday, May 27, 2010

Wandering Souls

I have discovered, quite by accident, a wonderful book entitled, "Wandering Souls: Journeys with the Dead and the Living in Vietnam," by Wayne Karlin. Here are a couple of passages that might move you.

"Homer had lost his belief in the institution that had sustained him. An army, Jonathan Shay writes, is 'a moral world that most of the participants most of the time regard as legitimate, "natural" and personally binding....' When a leader destroys the legitimacy of the army's moral order by betraying 'what's right', he inflicts manifold injuries on his men.' This statement applies equally to the authority that an army exists to serve and protect. Jack Kennedy admonished you to ask what you could do for your country. But you could not feature that what you did - and what was done to you - in Vietnam was what he had in mind. There is a certain 'destruction of the capability for social trust.' Alpha Company is not only inserted on top of an enemy regiment without support, an act of incompetence that is later unabashedly credited as the key to a victory, but then command lies about the number of causalities the company suffered as well. You and your men desperately need water and machine gun ammunition; instead, a seemingly inept or indifferent or possibly insane commander sends freeze-dried rations that have to be prepared with water. Or the enemy and the population you have been told you were there to protect are inextricably braided together, and the gauge of victory is the body count - all leading to that spoken and unspoken mantra for murder, "if its dead and it's Vietnamese, it's Viet Cong." Or you are sent to die in an unnecessary war that an administration propagates out of a fabric of lies - nonexistent attacks against destroyers, a nonexistent monolithic and menacing communism, nonexistent weapons of mass destruction - that the government either instigates, creates, or carelessly chooses to believe. "Viet Nam is a place where everybody finds out who they are," Stone's character Converse says to his friend Hicks in Dog Soldier, as he tries to convince him to smuggle heroin back to the States. "What a bummer for the gooks," Hicks replies. [p.146]

"'At the time,' Homer says of his enlistment, 'at least until I was a couple of months in country, I thought I was going to save the world from communism. I thought it was a serious threat and that if we didn't stop it, it was just going to snowball and that the next thing you know we'd have red flags flying in downtown Bamberg.'

"His belief had not lasted; it lost its shine in the red mud,rusted to a fragile shell in the monsoon rains. 'We carried, along with our packs and rifles, the implicit convictions that the Viet Cong would be quickly beaten and that we were doing something altogether noble and good. We kept the packs and rifles; the convictions we lost,' wrote Philip Caputo. Without these sustaining convictions, even if they were buried deep and only disinterred back into consciousness after the war, many could not live with the deaths they had witnessed or dealt. They could not, the psychologists would say, put them into an acceptable narrative." [p. 147]

"Homer" here is Homer Steedly, Jr. who shot a young Vietnamese man, point blank, took his papers, sent them home and kept them for some decades and then sought to and did return them to the man's surviving family in Vietnam. And this is a book that illustrates the obscenities of this thing we call "war." It is, I think, well worth the read.

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