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Vietnam

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 reach.

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 country.

"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?

Copyright © 2007  Larry Winters. All rights reserved.

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Last updated:  November 7, 2008

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