Veterans Look at Vietnam and Kosovo

By David Morse

A deep weariness fills my soul whenever I think about Kosovo. Weariness with war, yes. Not again! But this particular response springs from an anguish that may be familiar to readers who struggled against the war in Vietnam.

These feelings were clarified during a three-day forum entitled "Writing Vietnam," held at Brown University last April. The event brought together Vietnam veterans - not only combat veterans, but Southeast Asian refugees, journalists, and others whose lives had been deeply affected by the war in Vietnam - as well as writing students from Brown and members of the public.

My own focus was on the combat vets. They ranged from the acclaimed novelist Tim O'Brian, whose The Things They Carried was a finalist for both the Pulitzer Prize and the national Book Critics Circle award, to unknown poets and writers struggling to find words for their pain and to gain a better understanding of their own wartime experiences. I attended informally, as someone who had experienced Vietnam from the "other" side, from a deep involvement in the anti-war movement. I carried away some impressions that have special meaning for me, some bearing on Kosovo, and I hope some relevance to my fellow Quakers. The project had been organized by Beth Taylor, a former Friend who teaches writing at Brown. And it was Chuck Fager, clerk of the Fellowship of Quakers in the Arts (FQA) and editor of the newly published Friends & the Vietnam War (Pendle Hill, 1998), who alerted me to the event. Thanks to the networking of FQA, Chuck was aware that the new novel I'm working on explores the impact of Vietnam on American society.

As I looked toward this conference, I wondered how I would feel encountering the combat veterans. Although my friendships include some Vietnam veterans, this would be a more charged environment: the others would be attending in that specific role, as veterans, focused on their own struggle and supporting each other. I would be an interloper. I suspected I would encounter sensitive individuals who would challenge my own understandings, and I also wondered how much kinship I would feel with their experience.

The opening session was entitled "Vet to Vet," and was facilitated by Frank Grzyb (pronounced "Gribb"), a decorated army vet who had authored a book entitled Touched by the Dragon. We sat in a large circle - thirty-five or forty veterans, mostly men but including several women - with a like number of onlookers at one end of an opulent room with a huge formal fireplace in Brown's Alumni Hall. Those of us who had published were asked to introduce ourselves. I did not have to volunteer that I had been an anti-war activist, but when it came my turn I chose to. I would have felt dishonest if I had not. I was immediately assured by Frank Grzyb that I should not feel "ashamed^ of being there. I was surprised to hear it put this way, but sensed the words were offered in a spirit of inclusiveness. Others took similar pains to welcome me.

Shame was not what I felt, of course. I was uneasy, however, given the judgments we had all made 30 years or so ago which put us on opposite sides of the war-issue so profoundly that it felt sometimes as if we on opposite sides of the war. I was among the "enemy" now. Those of us in the anti-war movement had been accused of being Communist dupes, of aiding and abetting the Vietcong and the North Vietnamese; Jane Fonda, after she visited Hanoi, was dubbed "Hanoi Jane." And those who fought in uniform were accused of being willing pawns of a government bent on carrying on the colonial legacy of the French. I had fallen into that rhetoric; the whole national dialogue had been reduced to bumper stickers.

I was not a Quaker in those days, although I worked closely with the Community for Nonviolent Action in Voluntown, Connecticut; I was simply a bedfellow in what we liked to call the Movement. I think the spiritual presence of a Quaker meeting might have helped temper my vehemence and gotten me through those years with less scarring. It also might have helped if a close friend or relative had gone to Vietnam as a combatant, or if I had become close enough to a veteran to talk about the war in its aftermath. If I had had roots in a small town, those connections would have been almost inescapable. But I had no such roots, no such humanizing experience. I was hermetically sealed against it. Demonstrating in Washington D.C. and elsewhere, I had chanted LBJ, LBJ! How many kids did you kill today? And now here I was, sitting in that room, surrounded by vets, remembering the bitter divisions between us. My interest in what they were saying was electric.

A nurse described her work in a traumatic amputation ward in Philadelphia; it was years before she realized she was suffering from post-traumatic stress syndrome. An ex-Marine had received a gaping wound, was taken for dead, zipped into a body-bag and thrown into a helicopter. A woman whose fiance had died not of wounds, but of a disease contracted in Vietnam, told of her struggle to get his name added to the Wall.

Another surprise came the following evening. After listening to more veterans' accounts, I realized that the process by which we were all emerging from the Vietnam experience was taking place according to somewhat the same calendar. For many of the combat veterans, as for me, the sense of returning to mainstream society - the more complex understanding of the war and oneself, and the degree of acceptance of the human condition that seemed required to make that return possible - had started to happen around ten years ago.

It had taken nearly twenty years for those feelings to come out: for a nurse, traumatized by her work with the wounded, to reveal her Vietnam "past" to the man she later met and married; for G.I.s to talk about certain incidents; for others to begin to write the poems that raged in their breasts; for me to work past my anger and to learn forgiveness and love.

How much of this is developmental (we were all middle aged by then, I being a few years older than most of the vets), how much societal and circumstantial (the Gulf War, the putative end of the Cold War) is hard to say. But I do know that this process of coming around was not so much intellectual, as emotional and spiritual. The healing is made of the same stuff as the wounds.

It helped me to hear their stories, to absorb the starkness of the bloodshed, the images of exploding flesh, the deaths of comrades, the heartbreak of wives and mothers. There was also the grotesque absurdity of carrying out certain orders, detailed by Philip Caputo, a Marine lieutenant who went on to become a journalist. There were the funny things that happened in wartime. There was the racism within the ranks, the privations, the camaraderie, and - most difficult for me to hear - the adrenalyzing excitement of combat. From Jade Ngoc Quang Huynh, a South Vietnamese refugee who told of his harrowing escape from an indoctrination camp following the war, detailed in his memoir, South Wind Changing (Graywolf Press, 1994) I glimpsed the sweeping destruction of a whole way of life in the Mekong Delta.

All this helped put my own suffering as a peace activist into perspective - the loss of career and marriage, the alienation - and helped explain why in the years following the war, in my thirties, I felt myself trapped in political anger; found myself pursuing physical risks, flouting the law, smoking a lot of pot, living from one peak moment to the next. I don't mean to blame everything on the war. The cracks were in my marriage. But the long struggle against the war was a wrenching experience that shaped my entry into full adulthood, and in some ways delayed it by years.

Simply hearing these stories was helpful. I had heard stories like them before, or read them. But it helped to hear them now, from the combatants themselves and at this age.

Four of the vets and I went out afterwards to a local cafe, where we bought a couple of rounds of beers and ate. We were an odd mix, as Frank Grzyb observed more than once: three grunts, a Lt. Colonel, and a Quaker. He was fascinated and, as it turned out, pleased that I wanted to join them for dinner.

Frank, a trim man in his early fifties, had been drafted into the army in 1969 as a twenty-three-year-old, so he had entered a little older than the others, "with reluctance, and a sense of the inevitable." His book, Touched by the Dragon (Purdue University Press, 1998) profiles the experiences of fifteen Rhode Island vets, offering a cross-section of the whole experience, from induction to bootcamp, from combat to healing.

(Incidentally, this book, paired with Friends & the Vietnam War, would offer quite a good springboard for Quaker discussion, with a potential for outreach to veterans.)

Separately, a couple of the vets confided to me that they too had been opposed to the war, but lacked the courage to go to Canada or register as C.O.s. Their reasons surprised me, and made me realize how little I had discussed the war with my veteran acquaintances - with whom, I realize now, I had assiduously avoided such talk. That avoidance was part of the twenty-year cocoon we seemed to share in common. Most of these men had come from small towns. Many had no idea where Vietnam was. But they were baby boomers, many of whose fathers or uncles had fought in World War II, the "good" war; they were upholding family traditions of service. They had no tradition of dissent. They would have been embarrassed not to go, or knew their refusal would embarrass their families. "Guys have been killed because of embarrassment," Tim O'Brien had observed at one of the readings.

"It's true," said Doug Johnson, while we were walking to the cafe. Doug had been a grunt, was now a lawyer inside the Washington D.C. Beltway. "We weren't as different from you as you might have thought." I could not bring myself to tell him that that was precisely my objection at the time: upon hearing such feelings expressed by returning G.I.s, I had condemned them in my heart - those closet pacifists - for lack of courage. Doug said something else that implied that some of us in the Movement were hostile to the soldiers. I started to protest that this wasn't so, but stopped myself, remembering that silent condemnation.

Another man, Ken Garthee, had enlisted in the Marines at seventeen because he could envision no alternative - being from the Midwest and a family in which all the men had served in the military, and remembering John Kennedy's "Ask not..." speech. Assigned to Da Nang 1966-67, Ken had a hole blasted through his chest and out his back, was saved miraculously and spent the better part of two years in hospitals being put back together, through skin-grafts and physical therapy. From that experience he came away with a new sense of purpose. He returned to college, only to be called a "baby killer" by his professor. Ken impressed me as a really decent, idealistic man who even as a Marine had tried to live cleanly; hadn't drunk or smoked dope. His greatest grief was the deaths of the four men who, after carrying him to safety, were immediately afterwards hit by a "friendly" bomb that ricocheted off the side of a rocky hill and tumbled into their midst.

For my part, I never spat on a returning soldier, never called any private individual a "baby killer." Nor did I know anyone who did - as John Bach observes in Friends & the Vietnam War. It was the war most of us opposed, not the soldiers, and we tried in various ways to reach out to draftees and those seeking sanctuary. Nevertheless - speaking strictly for myself - I think that unwittingly I harbored an anger that stayed frozen inside me for twenty years.

Sitting around the table in the cafe, they asked me what I thought about Kosovo. I told them that my own position was not as absolute as that of Friends who believe that all war is wrong, regardless of the circumstances. I considered war to be the last resort, although by habit we made it one of the first, without addressing the fundamental causes of conflict. (I saw flickers of agreement around the table.) In my case, I had come very reluctantly to the conclusion that force had been required to stop Slobodan Milosevic. I said I was concerned that we had ignored the genocide in Africa; I was especially unhappy that the war had been put in the hands of NATO generals who predicated the survival of NATO on their military success, and who were making policy choices that should be made by a multinational civilian body. I wanted the U.N. involved, and wanted us to put far more focus on the refugees. All the above points were arguable then, and are arguable now, I realize, in the pages of Friends Journal. And obviously the situation was more complex than we could address, sitting around that table last April. A brief argument did ensue. Bob Griffith, the only commissioned officer of the four and an articulate historian, countered in a soft-spoken manner my reservations about the NATO generals with the suggestion that war - contrary to the maxim - was too important to be left to the politicians. And he suggested, albeit with reluctance, that our comparative indifference to the plight of Africans could be explained partly by the realpolitik understanding that chaos on that continent would not cause the same global disruption as in the heart of Europe.

The discussion could have continued well into the evening. Some of it sounded achingly familiar. It might have become heated; I think we recognized that possibility and withdrew from it. Kosovo has that potential, as I have learned in subsequent discussions among friends, including my fellow Quakers, who are by no means agreed on a response. For the vets and me, this was clearly not the forum for pursuing all our disagreements. It was a moment of reconciliation, and a good one. What I appreciated was the complexity of our responses, our readiness to listen to each other. My guess is that if we had continued, the lines of cleavage might have fallen in directions we might not have predicted. What I took away from the encounter was a mutual sense of meeting that of God in each other, a sense of common humanity, and a vague sense of relief. All this was tempered by a realization of how painfully humankind learns - generation by generation, if at all - the terrible costs of war.

It reinforced my sense of how important it is for us as Quakers to discuss the situation in Kosovo or anywhere else in this war-ravaged world, with all our idealism on the one hand, but also as realistically as we can manage - while the situation is still fluid, while public officials on both sides of the aisle are debating policy, and before public opinion becomes hardened into opposing camps, as it did through the long dark tunnel of Vietnam.

Recently someone from American Friends Service Committee opposing the NATO bombing was quoted as saying that the U.N. Security Council should send a peacekeeping force "to get in the way of those who would commit war crimes."

I think it is a bit more complicated than that. Whose bodies, exactly, were we going to thrust between the Serbs and the Albanians? Underpaid troops from Bangladesh or sub-Sahara Africa? As long as I keep real people in mind - Ken Garthee and his buddies - it remains complicated. And I think it should remain so for each of us, however strictly we interpret the Quaker peace testimony.

I firmly believe that it is not enough to assume the universal correctness of a position of nonviolence toward the Balkans. It is not enough to call for a cessation of hostilities. It is not enough to decry the evil of war. We must engage the dragon. The world is not black and white. As I write, a peace agreement is being structured that might allow a lightly armed multinational peacekeeping force to guarantee the terms agreed upon by the struggling factions. But it will be a precarious peace, demanding decades of vigilance and sensitivity to the political realities of the Balkans if it is to endure - demanding, in fact, a long-term commitment to peace that, sadly, our own elected government has never managed to place ahead of our national hegemony, unless we can do something to change it.

Quakers and other peace advocates have a crucial role in the coming millennium. We must not only imagine peaceful alternatives; we must sell other people on those alternatives. We must not only bear witness; we must engage each other spiritually and intellectually in a way that opens up the possibility of creative action. As we encounter each other, we may be led to engage the community at large. We must find patience for complexity if we are to project our truth into the national dialogue.