by Larry Winters
Vietnam is a split in my psyche. I felt this in 1969 and still feel
it today. The war opened a cleft in me which has not healed. This split remains
buried under a blanket of guilt and denial. I fought in the War because my
country asked me to. When I returned, I was called a baby killer, and a part
of me still believes this.
It has been hard work to control the confusion from the war so it does not
overwhelm my life. A friend of mine, John Wolf, a vet, has written about
how soldiers coped during the War.
"The possibility of being overwhelmed was always one small horror away. In
other wars, at such times, men probably called in desperation to their God
to sustain and deliver them. in the 10l st we employed a less sacral technique
of emotional first aid handed down from short timer to cherry. If one felt
himself at the point of saturation he chanted, mantra like, the words, 'It
don't mean nothin.'"
I and many others have lived within this philosophy for many years now, "It
didn't mean nothing until then and it don't mean nothing now."
It was in 1990, while watching Bill Moyers interview one of the leaders of
the "men's movement," poet Robert Bly, that I more fully awoke to how much
the war still lived within me. During this interview Bill asked Robert a
question about our culture and the Vietnam War. His reply was a long
"Shreeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeaking" sound. The hair on the back of my neck stood
up and I was overcome. I began to weep. It took several minutes for me to
identify the pain I was feeling.
I wept for the loss of my childhood innocence, my unflinching belief in God
and country, and the trust I had in the men who led me to Vietnam. I had
not been aware that I was holding in this pain until I heard his mournful
wail. The shriek cut through the indifference I had been protecting myself
with. Robert touched me in a place that all the words had not been able to
There is a collective wail we continue to repress; it lives inside us and
corrupts our dignity and makes us cynical. Our unhealed psychic wounds require
compassion, attention and forgiveness. Enough time has passed that we should
be able to break the silence of more than two decades.
Until the summer of 1994 I had heard no heartfelt welcome home. I was in
a workshop with a group of men, and I asked them if they could welcome me
home from Vietnam. They honored me, and their words brought up a deep sadness
and grief. For the first time I cried openly for the pain of the war. In
the 25 years since Vietnam only a handful of men and women have offered me
the opportunity to express my feeling about the war. No civil organization
has ever thanked me for giving up my youth.William Broyles, Jr. summarizes
my feelings in his book, BROTHERS IN ARMS: A JOURNEY FROM WAR TO PEACE.
"We had been willing to give our lives for our country, no less than our
fathers had been at Normandy and Iwo Jima. This war however, was different.
We lost. And the country that sent us did not take us back into its arms.
It either hated the war or simply wanted to forget it."
As a culture we have shamed the men and women who sacrificed their lives
and freedoms in the Vietnam War. Whatever our veterans learned in their
experiences from the War has been scorned by fellow Americans.
We are a culture that will not look at the darkness of our actions. Many
Americans needed a target for the guilt, and veterans became that target.
Collectively we sent our men and women to Vietnam, and when they returned,
we shamed them for what we had told them to do. The Vietnam veteran has become
the scapegoat of old, sent out into the desert carrying the sins of the tribe.
As Americans we are responsible for the devastation of Vietnam. We have not
been able to face this fact. During my recent visit to Vietnam I was told
that between 200,000--300,000 Vietnamese's MIA's were reported. The combined
numbers show that we killed over a million people in the Vietnam War. In
addition to this we dumped poison in the form of agent orange on their land;
that poison is still causing birth defects. We turn away from this darkness
of our past, and worst of all, we turn from those who we sent into that darkness.
What truths have we as Americans gleaned from the War? What myths do we tell
ourselves to hide those truths? Rambo, becomes the stereotype for our Vietnam
Vets. Crazy ex-marines climb into towers and shoot innocent people. This
is the shame that we ask our veterans to carry.
As a collective we do not deal with grief or know how to talk about failure
without blame. It has taken me years as a therapist to understand that mistakes
offer opportunities. By identifying what went wrong we gain the choice to
see what is right. The questions which seem too hard to ask are: what could
we learn from the pain and loss of 58,000 men and women? Is it worth
understanding why 100,000 Vietnam veterans have taken their own lives after
the War? I say yes!
It is now twenty years since an American helicopter lifted the last American
off the roof of the US embassy in Vietnam. But in some important ways our
culture is still locked and frozen in that time. There is much we have yet
to come to terms with. James Olson, in the preface of his book DICTIONARY
OF THE VIETNAM WAR, explains the profound effects this war has had on our
"In a sense, the war ended 'the American century.' That period of unrivaled
power and virtue the United States enjoyed between 1918 and 1965. During
the Vietnam years liberalism gave way to cynicism, internationalism to
isolationism, and innocence to cold reality. Quite simply, America was a
different place in 1975 than it had been in 1964; life would never be the
same again, and the Vietnam War was responsible.
Anyone who has lived through this period is aware of the shift in values,
and attitudes that has occurred. I have been working hard to understand what
I learned from the War. In battle there was a unique opportunity to be close
to your spiritual self. A man is never closer to the core than when his life
may be taken. We have a whole generation of men and women who lived through
a deeply spiritual time. I challenge the American people to ask us what we
know in our souls from this dark journey.
My friend John Wolf has appropriately used the metaphor of the huge black
marble slab, the "Vietnam memorial" sitting upon the grief and wisdom of
a nation. Will we dare to stop and lift this weight that buries our healing?