Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Snapshots from In Country

Review: Goodbye Vietnam by Robert W. Wood

Deceptively slim, this book. Goodbye Vietnam is fiction, but it tells truth. Written as a series of vignettes, the book becomes a photo album, snapshot after yellowing Polaroid of the absurdity and horror that was the American experience of the Vietnam conflict.
Today all the Americans are hiding in their bunkers because this is Vietnamese National Kill-All-The-Dogs On-American-Facilities Day. An American soldier was bitten by a dog and had to get medical attention…. The Vietnamese decided it would please the Americans if they killed all the dogs… We do not wish to see this because we are extremely nice people.  — from “Things Which Will Die and Make You Sad”

The fictional Marine whose photos we face in Wood's book learned many things In Country. Chief among these was betrayal; the traitors dwelt in huts and crept along the trails, they stood up suddenly in grass and bought death at his hands, they slept in Pogue country in officer’s tents and strode proudly along the streets of back-country camps. The hardest traitors he deals with live in his own skin.
The radio is on. Johhny Unitas has come in to win the game. No shit here. No need for silence. No need for need for stealth. You want us, you got us. It’s a damn good hill… Johnny U has just lost to the Jets. This cuts it for me. I think we are about to lose, too. We won’t get to play tomorrow. I would take you on a hill Johnny Unitas. Twenty stitches and still playing. The greatest compliment that can be given is, “I would take you on a hill.” —from “But Can You Play Here?”

Respect is pictured here, too. Our Marine admires and respects the sergeants, the drill instructor, the grimy veterans of In Country who confront him in his novitiate, the Hated-Cong he will oppose when he, too, is In Country. There are also officers he respects, a few—chiefly, it seems, because his sergeants respect them.
The Gunny is standing ramrod straight and saluting someone. Is General Westmoreland here?… The Gunny knew Jesus when He was a corporal. They served in Korea together. (“Now there was a real war!”) He has four Silver Stars and three Purple Hearts. —from “The Salute”

Again and again, the snapshots display uncomfortable pictures. Blood on a cherished photograph, insane actions taken to preserve sanity, death as a feared and a longed-for state. These images are not for war, nor against it, they simply depict what was. Room enough in this album for people on both sides of the argument.
The woman takes a good picture. She is sitting on an anti-aircraft gun somewhere in Hanoi. She is pretty in a tinsel, plastic-coated-for-your-protection fashion. Her face holds a vacuous smile demanding some intense, identifying cause to fill up her empty time… She kills her thousands with the jawbone of an ass… Eighteen year old Marines know ignorance when it is thrust on them. Do they not suffer boot lieutenants every day of their lives? —from “No More Clowns”

The most uncomfortable images in this album have no blood in them. No explosions, no great weapons of war speaking power into the night. They do not assign blame, as much as describe events that ought to be crimes, but are not.
We are at ease with the city children because they do not embarrass us with their humanity. The children of the country have eyes of wonder, and they are fragile and easily broken by the clumsy green giants from across the sea. After they are broken, they are put together again with hard little eyes, and the used minds of advertising executives. Only death will break them again. —from “People New to Kill”

Wood follows the fictional account (informed by his own experiences In Country) with an informative and philosophical essay, The Vietnam Conflict: Lies, Misconceptions and Half-Truths. Here he deals briefly and definitively with pictures of the war that “did not match the views of the average combat veteran.” News media bias? “The truth does not necessarily sell if it is boring.” Success of the ’68 Tet Offensive? “…one of the most devastating defeats for any modern army in the 20th century.” Agreement of Army and Marine goals in the war? “The Army’s concept rested on the idea that the body count is the most important element to achieve victory… The Marine concept rested on the idea that the most important element to achieve victory in a guerilla war is to maintain the population in safety and deny food, support and other resources to the enemy…”

Its concluding paragraph deserves equal place with the poetic images of Goodbye Vietnam:
All wars cannot be won in a year or two years or five years, and there are some wars worth fighting no matter how long it takes to get the job done. America is now paying a heavy price for our enemy’s belief that we only fight in short installments when victory is assured with minimal casualties, and we will run if our nose is bloodied.

Weightier tomes, volumes, entire libraries have failed to convey as much in such poetic density. Wood’s snapshot album succeeds—precisely because of its brevity—in making it possible to contemplate both the horror of war and its occasional, distasteful necessity.