The Legless, the Armless, the Blind and Insane
The War At Home
“I see the old men, all twisted and torn
The forgotten heroes of a forgotten war
And the young people ask me, what are they
And I ask myself the same question”
Eric Bogle, “And the Band Played Waltzing Matilda”
The Vietnam Project has broad horizons and contains multitudes. One part stretches into the remote paleolithic in the lands surrounding the Red River Delta, the beginnings of agriculture, the state and trade. But another part radiates into the present, in America, where everyone who remembers the American War with Vietnam continues to live with its legacy. I’m not a TV news watcher, except on Sunday mornings in the winter, when I am sometimes motivated to fold laundry. Fareed Zakaria yesterday morning on CNN was discussing Richard Holbrook with Leslie Gelb and a couple of other yackers. Holbrook’s last words according to them were, ‘Get out of Afghanistan.’ This prompted Zakaria to ask if Holbrook’s experience in Vietnam had shaped his perceptions of Afganistan. Yes! Yes! was the reply. Every generation that lives through war carries the war in their head with them forever after. Robert Graves as an old man whose mind was in twilight replied to a question about his life, “I killed a lot of people”. That would be in the trenches of WWI 60 or 70 years earlier.
Last week, Franklin Crawford, an Ithaca writer and chronicler of what he calls Tiny Town sent me an email about his experience of the American War with Vietnam. I reproduce it here exactly as he sent it. It inaugurates that part of the Vietnam Project that includes The War at Home (thank you Craig MacDonald), and that includes writings as opposed to book reviews and discussions of arcane books.
i got a heap of Vietnam-related family stories — all regarding my brother who was killed in a raid on the artillery base where he was stationed in the Tay Ninh Province in South Vietnam (big place of course — the base was close to the Cambodian border, to be more specific, not knowing coordinates) … his dog tags were missing for 35 years. well. not missing, really. they were in a file in Washington, D.C.
background: my father dropped my brother off at a LIRR train station one december morning in 1970 and he never saw the boy again. dad was a decorated soldier and served in the Battle of the Bulge and a brutal mopping up campaign that followed all to protect the Rohr Valley from the retreating germans who were sabotaging every bridge they crossed out of Belgium back home. the record of his first six months after landing remain one of the worst war stories i have yet read, and i like reading about the american “civil” war.
my brother’s death (caused by AK-47 crossfire and shrapnel from satchel explosives, loss of blood, etc. crushed my father, already a ruined man pretty much at
47. he was institutionalized in his 50s and never led a normal life on the outside again. well. that’s not fair: hospitals and institutions have their norms and life in there runs according to laws beyond most people’s ken.
brother’s death crushed mom, too. both my folks were very damaged and on a downward trajectory when the tragedy hit, spread and got all cozy with the alcoholism and serious mental illness, etc., which run their chaotic routs in my family. at times it is tempting to think there was a poxes [sic] upon us, but i don’t believe in poxes except for that which comes from poultry and a man named small. plus, i am too lucky. i’ve ruined any evil genie’s experiment by producing positive outcomes despite the fact i’ve been warehoused in nine rehabs. true. that’s a cat’s worth of lucky evidence right there. anyway. dad died in 2005. an army genealogist who’d been looking for him for 10 years or more saw the obituary. the tags were returned. dad was dead. with him went his belief my brother was not dead. because there were no tags. even though dad had forced a terrified mortician to show him my brother’s naked dead body. naked!
the wounds were quite horrible. i have all the paperwork. that’s enough to convince me. then again i was never a soldier, so there’s a lot i don’t know.
my father died after a rather simple surgery, in the brooklyn hospital, pretty far from home, alone. he left his own mystery that will never be solved: there is no death certificate for my father. that’s because no one knows why he died. he was recovering well in the ICU for five days and was released to his room. he was dead before sun-up. i had promised to be there when he was returned to his room but i was in spain. he was ashes when i got back.
it is my opinion that Vietnam was an american proxy war that never ended. not for me, anyway. today, the russians and chinese have found a better way to take us to the cleaners. these latest efforts are kind of a draw.
vonnegut considered Vietnam a war we lost. too bad for him. my once beloved author died a disappointed man, i think, because the world did not end in his time.
hope this does something for “the Vietnam project.”
ps links: it was a very slow news week in our region. the following rec’d a lot of attention. it freaked me b/c i helped write some of the stories and starred in them (worked at the Cornell Chronicle at the time).
there was tv and radio and print media that even made its way to troops in Afghanistan and Iraq. ha~! sad world Mr. Frankel. but to have good luck in it — ah. there’s the gravy for your biscuit.