“The life story of every American soldier who died in Vietnam.”
The idea came out of nowhere, just appeared in my mind and stayed, occupying my thoughts with visions of the enshadowed, marching dead. Every single man. The events of his life. The circumstances of his death. Page after page after page. A library for a lost generation.
The stories would be humble, detailed, and clear. “Clarence Rowantree was born in Boston in the winter of 1949. He was educated in Catholic schools, and he played halfback for his high school football team. He had a girlfriend, Cathleen Trencher. He got her pregnant their junior year. Plans were made for the couple to wed, but Cathleen miscarried, and was afterwards sent to live with a spinster aunt. Clarence never saw her again. He was drafted the summer after he finished high school, when he was working in his grandfather’s barbershop, sweeping hair into piles, washing combs, and refilling the bottles of tonic. He trained at Fort Sill and was stationed at Mutter’s Ridge, near the Laotian border. His friends in the service called him Rowboat. He was very popular. He could stand upright on his hands for an impressive amount of time, and would perform this trick whenever the guys needed a boost in morale. He was also the company’s unofficial barber, performing trims and shape-ups for when the brass came around on inspection tours. He died after stepping on a landmine while out on routine patrol in his eighth month of service. He was 20.”
The idea moved me greatly, and even though I knew the project would take a long time, I felt rallied by it, and full of energy, so I sat down and did some calculations, to see exactly what kind of commitment I was getting into. I thought that each man’s story needed a full day’s work, and probably more — but I used eight hours as a base figure for estimation purposes. I multiplied eight by 58,175 (the number of names on the Vietnam War Memorial). The answer came out at 465,400 hours. I divided that by twenty-four to get the number of days, and that number by 365 to get the number of years.
I hit the equals sign on my calculator.
The screen read fifty-three.
My mouth dropped open.
I leaned back from my desk and put a hand to my forehead, considering the implications. If I worked nonstop on this project — meaning nonstop, without stopping, at all, for anything, even sleep — I’d be finished in 53 years.
Take that into your heart and tremble at the meaning. If you spent just eight hours composing the life story of every American man killed in the Vietnam war, the job would take you over half a century to complete.
I ran these results by a friend of mine, and even though I was still goggled, he was far less impressed.
“It’s a nice image,” he allowed, “but it’s just a numbers game. You could do that with anything.”
“Anything?” I asked.
“You know,” he said. “Anything where lots of people died.”
He was right, of course, and as soon as I started considering various death tolls (625,000 killed in the Civil War, six million in the Holocaust, fifty million in all of World War II together), it occurred to me just how truly impossible a complete account of those killed in war can be, depending on the war, depending on the number of the dead. In this way, war is categorically different from other kinds of tragedies. When one person dies a tragic death, we seek consolation in the story of who that person was. The details of his life — his flaws and heroics, the people he loved and cared for, the work he did — all that meaningful information has the power to outweigh the fearful or horrifying circumstances of his death.
But when a thousand people die, or a hundred thousand, or a million, or fifty million, the magnitude of loss tilts the scales away from understanding, and toward despair, nihilism, and madness; because we can’t find solace or redemption in a million life stories: it’s absurd even to try.
What we can do, though, is to seek analogs, avatars — ways of distilling the raw, titanic information churned up by war into something relatable and human.
I’ll put it another way: If there were no such thing as fiction, we’d have had to invent it, if we ever wanted to make sense out of a thing like the Vietnam War.
Dispatches, a “New Journalism” account of the war, was the first to be released. It came out in 1977, just two years after the fall of Saigon. It’s an odd, free-wheeling set of stories, at times reminiscent of both Hunter S. Thompson and William Faulkner, with the same pawky humor, fractured lensing, dreamlike narrative, and deliberately subjective attitude toward the underlying reportage. The haziness of the book’s structure grows organically from the material itself, as does the spookiness of it all, the eerie setting and unpredictable action. Herr pays a lot of attention to the superstitions of the grunts, because through them, the men seem to face and even endure their own unrelenting mortal fear, like the man who carries around a sock containing a months-old, uneaten oatmeal cookie mailed to him by his wife. Then there’s the fanatical Lurp, who makes this one chilling war story into a kind of Zen koan: “Patrol went up the mountain. One man came back. He died before he could tell us what happened.” Herr speaks to another young man, a marine from Miles City, Montana, who checks Stars and Stripes every day, hoping to learn that someone from his hometown has been killed. “I mean, can you just see two guys from a raggedy-ass town like Miles City getting killed in Vietnam?”
The funky superstitions of the marines run parallel to their own black senses of humor and, because of this, Dispatches is at times spectacularly hilarious. Nothing sums up the book’s comic-terrifying take on the war — Herr at one point calls Vietnam a “dripping, laughing death-face” — better than this story from Ed Fouhy, another reporter, about a helicopter ride he took with a torpid, weary young soldier. Fouhy, trying to make conversation, asked the kid how long he’d been in-country.
The kid half lifted his head; that question could not be serious. The weight was really on him, and the words came slowly.
“All fuckin’ day,” he said.
If Dispatches is Fear and Loathing in Vietnam, then The Things They Carried is Vietnam as MFA: a meditation on the craft of writing as well as a semi-autobiographical account of the war and the things it did to the author and his friends. “Sweetheart of the Song Tra Bong,” for example, is explicitly instructive. A story within a story, it presents a character in the frame-narrative who provides a running critique of the interior tale, arguing (Chekovianly) that each element of a story has to play some role in the central action, and that “clarification or bits of analysis and personal opinion” have no place in the tale: “It just breaks the spell. It destroys the magic.” Now, O’Brien knows this isn’t strictly true — after all, this same character makes his point by interrupting the underlying story O’Brien’s trying to tell. But that’s how people tell stories to each other in real life, and O’Brien is interested, perhaps more than anything else, in just that kind of storytelling — and with good reason. He thinks it’s how you survive a thing like Vietnam.
Take “Speaking of Courage,” for instance, a disturbing account of cowardice and grisly death, and its immediate follow-up, “Notes,” in which the author breaks through to comment on the construction of the previous story: its emotional core (a returning veteran’s simple need to confess about his failure to save a friend’s life), its dramatic frame (the story takes place as the vet drives around and around a lake in his hometown), and the symbolic counterpoint between the lake and the muddy field in Vietnam where the vet lost his friend. The vet’s need to confess is stifled by the warm, protective, polite cocoon of peacetime society, in which it’s not seemly to talk about the realities of war. Without an outlet, though, the poor man suffers, and ultimately takes his own life. In “Notes,” O’Brien tells us about the man’s suicide, but he also tells us that the prior story — at least, the part about the man’s failure to save his friend — was entirely made up. To get at the hard truth — that these guys needed to talk about what had happened to them — O’Brien had to tell a pretty big lie. That’s how you raise the stakes, he says. That’s how you make the drama that makes the people pay attention so you can show them what you know. That’s writing.
A final note: the direct incorporation of these technical aspects of fiction into the final product is something we might today categorize as “meta.” But there’s something natural, even inevitable, in their use in stories about Vietnam. They suggest a gruntlike impatience with the sleek packaging of professional fiction. In that way, they have an almost jury-rigged quality, as though they were thrown together under fire, and with all the guts still in full view.
Matterhorn (which I’ve described to friends as The Wire in Vietnam) follows a young Marine lieutenant named Waino Mellas as he survives his first three months in the bush. Waino is a Princeton graduate who abandoned a life of certain professional success to serve as a combat marine, a decision he hopes will come in handy later on (Mellas wants a political career). Although at first the other grunts are suspicious of him, Mellas quickly settles into life at firebase Matterhorn, a hill on the western side of Vietnam, close to the DMZ. Matterhorn is home to Bravo Company, a group of about 200 marines, and they have one big problem. The Company’s commander, Lt. Fitch, has gotten on the wrong side of his immediate superior, Lt. Colonel Simpson, a drunk who doesn’t like that a handsome young marine like Fitch has received praise and commendation from the higher-ups without having the good sense to share his glory with Simpson (who doesn’t actually deserve any, but still).
Partly out of spite, partly out of simple dereliction, Simpson orders Bravo Company to abandon Matterhorn and march for eight days without food or rest in order to build another firebase on a cliff further to the south. This is part of a larger project — driven by political motivations coming all the way down from the Oval Office — that will involve the marines in a useless joint operation with the South Vietnamese army. The North Vietnamese easily exploit this retreat, capturing Matterhorn while the marines are busy elsewhere. Simpson then commands Bravo Company to retake the hill — not because it serves any useful strategic purpose (Simpson orders the company to abandon Matterhorn almost as soon as it’s recaptured), but because “the kill-ratios” are all off. And if killing more Vietnamese means that more Americans will have to die, they’ll just reclassify the whole thing as a battalion action, rather than a company action, and the numbers will even out.
In spite of such mindlessness, the manly human spirit of Bravo Company endures, even finding a way to turn such evils into acts of spiritual rejuvenation. In the novel’s closing pages, a group of marines sit around a fire and sing a rondo about death: “If it’s good enough for Parker, then it’s good enough for me. If it’s good enough for Parker, then it’s good enough for me.” As they sing, they replace the name of each dead man with the name of another dead man, until they’ve sung out all the number of their fallen friends. The interchangeability of one grunt with another is a belief that damns the souls of men like Simpson; but in the hands of men like the marines of Bravo Company, that same belief becomes a bond, a testament. A pledge of relentless true faith.
In each of these books and in all the several stories they tell, one thing keeps popping back up.
“There it is.”
“There it is” was a common catchphrase among the guys in Vietnam, a sort of verbal asterisk that put the whole affair in proper light. Radios down just when the shit’s getting heavy? “There it is.” Colonel breathing down your neck about making checkpoints? “There it is.”
All the many little ironies of bad luck, incompetent commanders, and pass-the-buck-to-the-bush politicians are summed up in those three little words. Like Vonnegut’s “So it goes,” there’s not much more to the phrase than a simple expression of futility, a throwing up of hands in the air, a sigh at the deadly indifference of the universe. But there’s power in these words, and it’s the same with these stories: They are each a human reaction to the inhumanities of massive, nonsensical death. Whether it’s the cluttered, dreamy information of Dispatches, the transparencies of Tim O’Brien, or Matterhorn’s tale of redemption in friendship, the Vietnam War is transformed through each of these books into something we can understand, distilled into something edifying, and saved from the overpowering magnitudes of death. These books close the gap between the untellable story of the dead in Vietnam, and the rest of us, the ones who want to know what happened over there. In this way, they are a powerful act of generosity, both to we, as readers, and to the men who died on the hills and in the jungle, the ones who didn’t make it out.
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