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December 1, 2004: Headlines: COS - Uzbekistan: Writing - Uzbekistan: Vietnam: Harper's: A father and son return to Vietnam by Uzbekistan RPCV Tom Bissell
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A father and son return to Vietnam by Uzbekistan RPCV Tom Bissell
A father and son return to Vietnam by Uzbekistan RPCV Tom Bissell
Dec 1, 2004
A father and son return to Vietnam
by Tom Bissell
In the beginning was the war. Many children of Vietnam veterans, when they look back on their adolescence, feel this with appropriately biblical conviction. In the beginning was the war. It sits there, in our fathers' pasts, a dying star that annihilates anything that strays too close. For the growing-up children of many vets the war's remoteness was all but impossible to gauge because it had happened pre-you, before you had come to grasp the sheer accident of your own placement in time, before you recognized that your reality-your bedroom, your toys and comic books-had nothing to do with the reality of your father.
Despite its remoteness, however, the war's aftereffects were inescapably intimate. At every meal Vietnam sat down, invisibly, with our families.
My mother, who divorced my father when I was three, and whose father, a Marine Corps bird colonel, had introduced them, eventually could no longer handle the nightmares, the daymares, the never knowing which husband she would be experiencing at any given moment. My mother descends from a long medaled procession of military men. She understood men who had been to war. It was what men did. Whatever shadows war threw across the minds of its survivors-and it did, of course it did; she knew that-were to be borne stoically. But the war hero she married was capable of only fitful stoicism. This place he had returned from was not Normandy but a country that throughout the early yeats of their marriage became a tacit synonym for failure, savagery.
Wars were supposed to end. And yet her war hero remained at war.
When I was a boy, 1 would dread the evenings my father had too much to drink, stole into my bedroom, woke me up, and for an hour at a time would try to explain to me, his ten-year-old son, why the decisions he made-decisions, he would mercilessly remind himself, that got his best friends killed-were the only decisions he could have made. Other nights he would remember fondly the various women he had courted in Vietnam, of which there seemed an extraordinary number, bringing to my still-unformed imagination bizarre images of myself as an Asian boy. With my school friends I would tell elaborate stories about my father.
How he single-handedly fought off an entire garrison of "gooners." The day he got lost rafting down a river and survived a waterfall plunge. The time he was wounded and how a heroic black soldier dragged him to safety. Some were true; most were not. The war had not ended for him, and now it was alive in me.
Sometimes it feels as though Vietnam is all my father and I have ever talked about; sometimes it feels as though we have never really talked about it. My father trained as an officer at Quantico with the writer Philip Caputo, with whom he has remained close and who ultimately became my literary mentor. My father even makes a brief appearance in Phil's A Rumor of War, which is commonly regarded as one of the finest memoirs of the conflict and was the first Vietnam book to become a major bestseller. When in A Rumor of War Phil learns of the death of his and my father's friend Walter Levy, who survived all of two weeks in Vietnam, he remembers a night in Georgetown when he, Levy, and some others went to a bar "to drink and look at girls and pretend we were still civilians." And then this: "We sat down and filled the glasses, all of us laughing, probably at something Jack Bissell said.
Was Bissell there that night? He must have been, because we were all laughing very hard and Bissell was always funny." I still remember the Arst time I read that sentence and how my heart had convulsed. Here was the man of whom I had never had as much as a glimpse, whose life had not yet been hewn by so much darkness, the man I did not find in bluish 2:00 A.M. darkness drinking wine and watching Gettysburg or Platoon for the fortieth time. In A Rwmor of War I saw the still normal man my father could have become, a man with the average sadnesses.
When 1 was young I used to stare at his framed purple heart ("the dumb medal," he calls it) and, next to it, a photo of my father from his training at Quantico. BiSSELL is stenciled across his left breast. Friendly Virginia greenery hovers behind him. He looks a little like a young Harrison Ford and is smiling, holding his rifle, his eyes unaccountably soft. I wanted to And that man. I believed I could And him in Vietnam, where he had been made and unmade, killed and resurrected. When over the phone I told my father I had tickets, we could leave in a few months, he was quiet, as quiet as I had ever heard him.
"Gosh," he said.
We have been driving for several hours, down the coast, along surprisingly well-maintained roads, through what feels like lush green tunnels of Vietnamese countryside. My father is making satisfied little mouth noises as he pours over a copy of the Viet Nam News he picked up in Ho Chi Minh City's airport, where we spent a few hours upon our arrival before lighting off for Hu in central Vietnam.
"Interesting article?" I ask.
His head lifts with birdlike alertness, and he looks over at me. "I'm just enjoying this cultural exchange." When he finishes memorizing the contents of the Viet Nam News he peppers our translator, Hien, with questions such as, "Is that a pigeon?" "Are those tea farmers?" "Is that sugarcane?" "When was this road built?" "Do the Vietnamese use much solar power?"
"So how do you feel?" I ask him, after Hien has debriefed him on the overall impact of rice exports upon the Vietnamese economy.
"Marvelous," he tells me. "Super. I'm having a ball."
"You're sure you're up for seeing some of your old stomping grounds?"
He fixes upon me a crumply-eyed look, his mouth cast in the same emotionally undecided frown that I have noticed, with increasing frequency, in recent photographs of myself. "It was a long time ago. I'll be fine."
We pass through the rural sprawl of several villages. I see women wearing conical peasant hats, huge vase-shaped wicker baskets full of rice, all the stage-dressing clichs of the Vietnam War. Yet these are not VC women, and no G.I. will be along to bayonet the rice baskets in search of hidden ordnance. The clichs mean nothing. They are not even clichs but rather staples of Vietnamese life. I have discerned already that the war informs much here but defines little, and it suddenly seems very strange that we refer to the Vietnam War, a phrase whose adjectivelessness grows more bizarre as I ponder it.
It manages to take an entire nation and plunge it into perpetual conflict.
"Where are we?" I ask after a while.
"We are nearing the Hai Van Pass," Hien says, pointing ahead to where the bus-clogged road cork-screws up into the Truong Son mountain range. To our left the wall of thick, long-needled pine trees suddenly breaks to reveal a steep drop. Beyond the cliffs edge is the blue infinity of the South China Sea, a whitecapped chaos so astonishingly choppy I half expect to see the face of Yahweh moving across it.
At the top of the pass we are stopped in a mild traffic jam, and my father gets out of the car to take pictures. I follow him. It feels cold enough up here to snow, the clouds soppingly low. When he wants some photos of himself he hands me his camera.
I stare at this relic, called a Yashica FX-7.
"I had that camera with me," he announces proudly, "the first time I came to Vietnam."
"This is the camera you took all those slides with?" The John C. Bissell Vietnam Slide Show was a staple of my Michigan childhood. "Dad, this camera is thirty-eight years old!"
He looks at me. "No it isn't." His hand lifts and bats about frivolously. "It's... what? Thirty-two years old."
"It's thirty-eight years old, Dad. Almost forty."
"No, it's not, because 1960 plus forty years is 2000. I arrived in 1965, so-"
"So 2005 minus two is today."
My father is silent. Then all at once his color goes. "Oh my God. Holy shit."
"Kinda incredible, isn't it?"
"I didn't know I was that old until just now."
He is worriedly touching his face as I line him up in the viewfinder.
On the other side of the Hai Van Pass, Vietnam grows more tropical, a great rotting chromatic extravagance of jungle and rice paddies. A thick mist hovers above these calm, endless reaches of standing water. Water buffalo the size of small dinosaurs are sunk to their flanks in the mud nearby, while rice farmers wearing condom- like body bags wade through chest-deep water holding bundled nets above their heads.
After a while we stop, at my insistence, at the Son My Memorial, which is a few miles outside the city of Quang Ngai. Son My is a subdistrict that is divided into several hamlets, the most famous of which is My Lai. It was in a part of My Lai where, in 1968, the most notorious U.S. war crimes against Vietnamese villagers took place: anywhere between 150 and 570 unarmed civilians were butchered with astonishingly versatile brutality. My father did not want to come here, for various reasons, some easily grasped, others less so. One of the "less so" reasons is my father's somewhat unaccountable friendliness with Captain Ernest Medina, who commanded Company C, the unit within the 11th Brigade, 23rd Infantry Division responsible for the majority of the My Lai killings.
Medina, a Native American whose promising military career was garroted by My Lai, eventually \wound up settling in northern Wisconsin, and my father would see him occasionally. My father maintains that Medina is a "great guy" who claims to have given no order for what happened and has no explanation for it. On the way here my father grumpily said that what I did not understand was that things like My Lai happened all the time, only on a much smaller scale, I looked at him, astonished. I knew what he meant, and he knew that I knew what he meant, but to hear him say those words-their buried tolerance for murder-was very nearly too much.
I could have asked, and almost did: Did you ever do anything like that? But I did not ask, because no father should be lightly posed such a question by his son. Because no father should think, even for a moment, that his son believes him capable of such a thing. Because I know my father is not capable of such a thing. So I am telling myself as we pull up to Son My.
Two tour buses are already parked here, both decorated with a splashy porpoise motif. I walk up to a large wooden sign that lists "The Regulations of Son My Vestige Area": "Visitors are not allowed to bring explosive powder, flaming, reating substances, poison, or weapons into the museum. Also you should inform and stop any anti- attitudes toward this historical relic." The grounds are marked by a series of tall, wind-hissing palm trees, cobbled paths, and cubically sheared evergreen hedges and statuary, barrowing statuary: staggering gut-shot peasant women, beseeching children, defiant raised fists.
These are the first instances of Communist sculpture that I have ever seen that do not produce an instant impulse to have at them with a jackhammer. Meanwhile my father is studying a headstone that lists the names and ages of some Son My victims.
"What don't you see?" he asks me as I join him.
One column of victims' ages works out like this: 12, 10, 8, 6, 5, 46, 14, 45. Most are women. "I don't see any young men."
"That's because none of the young men were around. This was a VC village."
"It's just an observation. This whole thing was probably a revenge mission. Actually, I know it was. They probably said, 'We're gonna teach 'em a lesson,' so they massacred everyone. Which is a slight violation of every rule and regulation both moral, written, military, and civilian."
As we walk over to the museum, I notice that the palm trees are marked with little plaques to denote the still visible bullet holes the soldiers fired into them during the massacre. ("Kill some trees!" was, among American soldiers in Vietnam, the equivalent of "Fire at will!") "Good Christ," my father says quietly, stopping to finger one palm tree's spiderwebbed bullet hole. His face is suddenly spectral. "Five hundred people ..."
The museum is filled with tourists, most of them older Europeans, all of whom are walking around, looking at the exhibits, with something like cosmic dread splashed across their faces. I look at a photo of a man who has been thrown into a well, his shiny brain visible through the hole in his skull, and feel that same dread take up residence upon my own. face. More photos: a skinny man cut in two by machine-gun fire, a woman with her brains neatly piled beside her. In an adjacent room is a rogues' gallery of My Lai perpetrators, huge blowups of badly Xeroxed photocopies, the pixels as big as climes.
Let their last names stand: Calley, Bernhardt, Hodges, Reid, Widmer, Simpson, and Medina, at his court martial, at which he was acquitted. (Most of the men directly responsible for the My Lai massacres had been discharged by the time the story broke; the arm of military justice is particularly short, and they were never brought to trial at all.) There are also photos of Lawrence Colburn and Hugh Thompson and Herbert Carter. The former two were helicopter crewmen who managed to maintain a grip on their humanity and choppered out a handful of civilians during the slaughter. The latter is said to have pumped a round into his own foot during the massacre to avoid taking part-the operaturn's only casualty.
Colburn's and Thompson's Soldier's Medals for heroism are also on display here, though far less conspicuously.
I see my father ducking out with Hien, hoth of them gray and punchedlooking, and l hegin to follow after them when behind me I hear a heavily accented German voice declaim, "I have been to Auschwitz, and it is moving, but this is so much more moving, ja?" I turn. The people this German woman is speaking to are Canadians.
"Excuse me?" I less say than hear myself saying.
She looks at me unapologetically. She is wearing a chunky jade necklace I have seen being sold on the streets. "More moving. Because of the life. The life around this place." She is waving her hands, which are long and thin skeleton hands, while the Canadians stealthily take their leave.
Although I am fairly sure this constitutes some form of "anti- attitude," I do not report her. I do not say anything and stalk off outside. I find Hicn and my father standing by the ditch in which many of the victims of the My Lai massacre were dumped. Nearby is a Guernica-style mural with deathspraying choppers and wicked-faced American soldiers looming over defenseless Vietnamese women and children. The ditch itself is not very big, long, or wide, and is largely grown over with scrub.
"Why would one man," Hien is saying, "like Galley, kill, while another man, like Colburn, try to prevent it? What is the difference?"
My father is staring into the ditch. "It's just . . . war," he tells Hicn. Hien nods, but I know he is not satisfied by this. I am not satisfled by this. Neither, it seems, is my father. "I guess what it comes down to," he goes on, searchingly, "is discipline." After Hien leaves, my father rubs his chest through his shirt. "My heart hurts."
"Yeah," I say.
"I've seen American Marines take revenge, but they just killed men, not women and children. It's horrible. When I came here we were ... we were like crusaders! We were going to help people. We were going to make their lives better, give them democracy. And the way we did it was so morally ..." He sighs, rubs his mouth, shakes his head, all the willful gestures of sense-making. My Lai happened two years after my father left Vietnam. The Vietnam War of 1966 was not the Vietnam War of 1968, which had by then scythed down whole fields of men and goodwill, including that of the war's own planners and originators.
Kennedy, McNamara, Johnson: by 1968 all had fallen. I think about the story my father once told me about how he had been asked to transport a Vietcong prisoner by helicopter to the village of Tarn Ky. He described this prisoner as "a little guy who's terrified, frightened to death, tied up, but still bucking and heaving. And he fought and he fought and he fought for forty-five minutes. He knew he was going to be thrown out of the helicopter. He knew that. So we arrived in Tam Ky, and they asked me, 'What'd you learn?' I said, 'I learned that this little guy wants to kill me because he thought I was going to pitch him out of the helicopter!' And goddamnit, at one point I was about to." We had both laughed, grimly.
War stories. My father would not have been capable of throwing a bound man from a helicopter, under any circumstances. But I imagine him-I imagine myself-here in My Lai during those first moments of that day's terrible momentum, the evil freedom of the trigger availing itself upon the minds of friends and comrades, and I do not like the range of possibilities that I see.
My father suddenly looks up across this miserable ditch into a verdant neighboring pasture. "I wish Hien were here." Did he have, finally, a better answer for him as to why only some men kill while others think to save? No, actually. He wants to know if that is corn or wheat growing over there or what.
"What does your father do?"
A question young men are asked all the time. Women in particular ask it of young men, I suppose in the spirit of a kind of secular astrology. Who will you be in ten years, and do I want to be involved? The common belief is that every young man, like the weeping Jesus of Gethsemane, has two choices when it comes to his father: rejection or emulation. In some ways my father and I could not be more different. While I have inherited his sense of humor, his love of loyalty, and his lycanthropically hairy back, I am my mother's child in all matters of commerce and emotion. I am terrible with money, weep over nothing, and typically feel before I think.
I can anticipate my mother because her heart is mine. My father remains more mysterious.
What does my father do? I have always answered it thus: "My father is a Marine." This typically results in a pinch-faced look of sympathy. But the truth is, my father and I get along. We have not always gotten along-I maintained a solid D average in high school, he viewed my determination to be a writer (at least initially) as a dreamer's errand, and marooned in our history are various wrecked Chevys and uncovered marijuana caches-but we have always been close. As I get older, I have noticed the troubles many of my friends have with their fathers: the animosities and disappointments, held so long in the arrears of late adolescence, suddenly coming up due on both ends.
But my father and I, if anything, have gotten closer, even as I understand him less and less.
My father is a Marine. But how poorly that captures him. He is not a tall man, but he is so thin he appears tall. His head is perfectly egg-shaped, which accounts for my brother's and my nickname for him: Egghead. (Although nothing explains his nicknames for us: Ringworm and Remus.) His ducklike gait, a strange combination of the goofy and the determined, sees his big floppy feet inclined outward at forty-five-degree angles. (I used to make fun of him for this until a girlfriend pointed out to me that I walk precisely the same way.) My father, then, was no Great Santini, \no knight templar of bruising manhood.
During the neighborhood basketball games of my childhood, which were played in our driveway, my father, for instance, unforgivably shot grannystyle free throws. "Hugs and kisses" is how he used to announce that he was putting me to bed. I unself-consciously kissed my father until I was in high school, when some friends busted me for it: "You kiss your dad?" But we fought all the time. I do not mean argue. I mean we fought. I would often announce my presence by punching him hard on the shoulder, whereupon he would put me in a full nelson until I sang the following song, which for years I believed he had made up: "Why this feeling?/Why this joy?/Because you're near me, oh you fool./ Mister Wonderful, that's you." The torment was not just physical.
When I was very young my father would tell me he invented trees and fought in the Civil War, and would laugh until he had tears in his eyes when my teachers called home to upbraid him. In return my brother and I simply besieged the poor man, pouring liquid Ex-Lax into his coffee before work, loading his cigarettes with tiny slivers of treated pine that exploded after a few drags. One went off in a board meeting at his bank, another while he was on his way to church, sending him up onto the curb. He always got us back. In high school I brought a date over and was showing off with my smart- aleckry, only to be knocked to the floor by my father and held down while he rubbed pizza all over my face and called our dogs over to lick it off.
There was, needless to say, no second date.
But my father is a Marine. He could be cruel. After a high- school party that left his house demolished and our Christmas presents stolen, I sought him out to tell him I was. sorry, that I loved him. "No," he said, not even looking at me as he swept up the glass from a broken picture frame. "I don't think you do." We owned a large stuffed diplodocus named Dino, which became a kind of makeshift couch we used to prop ourselves against while watching television, for my father was the kind of father who got down on the floor with his children. Once, resting against Dino while we watched Sands of Iwo Jima, I asked my father what it felt like to get wounded.
He looked at me, grabbed the flesh of my forearm, and pinched me so hard sudden tears slickened my eyes. I returned fire by callously asking him if he had ever killed anyone. I was ten or eleven, and my cold, hurt little stare drilled into his, sheer will being one of the few human passions ungoverned by age. He looked away first.
He is a Marine. To this I attributed much of the sheer insanity of growing up with him. He once shot a flaming arrow into his brother's front door, just for instance. Every July Fourth he would take it upon himself to destroy his neighbor's garbage cans by filling them with fireworks and a splash of gasoline, always igniting the concoction by daintily tossing in a cigarette smoked down to its filter. Another neighbor deposited half a dozen garter snakes into our bathtub; my father responded by taking the snakes over to the neighbor's house and calmly stuffing them under his bedspread. Once, at dinner, Phil Caputo recounted a story of my father drunkenly commandeering a tour bus in Key West, Florida, flooring it across a crowded parking lot while his passengers, about seventy touring seniors, screamed.
Only later did I realize that Phil did not live in Key West until the early 1980s-which would have made my father a forty-year-old bus thief.
I joined the Peace Corps after college and quickly washed out. The mansion of my father's disappointment had many rooms, and even now I cannot much stand to reread the letters he sent me as I was preparing to come home. They are loving, they are cruel, they are the letters of a man who fiercely loves his son, and whose own past is so painful he forgets, sometimes, that suffering is a misfortune some of us are forced to experience rather than a human requirement. But what have I done with my life? I have hecome a writer greatly interested in sites of human suffering. And lately it occurs to me that this has been my own attempt to approximate something of what my father went through.
During the war in Afghanistan, I got stuck in Mazar-i-Sharif with dangerously low funds and one friend, Michael, a Danish journalist I had followed into the war. Even though I had all the proper credentials, the Uzbek border patrol turned us back three times in a row. We had brought only enough money for a few days, and, at fifty dollars a cab ride from Mazar to the border, we were running out of options. I called my father on the borrowed satellite phone of an Associated Press journalist. It was Christmas Eve in Michigan, and he and my stepmother were alone, probably waiting for my brother or me to call.
He had no idea I was in Afghanistan, since I had promised I was going to stay in Uzbekistan. My father picked up after one ring, his voice edged with joy.
"Dad, please listen because I don't have much time. I'm stuck in Afghanistan. I don't have any mon' ey. I may need you to make some calls. Did you hear me?"
The link was quiet but for a faint, cold static.
"I heard you," he said quietly.
At this, at hearing him, my eyes went hot. "I'm in trouble, I think."
"Have they hurt you?"
In a moment I went from boyishly sniveling to nearly laughing. "No one's hurt me, Dad. I'm just worried."
"Are you speaking code? Tell me where you are." His panic, preserved perfectly after its journey through cloud and space and the digital guts of some tiny metal moon, beamed down and hit me with all the force of an actual voice.
"Dad, I'm not a captive, I'm-" But he was gone. The line was silent, the satellite having glided into some neb' ula of link- terminating interference. I chose not to ponder the state in which my father would spend the remainder of his Christmas, though I later learned he spent it falling apart. And for a short while, at least, the unimaginable had become my life, not his. I was him, and he was me.
My father and I make our way down a bright beach in the city of Qui Nhon. The previous night we drank gallons of Tiger beer, and I find myself comparing my constitution to his. My father imbibes a fraction of what he used to, but he still possesses the iron disposition every alcoholic needs if he or she seeks to make a life out of it. I look and smell as though I have endured a night in a halfway-house urinal, whereas he looks and smells as though he has just slept fifteen hours in some enchanted flowerbed. I am reminded of the various times I had, while growing up, seen my father triumphantly insensate after a bottle of Johnnie Walker Red, wearing only underwear and a winter jacket, off to do some 3:00 A.M.
snow shoveling. Mere hours later he would be rosy pink and whistling as he knotted his tie before work. Constitutionally, I am not this man's spawn, and here on the beach he pats my back as I dry heave into some bushes.
Qui Nhon is where my father washed ashore with a thousand other Marines in April 1965, one month after the deployment, in Danang, of the first American Marines sent to Southeast Asia explicitly as combat troops. The April battalions were dispatched at the bidding of General William Westmoreland, who sought to bring the war to the Vietcong. Marines would no longer stand impotent guard beside airports and radio towers and hospitals but would hunt down and kill Vietcong insurgents. (This plan did not work. One estimate holds that almost 90 percent of the skirmishes that resulted from search- and-destroy tactics were initiated by enemy troops.) Many expected a quick victory, since everyone knew the VC arid North Vietnamese Army could not withstand America's superior firepower.
Others braced themselves for a long, ugly fight. My father, like nearly all young Marines of the time, possessed the former belief.
It takes us fifteen minutes' worth of beachcombing to find the site of his landing: a thin stand of coastline palm trees, miraculously unaltered since 1965, hardens his memory into place. We stand looking out on the endless sea in a black grid of shadows cast by the cranes and scaffolds of the resort being built a few dozen yards away. I begin asking him questions, but very gently he asks if I might not give him a moment. Instantly I realize my error. He cannot talk right now, and he stares out at the ocean in both confusion and recognition. I fall silent. This is where the man I know as my father was born.
It is as though he is looking upon himself through a bloody veil of memory.
"They told us this was going to be a combat landing," he says after a while. "To expect the very worst. The ships we were in flooded themselves, and the landing craft and amphibious vehicles swam off. We came ashore, heavily armed, locked, cocked, ready to go to war. We had tanks and trucks and Ontos."
"Lightly armored vehicles mounted with six recoilless rifles. They shot all kinds of ammunition. Armor-piecing. Anti-personnel ammunition. Willy Peter, which is white phosphorus, one of the most deadly things you could ever get hit with. When the shell explodes, it sprays white phosphorus, and if you put water on it, it flares right up. It's oxygen-fed, and you have to take mud and smother it. Lovely weapon."
"How old were you with all this at your disposal?"
"I was twenty-three years old. A platoon leader. But I was also the company commander, and I had all of the infantry and supply people under me. I was probably one of the youngest company commanders in Vietnam-if not the youngest." Of this, I can tell, he is still proud. "Everyone was cheering us. It was glorious. That's my biggest frustration when I talk to people who weren't here. They'll say, 'Nobody really wanted us to come to Vietnam.' Well, they sure as hell welcomed us with open arms."
"When did it start to go bad?"
He points to the hills beyond Qui Nhon-an arcadiaof rough, beautiful triangles of fuzzy jade and sharp spurs of exposed white rock, a few white waterfalls pouring sparklingly down the hills' faces. "Those look beautiful, but the VC were there, as we found out. It took only two days before we were fired on. We were so inexperienced, we were shooting ourselves at first. One guy, tragically, fell asleep on watch and turned himself around in his foxhole. He woke up, saw people, and opened fire. Killed the rest of his fire team."
In Vietnam, and especially during' the war's opening innings, American soldiers experienced chaotic fighting unlike any they had ever seen before. There was no land to take, no front to hold, and few opportunities to glory in the routing of the enemy. All-out battles were few and far between, and enemy combatants perpetually melted away into the forest only to reappear, in the minds of increasingly (and understandably) jittery American soldiers, in the form of putatively innocent villagers.
As we drive on to the village of Tuy Phouc, I ask my father about this severance between the kind of fighting he was trained to do and the kind of fighting the VC forced him to engage in. "The VC," he says, "would not close with us. They didn't have the firepower. And we knew that if they made a stand against us, they would lose ass, hat, and fixtures. So they would pick on our patrols." He is agitated now, and stares with cool determination out his window. Tuy Phouc, the village we are headed to, is where my father was wounded.
He points out the window at the railroad track that runs contiguous to the road, found on an elevated mound of packed sod perhaps eight feet high. "see that? That's what we used to hide behind, as a fortified position." At this he enjoys a chuckle.
"How many firefights were you in?"
"A dozen, twenty. They would last anywhere from ten seconds to two hours. Then the VC would break off and disappear. We lost a tremendous number of people trying to save our wounded and retrieve our bodies. And they knew it. They knew we would. That's how Walt Levy died, you know: trying to haul someone out of a rice paddy who was wounded."
"I'm sensing some anxiety here. You're sweating."
"Really?" He touches his temple, a lagoon of perspiration. He quickly wipes his Angers on his shirt. "Well, maybe a little."
"How do you feel about the Victcong now?"
He looks at his camera as he turns it over in his hands. "We were all soldiers. They suffered terribly, you know, compared to us. Brave people. Committed. To their country. We sort of... lost that."
"I'm sorry," I say, surprising myself.
"Yeah," he says. "Me too."
Tuy Phouc is less a village than a series of islands spread across a large plain now completely flooded by the seasonal rains. We ride among these islands along a long straight road that clears the greedy waterline by only a few inches. Each island is a little node of Swiss Family Robinson-type existence: a modest house, a collapsing wooden fence, a damp sandy yard, a small dock, a wooden boat tied up to it. Plastic bags and limp old bicycle-tire linings hang with obscure meaning from the branches of several trees. My father mentions that forty years ago all of these houses were thatched huts.
Hien jumps in to say, with some pride, that the government has been building and modernizing all of Vietnam's villages since the war ended in 1975.
The road is narrow and crammed with pedestrians; above, the sky seems a spacious gray cemetery of dead clouds. The surrounding floodwater is tea-colored where it is deep and green where it is shallow. "Vietcong villages," my father suddenly says, looking around at Tuy Phouc's islands. "All of these." We finally park when the road is too flooded out to continue and stand next to the car. My father was wounded, he thinks, perhaps a hundred yards ahead of where we have been forced to stop. He is visibly rattled and lights up a cigarette to distract himself. On either side of the road stands a crowd of Vietnamese.
They call to one another across the water, waving and laughing. Every few minutes some brave soul mounts a scooter charge through the flood, the water parting before his tires with Mosaic instantaneity.
Tuy Phouc, I gather, is not much of a tourist town, and for the most part we are left alone. But nearly everyone is looking at us. The people of Tuy Phouc are short and damp and suntanned in a vaguely unhealthy way. The women smile, the men nod civilly, and the children rush at us before thinking better of it and retreat behind their mothers' legs.
"You want to tell me what happened?" This is mostly a courtesy, since I know what happened. My father was shot-in the back, buttock, arm, and shoulder-at the beginning of a roadside melee and was dragged to safety by a black soldier. One of the things I had long admired about my father was his absence of racial animosity-a fairly uncommon trait among the men of rural Michigan. I always attributed this to the black Marine who saved his life. I identically credited my youthful stridency on racial matters-I was forever jumping down the throats of my parents' dinner guests or high-school friends whenever the word "nigger" made its unlovely entrance from stage right-to this same mysterious savior.
"We were on a search-and-destroy mission," my father explains. "We entered Tuy Phouc in a convoy. After twenty minutes of driving we found the road was cut by a huge earthen mound. The VC obviously knew we were coming, so we were all very suspicious. I was at the head of the convoy and called up the engineers. They were going to blow up the mound and rebuild the road so we could continue. About fifteen men came up, and I turned around to talk to the gunnery sergeant from the lead infantry company, and the mound exploded. Inside the dirt they'd packed a bunch of steel and shrapnel. The only reason I'm here is that I turned around to speak to the gunnery sergeant.
I remember saying, 'Gunny, I'll go back and get some more equipment.' You know, shovels, stuff like that. The bomb caught Gunny in the face, and I went flying through the air. Then I tried to get up. Couldn't. There were people lying all over the place. I think fifteen were wounded. Gunny was the only guy killed. My platoon sergeant hauled me into a ditch, and they field-dressed me and jammed me full of morphine and then flew in the choppers. I was very fucked up, in total shock. I had two hundred separate wounds. They counted 'em. My left arm caught the brunt of the blast. I thought they were going to have to take it off.
So that ended my war for a while."
"Wait a minute," I say. "I thought you were shot."
"No, I never got shot. Which is fine by me."
"But that's not the story you told me."
He looks at me. "I don't think I ever told you that story."
"Then why do I remember you being shot, and a black Marine dragging you to safety?"
"I have no idea."
"Was the sergeant who pulled you into the ditch black?"
"I don't think so. I honestly don't remember."
My father's sleeve is rolled up, and I am now looking at his left arm. Incredibly, I have never before noticed the scoring of crosshatched scar tissue running up and down his forearm, or how thinner his left arm seems compared with his right. I have, however, many times noticed the bright, pink nickel-sized scars on his bicep and his shoulder blade, the small keloidal lightning bolt on his neck. When I was young I used to stare at these obvious wounds and, sometimes, even touch them, my tiny fingers freshly alive to their rubbery difference in texture. But I have to admit, now, that I do not actually remember my father ever telling me he was shot, or that a black man had saved his life.
I remember telling that story myself, but I do not remember being told that story. At some point the story simply appears in my mind. Why did I create this story? Because it made my father heroic? In the emergency of growing up we all need heroes. But the father I grew up with was no hero to me, not then. He was too wounded in the head, too endlessly and terribly sad. Too funny, too explosive, too confusing. Heroes are uncomplicated. This makes them do that. The active heroism of my imaginary black Marine made a passive hero of my father; they huddled together, alongside a road in the Vietnam of my mind, shrouded in nitroglycerin, the cordite of gallantry.
The story made sense of the senseless. But war does not make sense. War senselessly wounds everyone right down the line. A body bag fits more than just its intended corpse. Take the 58,000 American soldiers lost in Vietnam and multiply by four, five, six-and only then does one begin to realize the damage this war has done. (Project outward from the 2 million slain Vietnamese and see, for the first time, an entire continent of loss.) War, when neeessary, is unspeakable. When unnecessary, it is unforgivable. It is not an occasion for heroism. It is an occasion only for survival and death. To regard war in any other way only guarantees its inevitable reappearance.
I look at my father, who is still smoking and peering around. Suddenly he appears very old. He does not look bad. He is in fact in better physical shape than I, but he is olderlooking than I have ever seen him before. His neck has begun to give up and sag, his eyes are bigger and more yellowy, the long wolfish hair at the base of his throat is gray. I am twenty-nine, six years older than my father was when he was wounded. Can I really know the young man who went flying through the air, ripped apart by a booby trap? Can I even know this man, still flying, and in some ways still ripped apart? Ultimately our lives are only partially ours.
The parts of our lives that change most are those that intrude with mythic vividness into the lives of those we love: our parents, our children, our brothers and sisters. As these stories overlap they change, but we have no voice in how or why. One by one our stories are dragged away from us, pulledinto the ditches of shared human memory. They are saved, but they are changed. One day my father will be gone except for the parts of him I remember and the stories he has told me. How much else about him have I gotten wrong? How much of him have I not properly understood? What have I not asked? And looking at him I want him never to go.
I want him always to be here. There is too much left for us to talk about.
At last, a lone Vietnamese man shoelessly wanders over to say hello. His hairless legs and arms are so thin and brown they look made of teak. As he and my father shake hands and (with Hien's assistance) chat, I realize that this man is around my father's age. It is in fact not at all beyond possibility that this man personally wired the booby trap that nearly killed my father. But his solar friendliness is not feigned, and beneath its insistent emotional heat I can see my father's discomfort soften and wilt. Within moments the man and my father are laughing over something together.
I listen to my father and his new Vietnamese friend talk respectfully around the small matter of having taken up arms against each other as young men: Yes, my father fias been to Vietnam before; no, the Vietnamese man did not always live in the south. Their conversation slides into a respectful silence, and they nod and look at each other. With a smile, the man suddenly asks my father what brings him to Tuy Phoc, since it is so far away from anything of note. For a long time my father thinks about how to answer, looking up at the low gray clouds, a few small trapezoids of blue showing through.
To Hien he finally says, "Tell him . . . tell him that, a very long time ago, I got hurt here."
Once, while hunting partridge, which 1 did not like to do, my father abandoned me after 1 maintained I was not going another step until he gave me a granola bar. He refused, I stopped, and off he went. I was probably twelve years old. It was a cold fall day, witchy orange-yellow leaves blew all around me, and, as the moments turned to minutes and the minutes to hours, I sat down on a log and began to despair. Trees grew taller, the air colder; the forest was an endless organic mirror of my fear. I do not remember how long I was alone. After the sky had darkened, after I had turned up my collar and drawn myself into a defenseless ball on the forest floor, my father burst through some bushes on a different path than that by which he had left me and gathered me up into his arms.
He was crying. He had gotten "turned around," he said quickly. Not lost. My father never got lost. He was a Marine. He said nothing else; neither did I. I held him, and he held me, and he carried me out of the forest.
"THIS WHOLE THING WAS PROBABLY A REVENGE MISSION. THEY PROBABLY SAID, 'WE'RE GONNA TEACH 'EM A LESSON,' SO THEY MASSACRED EVERYONE"
Tom Bisseil is the author of Chasing the Sea, a travel narrative, and God Lives in St. Petersburg, a collection of short stories to be published next month by Pantheon.
Copyright Harper's Magazine Foundation Dec 2004
When this story was posted in January 2005, this was on the front page of PCOL:
| Ask Not
As our country prepares for the inauguration of a President, we remember one of the greatest speeches of the 20th century and how his words inspired us. "And so, my fellow Americans: ask not what your country can do for you--ask what you can do for your country. My fellow citizens of the world: ask not what America will do for you, but what together we can do for the freedom of man."
| Latest: RPCVs and Peace Corps provide aid
Peace Corps made an appeal last week to all Thailand RPCV's to consider serving again through the Crisis Corps and more than 30 RPCVs have responded so far. RPCVs: Read what an RPCV-led NGO is doing about the crisis an how one RPCV is headed for Sri Lanka to help a nation he grew to love. Question: Is Crisis Corps going to send RPCVs to India, Indonesia and nine other countries that need help?
| The World's Broken Promise to our Children
Former Director Carol Bellamy, now head of Unicef, says that the appalling conditions endured today by half the world's children speak to a broken promise. Too many governments are doing worse than neglecting children -- they are making deliberate, informed choices that hurt children. Read her op-ed and Unicef's report on the State of the World's Children 2005.
| Our debt to Bill Moyers
Former Peace Corps Deputy Director Bill Moyers leaves PBS next week to begin writing his memoir of Lyndon Baines Johnson. Read what Moyers says about journalism under fire, the value of a free press, and the yearning for democracy. "We have got to nurture the spirit of independent journalism in this country," he warns, "or we'll not save capitalism from its own excesses, and we'll not save democracy from its own inertia."
| Is Gaddi Leaving?
Rumors are swirling that Peace Corps Director Vasquez may be leaving the administration. We think Director Vasquez has been doing a good job and if he decides to stay to the end of the administration, he could possibly have the same sort of impact as a Loret Ruppe Miller. If Vasquez has decided to leave, then Bob Taft, Peter McPherson, Chris Shays, or Jody Olsen would be good candidates to run the agency. Latest: For the record, Peace Corps has no comment on the rumors.
| The Birth of the Peace Corps
UMBC's Shriver Center and the Maryland Returned Volunteers hosted Scott Stossel, biographer of Sargent Shriver, who spoke on the Birth of the Peace Corps. This is the second annual Peace Corps History series - last year's speaker was Peace Corps Director Jack Vaughn.
Read the stories and leave your comments.
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Story Source: Harper's
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