It was an unusual year, a watershed year, 1969 was. Of course, it all seemed perfectly normal, albeit stimulating, at the time. But didn’t Kierkegaard say we have an arrangement between the choices we make and the passage of time? We live life forward but understand it backwards? If this is so, it’s worth pondering how ill-informed those decisions requiring immediate responses often are. It does make it easier to understand the regrets that haunt us after achieving some measure of understanding as we reflect back on what has now passed.
I graduated from High School, attended a slew of music festivals, including, Woodstock, and started college in 1969; major milestones in the life of a young person. But the truth is, they were simply part of the landscape at the time, the swirl of events and experiences that happened to mark that year. Yet, a revolution was underway, changing everything, and I mean everything. 1969 was the year this revolution reached its apex, although, I sure as hell didn’t know it. I was stimulated by events, but oblivious to the historical changes afoot in a manner captured in David Foster Wallace’s opening remarks in his legendary 2005 commencement address at Kenyon College.
There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says “Morning, boys. How’s the water?” And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes “What the hell is water?”
Richard Nixon was sworn in as President, Charles Manson and his followers went on a killing spree, the draft was replaced by the lottery, we landed a man on the moon. We have a way of assimilating novelty with increasing speed. The convergence of so many changes assaulting us at once is a distinguishing mark of 1969. But there is a kind of cultural homeostasis that drives us to normalize novelty quickly so we can return to muddle along and ponder the problems we are assaulted by. “What the hell is water?” We don’t know. We’re just living; going about the activities that occupy the time between bursts of delight and episodes of sorrow. We’re just living…that’s all. Its water.
Even as some troops were brought home, the Vietnam war raged on through 1969, and, like others, I dispassionately noted the weekly body counts reported by the news. The stories of My Lai were disturbing but there seems endless room to internalize some new tragic or pleasant experience. Internalize, but not understand or integrate into a set of personal beliefs. In time, they are water.
I have a couple of friends who enlist and go to Viet Nam. They return alive, but changed. Nothing seems to matter much to them. They get high every day and appear unconcerned about what is next now that they are finally home. These guys are amazingly unafraid of risky endeavors like responding to someone’s dare. No, they delight and are animated by risk. Beyond the excitement that risk generates, there is an emotionally flat quality to their interactions with others. One carries a pornographic photo of a soldier and a naked Vietnamese woman in his wallet. A prostitute servicing a soldier. He’s indifferent about the girl. “She got paid. What’s the big deal?” The photograph is shocking not simply because it is pornographic but because he carries it in his wallet. Why he does this is mildly disturbing but not without good reason, he thinks. The photo lifts merely a corner of the curtain that veils what most won’t speak about. It offers a small glimpse of the seedy world from which they have returned physically but not spiritually. Th photo asks, ‘Are you appalled?’ This is the world I lived in, and now lives in me. This is real life that exposes the dark side of the human story and how people do whatever they have to do in order to survive. What we have experienced now separates us from you. The vets I know are offended by the opinions of those who never served in ‘Nam. There is little patience for armchair war strategists. The response is always the same- “You never been there. You don’t know anything.”
Still, some long for the sense of inclusion they knew in their former life. Newly separated military, or those home on leave, stick out like sore thumbs. Their shabby jeans, bell bottoms and tie dye, can’t mask what their incongruous haircuts scream: “I don’t fit in anymore”. They don’t and, oh, they know it too, aggravating the divisions between the hip and the world wise. It helps feed the belief that if you hadn’t been there, you didn’t get it. Besides the resentment, it is creating a festering wound that will be ignored when they return. It will leave many isolated and despairing. The salve that soothes the pain of the active duty soldier is ironically rejoining the safety of their outfit. Here, they fit in, returning to the fellowship of those who “got it”; who know what the world is really like.
And the warriors who do ‘get it’, learn to protect themselves from the arbitrariness of who comes home and in what condition, sharing the wisdom of their comrades, “It don’t mean nothin’!” It’s a common refrain for the many who wrestle with the demons of this of this uniquely peculiar war. In, GOODBYE DARKNESS, William Manchester identifies a critical difference between the way WWII is fought and Vietnam. WWII soldiers enlist together, train together, are forged into warriors together, deploy together, and fight together and either die or go home together. They do not fight for principle but for one another. In Vietnam, soldiers are ‘in country’ for thirteen-month tours so everyone was accustomed to seeing their comrades come and go. The kind of fraternal friendships fostered in WWII, were largely absent and discouraged by some in Vietnam. The emotional cost of bearing grief for a fallen friend is blunted by the avoidance of close relationships. The tragedy, mayhem and death are expected and managed by a well-developed set of emotional defenses. The wisdom of well defended, battle-hardened survivors was captured in the simple phrase, “It don’t mean nothin’.”
I am spending the week in Washington DC at the National Cathedral attending The College of Preachers. We are a small group of maybe twelve to fifteen Episcopal priests. This particular session is mentored by Donald Coggin, the Archbishop of Canterbury. The purpose of the College is to hone our skills as preachers- or in the jargon of theological academia-a course in homiletics.
Time has a way of soothing humiliating experiences so I no longer cringe when recalling how the Archbishop cut me off mid-sentence as I was delivering what I hoped would be a brilliant sermon I had prepared for the first day. But I exceeded the allotted time given each participant and am dumbstruck by his interrupting me with a “time’s up”. He just smiles, reminding me the assignment was a homily that did not exceed ten minutes. Then he adds in his refined British accent a quote from our own Mark Twain rubbing salt into my newly inflicted wound: “Wasn’t it Mark Twain who said, ‘I would have written a shorter letter if I had the time’?” I slink away from the podium seething but smiling awkwardly, my red face betraying efforts to mask my embarrassment.
Arrangements have been made for us to visit the Vietnam Veteran’s Memorial the following day. Honestly, I am not sure why. The principal leader and driving force behind getting the memorial built is our guide. We are free to wander and ‘take in’ the experience of it all after arriving. I know relatively little about the memorial beyond the unimpressive photos I previously viewed. It’s controversial because its abstract design is unappealing to those who believe a memorial should incorporate the likenesses of the warriors who fought and died. The designer is a Yale undergraduate, I recall, because I too had graduated from Yale Divinity almost ten years earlier and celebrate Yale’s accomplishments. The designer’s young age, and that she is the daughter of Chinese immigrants, helps feed the controversy surrounding her selection.
I approach the memorial alone and discover how photographs fail to capture the impact of its haunting simplicity, the highly reflective black granite blanketed by the sea of names from one end to the other. The chevron-shaped, polished black granite, reflects back to us our own image suggesting we ourselves are a part of the memorial. The chevron, that some describe as a black gash, is neatly embedded into the side of a small hill that follows the shape of the chevron. The names are listed chronologically, according to the date of death. The intent is to invite us to imagine how the names engraved one next to the other, fought and died next to the other which, in fact, they did. The power the memorial possesses is how it beckons visitors to interact with it. Some make rubbings of the names they wish to remember. As I watch, I wonder are they family, or perhaps a friend. I scan the length of the wall from one end to the other, and cannot helped but be moved by the intensity and intimacy of each visitor’s interactions with the monument. Mementos, clearly recalling some private experience between the fallen and a friend or family member are scattered below the names listed above. The mementos are anticipated, but the grief conveyed in the letters we solemnly read, no one is prepared for. The intimate recollections, the expressions of heartache and sorrow, the pain of loss; it feels like an invasion of privacy. The letters are taped next to the deceased name. I am aware the experience is impacting me in multiple ways; unleashing waves of compassion I am unaware I possess, intense grief for the dead for those who fought, for my friends, for the dead, for their families, for their friends, for us all, who never really understood. The medals, the battle ribbons, even combat boots placed at the base of the monument show how the interactive power the memorial possesses is intended to help bind up the wounds of war. A woman is pressing her face against the warm black stone; she holds it there, her eyes closed. A father holding the hand of his small son stands before the monument and suddenly begins to cry, and then to sob as the confused boy looks up at his father, obviously concerned. The father squats down beside the boy presumably to explain, but simply cannot stop sobbing.
Our guide rallies the group assembling us in a circle a short distance from the monument. He is recounting the story of the efforts to get the memorial built- one he has clearly told many times before. As he drones on, the wop-wop-wop of a helicopter flying low overhead startles him. He yanks his shoulders up close to his ears and hunches as if bracing for something dangerous. We stare at him in silence, wondering.
The flow of his presentation broken, he abandons his well-worn speech, and looking up at the small group of clergy that surround him, apologizes. “Every time I hear that wop-wop-wop of a helicopter, it’s like I am back there again. I don’t know. I’m sort of undone, and not sure what to do or where to go.” Silent now he stares at us who encircle him. “Sometimes, the burden of all this has felt too great for me. I’m overwhelmed and feel like the weight of doing right by all those lost lives lays on my shoulders; as if it’s my responsibility alone to look after them….Sometimes it feels more than I can stand.” He begins to weep and the Archbishop put his arms around him and pulls him close. His head relaxes up against his chest. And in the Archbishop’s embrace, he continues as if trying to convince himself of something about which he is uncertain. “But then I think…I’m not alone.”
What? I ask myself. What is he talking about?
“There is a communion of saints They are the communion of saints, right?’
It’s the dead, he’s referring to. I understand now. He is referring to the men and women who died and are named on the memorial. The dead…the communion of saints. That’s what he means. I am humbled and a little shamed by the earnestness of his belief.
He lifts his head and steps back from the Archbishop, almost pleading for certainty. “There is a communion of saints, isn’t there, Bishop?” The Archbishop nods. Yes”, he says softly. “And they can help me, right?” “Yes”, the Archbishop answers. “They can.” He smiles warmly. And our guide begins to compose himself. It is impossible to escape the sensation that we are all wrapped in something profoundly sacred, something holy that demands nothing less than our silence. I silently recall the story of the burning bush when Yahweh admonishes Moses, “Take off your shoes for the ground on which you stand is holy.” Yes, I recognize, the ground on which we stand is holy.
The highly anticipated and controversial movie PLATOON has just been released. Many are disturbed by vivid depictions of the moral ambiguities of this war; the dehumanizing impact and dark behaviors it elicited from many who fought. I am asked if I will see the movie with John, a friend and colleague from another Church. He confesses he is afraid to see it alone, fearing it might stir traumatic memories from his tour. On the way to the movie, he is anxious to talk. I’m not sure what he wants to tell me but he jumps right in sharing that all his life he has been taught that if you are morally upright, if you do the right thing, life will return the favor and treat you well. He regarded himself as a good man, a moral man when he enlisted. He believes he retains a clear-eyed understanding of what is right and wrong as he readies for his tour of duty. I drive while he manically talks and talks. Wide eyed and agitated, he unexpectedly interrupts his own train of thought. “Firefights are terrifying! You can’t see anything. You don’t know where anyone is” Then he is quiet for a moment before continuing where he leaves off. The months pass and he grows weary and increasingly cynical. He sees the soldiers he fights beside die. He is coming to hate the Viet Cong which are, of course, indistinguishable from the rest of the population. It is perhaps easier, he thinks, to simply hate them all; to view them all as less than human. But, even the thought raises a moral conflict and fills him with guilt. It would be wrong, so he clings to the belief that doing the right thing will somehow reward him by sparing his life and returning him home in one piece.
Then, a Viet Cong officer is captured. He despises the man and discovers he has had a change of heart regarding the sacred truths he has been taught to embrace since childhood. The man is being interrogated by army intelligence This is when he becomes aware of the tectonic shift in his views regarding moral principles that has been underway since he first saw combat. It is his turn to interrogate the prisoner and he struggles to explain is happening to him. “I had the oddest sensation. I was so sick of it all; sick of death, sick of feeling constantly threatened, sick of being in this screwed up place, in this screwed up war. Suddenly, I felt as if my morality was almost taken from me. It was as if sucked from me in a single great, whoosh. I literally felt it flee from me. I am stunned by the realization that there is no relationship between being a good person and survival. It is all bullshit. It was all a lie I was sold as a boy and foolishly believed as a man and a soldier. It was then I knew with certainty I would take this prisoner to the edge of death. He had information and I would do whatever it took to get it from him. None of it mattered anymore. There was no reward for moral principle. I’d probably die anyway.”
The movie proved to be upsetting at times but not unmanageable for John. Still, it did have a forceful impact and opened a gateway to a flood of stories and private thoughts he has been privately dragging around for years.
Returning home from his Vietnam tour was no easy task, John tells me. Isolated, feeling unwelcome, unappreciated, and filled with despair, he came to understand and experience a concept often referred to in religious life, but seldom fully understood. Redemption. I must have looked at him skeptically, because he smiled, hold up his hand signaling a request for patience.
“I feel I finally understand what redemption means. The way I see it… well, do you remember when everyone collected S&H Green Stamps? Do you remember how they’d all go into some junk drawer in the kitchen until finally decided it was time to put them into those little books.” I did remember and spent more than one afternoon licking those stamps and fixing them page by page in the little booklets provided. He continued. “So, once you filled each page in the books with stamps you collected, what did you do with them?” He didn’t wait for me to answer but, I chuckled, knowing the answer he was about to share. “You brought them to the redemption center.” I laugh, recalling trips to the redemption center as a child. I have a particularly vivid recollection of the bedtable lamp I had obtained at the redemption center. It is an extraordinary transaction bordering on miraculous I considered back then. I lick hundreds of stamps and paste them into little booklets, take them to the redemption center and turn them into a lamp with a cream-colored shade, on the end of an alligator neck attached to a black bas
“You see what I’m saying?” he asked. I nod. “You lick those stupid stamps and stick them into the book and get something in exchange. You take what seems to possess no value and exchange it at the redemption center for something that does possess value. You redeem what is of no value for that which has value.” He let this sink in for a moment. “But you gotta do the work first right?” He smiled as he surely saw the lightbulb appear above my head. I like this. It makes sense of an obscure theological concept I often refer to but barely understand. Taking the valueless actions and behaviors we are responsible for, doing the work of putting them into little books; that is, embracing the unattractive work of inventorying these actions and bringing them to light, we now bring them to the metaphorical redemption center, extracting from the worthless something of value. It makes sense.
It was the hard work he does on the heels of his experience in Vietnam where he claims to discover his vocation to the priesthood.
I am sitting in the office of my dear friend, the Dean of the Episcopal Cathedral in San Diego, and two other, equally dear friends. We are all priests and very close to one another in spite of vast age differences. This is a weekly gathering of a few friends that has been going on for years. Its purpose is to keep each other grounded and support one another through the inevitable hard times. Bill had been a Catholic priest for many years before seeking reception into the Episcopal Church. We went through the long, grueling process together. He served in Vietnam as a Chaplain and now loved and sought out by veterans and veteran’s groups all over the country. Why? Because he had been there.
Today, over coffee, Bill is venting his exasperation with the PTSD treatment program at the VA Hospital.
“These guys did some very bad things in Nam and they know it. They can’t sleep. They’ve learned what they are capable of and it scares the shit out of them. They think they are monsters and despair that this insight condemns them to a life of guilt and shame.”
Bill is passionate about veterans and their care. These idiots keep trying to convince these guys their behavior was normal under the extreme circumstances of war. They are not bad people. Their decisions were appropriate given the war. You know, “war is hell”, the “fog of war” and all that. The case they make is to suggest their views on morality had to be, sort of, suspended, or just were not applicable in war. It’s all detailed in various theories regarding what constitutes a “Just War”.
“My guys don’t buy it. They know what they did was wrong. It violated their moral principles and no one can justify or normalize their actions to change what they did and how they feel about it. They don’t need, and sure as hell don’t want, anyone trying to defend what they did. They don’t need to be treated, they need to be forgiven. They don’t need a psychiatrist, they need a priest.”
The Vietnam War does not feel so long ago. Yet, it is jarring to encounter those who fought. They are old men and look like the those I remembered as a young man who fought in the Second World War. Still these old men, these veterans seem to disproportionally privately wrestle with the demons that haunt their memories. I wrestle too- but, with the moral ambiguities that displaces any certainty I had about those years. I went to Vietnam a few years back and visit places with names I recall from radio and television years ago. I explore the museum that preserves the memories and trumpets the Viet Cong’s victory of what they call ‘The American War’. My wife and I have arranged to spend an afternoon at a school in the countryside outside of Hoi An. We want to deliver a package of school supplies we purchase for the school. Surprisingly, there were no adults on the premises when we arrive. It is lunch time and the children are left on their own. They are scattered throughout the dusty grounds surrounding the school. They play soccer, jump rope, and now follow the two pale-skinned persons wandering aimlessly throughout the school. Still, we are a novelty and prove intriguing enough to collect quite a crowd of followers. We enter one of the classrooms followed by the children who look expectantly at us as if waiting for us to do or say something that might dazzle them. The alphabet is posted above the blackboard as it was when I was a child. I pointed to the letter “A” and together all the children delighted in responding “A”! I went through a few more letters before I thought, Ahh, I thought I know what I’d do. I stood up straight and faced the now overflowing classroom.
“Head and shoulders knees and toes” I sang accompanied by the well-known hand motions. Everyone participated. There was laughter, singing, photos of the children flashing peace signs. And holding hands or hugging either my wife or me.
After an hour or so, a motorcycle turned into the dirt driveway. The Principal arrived and invited us into his office. We presented the supplies and spoke for just a short time. He was older and I was curious to ask him about The American War. He answers my questions with one-or two-word responses suggesting a reluctance to speak of those times. I regret my intrusion into the darkness I imagine, he wishes to forget. It underscores the challenge of coming to any final conclusions regarding this war Mostly what we learn is people want to move on, to let it go. Few people visit the Museum of the American War except tourists and returning American vets. The antagonistic and anti-American exhibits recall the unspeakable horrors of war as well as their final triumph. The museum’s message stands in stark contrast to the generous hospitality of the Vietnamese people who go out of their way to be friendly and engaging with us. It is remarkable, I think.
For me, and for many others, a generalized uneasiness remains regarding any final judgements about the Vietnam war and those who fought in it. Curiously, from my perspective, not as a veteran, but as a civilian, it is more emotionally taxing to revisit the Vietnam years than it was to live through them. Armed with the universal moral principle that war is never just, the tumult of the time was generally thought to be worth it. Yet, to be sure, we have learned, hindsight is laden with intense grief. I do believe it is true we cannot fully understand the present because it is the water in which we swim, the air that we breathe. And if this is so, knee-jerk opinions about the morality of matters present, should be understood as dynamic when viewed through the lens of time passed. Our beliefs about the rightness and wrongness of things evolve as we broaden our base of understanding regarding the complexities of any given circumstance. As we listen to the people’s stories that recount experience and perspectives very different from those we possess, initial judgements that become calcified opinions are often tempered or changed altogether. I marvel about how unconscious I was in 1969. This is not to suggest that I now believe the Vietnam war was just. Rather, I have come to believe the time was complex and the tenacious grip so many had on universal moral principles was simply the water we lived in and were unaware of. This, even as the foundations of so many precious beliefs were burning to the ground. Greater levels of compassion are a consequence of gaining a broader understanding and varied perspectives regarding circumstances initially judged definitively.
Recognizing the dynamic nature of moral pronouncements is hardly promoting a wishy-washy ethic which many have argued. It is simply appreciating that the better one is informed, the more value their judgements possess. It is this principle that underlies our system of justice. Judgement is withheld until all evidence can be weighed and a thorough understanding achieved. Still, it is hard to live without the sort of certainty that allows for speedy judgements. So, militant support for judgement based upon a universal set of rights and wrongs will always be embraced by some while dismissed by others as nostalgic or even dangerous. The willingness to be changed by a greater appreciation of complex circumstances threatens to set us all adrift, treading water in the unpredictable seas of ambiguity.
It is a hard way to live. But uncertainty might better be understood as curiosity. In the end, it is not the principles themselves that present the greatest challenge, it is a failure to recognize how nuanced they are, demanding, therefore, judgement wait for understanding.
Does it leave us wondering: Who are the heroes? Who are the villains? What is moral? What is immoral? It is no surprise that our views and opinions change when we look back at where we once stood. Can we live with that sort of fluidity, I wonder? Or will we find that our need for certitude requires us to increasingly harden our initial position for or against even as new information suggests a reassessment? We swim with or against the currents all the while in ‘water’ of which we are unaware. But then, what the hell is water, anyway?