SEERS UNSEEN: THE POETS OF THE VIET NAM WAR
There are neglected prophets among us, seers unseen. They have predicted one of the great cataclysms of our time, and their message has been shunned by all but a few. I’m referring to the poets of the Viet Nam war, particularly the veterans who returned home to this country, turned against that war, and have been writing about this revelation ever since.
As I’ve said elsewhere, the language of poetry is powerful precisely because it is not the language of power. Phrases such as “weapons of mass destruction,” and their devious uses by our government to rationalize war, bleed language of its meaning. These poets restore the blood to words. They understand the relationship between blood and words only too well.
There is no more compelling way to show that history is repeating itself in Iraq than to read the poets of the Viet Nam war: Doug Anderson, George Evans, Leroy Quintana, Yusef Komunyakaa, Bruce Weigl, Kevin Bowen, Lamont Steptoe, Michael Casey, and others. They speak with great moral authority, a hard-earned wisdom rendered all the more tragic because it is so rarely heeded. Their renunciation of war requires extraordinary courage; some have dealt with family ostracism, others with death threats. Indeed, no one knows or asks how many anti-war veterans have been spat upon over the years.
Viet Nam, of course, is still relevant three decades after that war ended. The mythology of the war was a decisive factor in the last presidential election, as demonstrated by the slanders of the Swift Boat veterans and the spectacle of John Kerry fleeing from his finest hour as a veteran who protested the war. Now the war in Iraq lurches into its third year, disaster after disaster. The poets warned us about what would happen in every particular.
For example, consider recruitment for this “volunteer” army. We have witnessed how, in the present day, the military is romanticized—and cunningly de-romanticized—to lure economically and emotionally vulnerable young people into its ranks. Here is Chicano poet and Viet Nam veteran Leroy Quintana, speaking of the same tactics more than forty years ago:
Armed Forces Recruitment Day, Albuquerque High School, 1962
After the Navy,
the Air Force, and
the Marine Corps
got a standing ovation
when he walked up
to the microphone
and said proudly
the rest, all
he could promise
was a pack,
a rifle, and
a damned hard time.
Except for that,
he was the biggest
Note Quintana’s use of the word “liars.” This is strong stuff, but he has earned the right to use such language. If anything, Quintana reminds us that we are too concerned with the civility of public discourse, that there are times when we should call the liars by their true names.
Consider, too, the prison scandal of Abu Ghraib, dramatized by the pathological photographs of inmates in hoods being humiliated and tortured at the hands of US troops. Our government would have us believe that this is an anomaly, that these cruelties are not the natural outgrowth of greater cruelties inherent in military invasion and occupation. Witness, however, this account from the war in Viet Nam, by Yusef Komunyakaa:
Usually at the helipad
I see them stumble-dance
across the hot asphalt
with crokersacks over their heads,
moving toward the interrogation huts,
thin-framed as box kites
of sticks & black silk
anticipating a hard wind
that’ll tug & snatch them
out into space…
Who can cry for them?
I’ve heard the old ones
are the hardest to break.
An arm twist, a combat boot
against the skull, a .45
jabbed into the mouth, nothing
works. When they start talking
with ancestors faint as camphor
smoke in pagodas, you know
you’ll have to kill them
to get an answer…
The parallels are inescapable: the hoods, the thin bodies, the boot against the
skull. These images force us to acknowledge that the concept of a benevolent
occupation is oxymoronic, that colonialism is colonialism, that it always comes
As the civilian dead in Iraq multiply—the famous Lancet study estimated 100,000 dead, and even cautious estimates number in the tens of thousands---we need only read the poems written by North American veterans of the Viet Nam war to see that we were warned about this, too. Doug Anderson, a medic during the war, learned that “sin loi” means “I’m sorry” in Vietnamese.
The man and woman, Vietnamese,
come up the hill,
carry something slung between them on a bamboo mat,
unroll it at my feet:
the child, iron gray, long dead,
flies have made him home.
His wounds are from artillery shrapnel.
The man and woman look as if they are cast
from the same iron as their dead son,
so rooted are they in the mud.
There is nothing to say,
nothing in my medical bag, nothing in my mind.
A monsoon cloud hangs above,
its belly torn open on a mountain.
Rather than dealing in huge and unfathomable abstractions, Anderson gives the three million Vietnamese who died in that war a single human form, literally laid at his feet. In doing so, he has reversed the process of dehumanization that takes place just prior to slaughter. (It seem that the “gooks” of 1965 have become the “ragheads” of 2005.)
Soldiers coming back from Iraq are haunted now in the same way that soldiers have always been haunted, in same way that the veterans of Viet Nam are still haunted. George Evans writes:
That day I reached and swept the flies from the face of a Vietnamese
girl on the bed of a pickup truck, until I realized she was dead and
stopped, is the day I will never forget. Of all days, that was the day.
They crowded her eyes, until her eyes were as black and swirling
and indecipherable as the eyes of Edvard Munch’s Madonna.
When I backed off, the whirlpool revealed such beauty my spine
melted. Such beauty I thought I couldn’t live another moment.
Such beauty my soul dissolved.
My heart died and revived, died and
revived, died and revived…
Elsewhere, Evans has written of Viet Nam that “Your ghosts are driving us out of our minds,” citing the fact that “there are more suicides among us now than names on our monuments in the capital,” the same monument that would become “a black river that would surge across the country if it listed everyone ruined on every side.” (Anderson has made the same pointed observation: “How long a wall,” he wonders, if all the Asian names were carved into it.)
For many of these veteran poets, the struggles continue. Viet Nam veteran poets, as a rule, do not hold tenured positions at major universities or publish with big New York houses. Some still scratch out a living, fighting off Post Traumatic Stress Disorder or the debilitating effects of Agent Orange. With the notable exception of Yusef Komunyakaa, who won a Pulitizer Prize for Neon Vernacular, most veteran poets have been marginalized and ignored in the poetry world, and even in the anti-war movement.
Left to their own devices, the veteran poets have organized themselves. The William Joiner Center for the Study of War and Social Consequences at the University of Massachusetts-Boston, directed by Kevin Bowen, hosts an annual writers’ conference in June, featuring veteran writers and peace activists who teach workshops, deliver lectures, participate in panels, give readings, and so on. (The conference is not exclusive to veterans; I have served on the Joiner Center faculty every summer for more than a decade.)
The writers of the Joiner Center are at the forefront of the initiative to normalize relations with Viet Nam. Kevin Bowen brings his counterparts—the other Viet Nam veteran poets, who were once the enemy—to the annual conference. Bowen has visited Viet Nam multiple times. To him, “Viet Nam” is not merely a war or an era, but a culture and a people, fully human:
One by one the lanterns
swim off down river.
A green one first, then red
and yellow. Each one calls
back a friend. Like dancers
they turn in circles.
One for my wife, one for my son,
one for our new child in spring.
Back and forth they swing
in twos and threes, seeking
ever newer combinations.
We drink rice liquor, toast
ten reasons men fall
in love on the river.
The old men smile into their instruments.
A woman sings, such beauty
even the moon might die
on her shoulder.
Some day future generations of veterans may write such poems for Iraq, but today “Iraq” is synonymous with war, the consequence of calculated amnesia. As George Evans puts it: “We can’t afford to heal. If we do, we’ll forget, and if we forget, it will start again.” Thus they continue to warn, as prophets and poets must. Wilfred Owen, the greatest poet of World War I, killed a week before Armistice Day at the age of twenty five, echoed the same sense of urgency: “All a poet can do today is warn. That is why the true Poets must be truthful.”
In the spirit of memory and homage, I offer this poem of my own. This is a poem for all the Viet Nam veteran poets and storytellers, at the Joiner Center and beyond, but refers in particular to the two poems by Evans and Anderson quoted above.
Blues for the Soldiers Who Told You
“I’m like a country who can’t remember the last war.”
They told you that the enemy and the liberated throng
swaddle themselves in the same robes and rags,
wear the same masks with eyes that follow you,
pray in the same bewildering tongue, until your rifle
trembles to rake the faces at every checkpoint.
They told you about the corpse of a boy or girl
rolled at your feet, hair gray with the powder
of rubble and bombardment, flies a whirlpool blackening both eyes,
said you’ll learn the words for apology too late to join
the ceremony, as flies become the chorus of your nightmares.
They told you about the double amputee from your town,
legs lopped off by the blast, his basketball friend
bumping home in a flag-draped coffin
the cameras will not film anymore,
about veterans who drench themselves in liquor
like monks pouring gasoline on their heads.
They told you in poems and stories
you did not read, or stopped reading
as your cheeks scorched with inexplicable fever,
and because they spoke with a clarity that burned your face,
because they saw with the vision of a telescope
revolving around the earth, they spent years wandering
through jails and bars, exiled to roads after midnight
where gas stations snap their lights off one by one,
seers unseen at the coffee shop waiting for bacon and eggs,
calling at 3 AM to say I can’t stop writing and you have to hear this.
You will not hear this, even after the war is over
and the troops drown in a monsoon of desert flowers
tossed by the crowd, blooming in their mouths
to stop their tongues with the sweetness of it.