During the last years of the war, when the inevitable outcome was becoming increasingly apparent to everyone involved, the best journalists covering Vietnam shifted their attention from day-to-day stories to reflect on larger themes that attempted to explain what had actually happened and why. Two of the most successful of these works, both published in 1972, were Fire in the Lake by Frances FitzGerald and The Best and the Brightest by David Halberstam. FitzGerald, who received the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award, and the Bancroft Prize for her book, wrote that it was intended to be a “first draft of history.”
In providing a deep historical and cultural reading of Vietnam, FitzGerald was the first to argue that the Americans had limited real knowledge of the country they were invading and a generally poor conception of the Vietnamese people—who saw the conflict not as a means of liberating them from the yoke of communism, but rather as another effort at colonial subjugation. Halberstam, by contrast, set out to understand American leadership, and particularly how the “best and the brightest” could have been so wrong in Vietnam. Both books were widely praised, paving the way for a more historically nuanced understanding of the political moment, the key players, and the reasons behind the many mistakes that came to define the war. FitzGerald, Halberstam, and a number of other writers helped to generate a new kind of interest in a subject so many wanted to leave behind.
Important though these books were, they did little to help veterans and their families to cope with the personal consequences of the war. As Philip Caputo has written, “By the mid-1970s, the public had heard enough about Vietnam from journalists, commentators, and analysts of every kind. . . .Vietnam was considered a legitimate subject for journalism, but as a subject for literature it was almost as taboo as explicit sex had been to the Victorians.”
But veterans and many others still had a strong desire to reflect on what the experience meant to those who did the fighting and dying. Caputo, who had served two tours of duty in Vietnam, felt a need to connect outsiders, especially those he characterized as the self-righteous critics of the war, more directly to what had happened. In his first book, the memoir A Rumor of War, which was published in 1977, Caputo strove
to make people uncomfortable—in effect, to blow them out
of their snug polemical bunkers into the confusing, disturbing
emotional and moral no-man’s-land where we warriors
dwelled. . . . I did not want to tell anyone about the war but to
show it. I wanted readers to feel the heat, the monsoons, the
mosquitoes, to experience the snipers, booby traps, and ambushes.
Above all, I wanted to communicate the moral ambiguities
of a conflict in which demons and angels traded places
too often to tell one from the other, even within yourself.
During these early postwar years, along with Caputo’s work, a new wave of important writing about Vietnam began to appear that focused on the lived experience of the soldier. The emphasis in these works—memoirs, novels, and poetry—was on the personal experience of those doing the fighting and dying, rather than the politics, history, or even military strategy of the war.
In books by Tim O’Brien, Larry Heinemann, Michael Herr, and Ron Kovic among others, war writing progressed beyond frontline journalistic accounts to give voice to the soldiers themselves. Those who had done the fighting, suffering, and dying, and those who had been left behind, were emerging as a crucial part of the story of the war itself.
Ron Kovic was among the first veterans to write a major memoir of the war, Born on the Fourth of July, published in 1976. Kovic, who had enlisted in the Marines in 1964 and was a self-styled patriot and a strong supporter of the war, served two tours in Vietnam before suffering a catastrophic injury in 1968, which resulted in paralysis from the chest down. During the long ordeal of his recovery, and then following the Kent State killings, Kovic’s position changed, and he became one of the most active veterans protesting against the war. In writing his memoir, Kovic later explained:
I wanted people to understand. I wanted to share with them as
nakedly and openly and intimately as possible what I had gone
through, what I had endured. I wanted them to know what it
really meant to be in a war—to be shot and wounded, to be
fighting for my life on the intensive care ward—not the myth
we had grown up believing. I wanted people to know about the
hospitals and the enema room, about why I had become opposed
to the war, why I had grown more and more committed
to peace and nonviolence.
The distinctive character of the Vietnam War also produced a great deal of poetry, comparable in quantity if perhaps not always in quality to the work of the great soldier poets of Britain in the First World War. Those poets were unequaled in capturing the grueling and appalling conditions of trench warfare as well as the psychological state of individuals pushed beyond the limits of human endurance through protracted exposure to inconceivable cruelty and hardship. Among the finest of these was Siegfried Sassoon, who often explored the sharp contrast between popular rhetoric about the war and the very different reality for the soldiers, as he did in the 1916 poem “They”:
The Bishop tells us: ‘When the boys come back
They will not be the same; for they’ll have fought
In a just cause: they lead the last attack
On Anti-Christ; their comrades’ blood had bought
New right to breed an honorable race,
They have challenged Death and dared him face to face.’
‘We’re none of us the same!’ the boys reply.
‘For George lost both his legs; and Bill’s stone blind;
Poor Jim’s shot through his lungs and like to die;
And Bert’s gone syphilitic: you’ll not find
A chap who’s served that hasn’t found some change.’
And the Bishop said; ‘The ways of God are strange!’
In his poem “Grotesque,” Frederic Manning, like Sassoon, wrote of the terrible contradiction between the lofty ideology and ugly reality that all soldiers inevitably had to face once they were on the battlefield or in the trench:
These are the damned circles Dante trod,
Terrible in hopelessness,
But even skulls have their humor,
An eyeless and sardonic mockery;
Sitting with streaming eyes in the acrid smoke,
That murks our foul, damp billet,
Chant bitterly, with raucous voices
As a choir of frogs
In hideous irony, our patriotic songs.
The soldier poets of Vietnam also explored the grim reality and emotional experience of their particular war. As W. D. Ehrhart has observed, not all the work from Vietnam is highly accomplished from a literary standpoint, but it offered a voice for “soldiers so hurt and bitter that they could not maintain their silence any longer.” Like Michael O’Donnell, many of the war poets of the Vietnam era were young volunteers who accepted the premise that they were entering a conflict deserving of their commitment and sacrifice. When they discovered otherwise, usually after they had become trapped inside the war with no chance for escape, some of these soldiers resorted to poetry to express what they were experiencing, which somehow they could not communicate in any other way.
Clearly, the combination of loneliness and sense of betrayal that so many of these poets experienced was a central component of their work. As Ehrhart described, “each soldier went to Vietnam alone and unheralded, and those who survived came home alone to an alien land—indifferent or even hostile to them—where the war continued to rage no farther away than the nearest television set or newspaper, or the nearest street demonstration.”Many of the war poets of the Vietnam era were young volunteers who accepted the premise that they were entering a conflict deserving of their sacrifice. When they discovered otherwise, some resorted to poetry.
Many of the themes expressed in the work of these poets echo one another, but the perspectives offered by the best of them can be distinct and startling. In the poem “Morning—A Death,” Basil Paquet, a conscientious objector who served as a combat medic in Vietnam, writes with extraordinary force about the moment of death for a soldier on the battlefield, at least as it was experienced by a combat medic:
I’ve blown up your chest for thirty minutes
And crushed it down an equal time
And still you won’t warm to my kisses
I’ve sucked and puffed on your
Metal No. 8 throat for so long,
And twice you’ve moaned under my thrusts
On your breastbone. I’ve worn off
Those sparse hairs you counted noble on your chest,
And twice you defibrillated,
And twice blew back my breath.
You are dead just as finally
As your mucosity dries on my lips
In this morning sun.
I have thumped and blown into your kind too often.
I grow tired of kissing the dead.
Paquet’s poem invites us to contemplate what death on the field of battle actually looks and feels like for a medic. By contrast, John Balaban, a conscientious objector who served in Vietnam as a volunteer for an NGO, provides a deeply disturbing image of what being left behind actually means in his masterful “In Celebration of Spring”:
Our Asian war is over; others have begun.
Our elders, who tried to mortgage lies,
are disgraced, or dead, and already
the brokers are picking their pockets
for the keys and the credit cards.
In a delta swamp in a united Vietnam,
a Marine with a bullfrog for a face
rots in equatorial heat. An eel
slides through the cage of his bared ribs.
At night, on the still battlefields, ghosts,
like patches of fog, lurk into villages
to maunder on doorsills or cratered homes,
while all across the U.S. in this 200th year
of revolution and the rights of man,
the wounded walk about and wonder where to go.
And today, in the simmer of lyric sunlight,
a chrysalis pulses in its mushy cocoon
under the bark on a gnarled root of an elm.
In the brilliant creek, a minnow flashes
delirious with gnats. The turtle’s heart
quickens its taps in the warm bank sludge.
As she chases a Frisbee spinning in sunlight
a girl’s breasts bounce full and strong;
a boy’s stomach, as he turns, is flat and strong.
Swear by the locust, by dragonflies on ferns,
by the minnow’s flash, the tremble of a breast,
by the new earth spongy under our feet:
that as we grow old, we will not grow evil,
that although our garden seeps with sewage,
and our elders think it’s up for auction—swear
by this dazzle that does not wish to leave us—
that we will be keepers of a garden, nonetheless.
In contrasting a dead marine with an attractive young couple playing with a Frisbee on a bountiful spring day, Balaban provokes us to reflect, not only on the persistence of loss, but on the gruesome tragedy of untimely death in war. He also seeks to remind us of what is at stake as we grow old. If, as Laurence Binyon observes, the dead “shall not grow old, as we that are left grow old,” Balaban asks the generation that survived Vietnam, through the passing of time not to become like their elders who betrayed them.
Like those of Paquet and Balaban, the poems of Michael O’Donnell make important contributions to our understanding of the war, and especially the emotional side of the surreal world the poets inhabited. They focus on the themes of loneliness, loss, and the interior life of a helicopter pilot who had almost daily exposure to death, but spent each evening back at the base, enacting a wearying routine that eroded his spirit and seemed gradually to prepare him for his own death. Given the sadness found in his poems and his destiny in Vietnam, O’Donnell’s life was ultimately tragic. But he would no doubt find it redemptive that his poems came to be widely embraced, especially by those who had served and whose inner lives connected so fully with his own.
With the rise of this new interest in the veteran’s experience, as recounted in memoirs, novels, and poems, there also emerged a new genre of films that explored the personal consequences of war on veterans and their families. Coming Home and The Deer Hunter were among the best of these early films. Both released in 1978 to critical acclaim, these films each in its own way offered an honest but sympathetic examination of damaged people trying to rebuild their lives under difficult circumstances. In Coming Home the damage to Vietnam vet Luke Martin was physical, and in Deer Hunter the three friends, all who suffered greatly in the war, deal with PTSD and grave physical injuries.
These films and others that came later offered a mass audience a new understanding of a war they had not experienced—both the fury of battle and its traumatic aftermath. Of course, no experience in a theater, accompanied by popcorn and a soft drink, can give the viewer even a remote sense of the trauma and sheer terror of battle, or for that matter, its impact over time. But viewed as a collective enterprise, literature, historical writing, poetry, and film have contributed a great deal to our understanding of war from perspectives that would otherwise be unavailable.
After seeing The Deer Hunter, a film he believed to be both honest and sympathetic to the trauma faced by those who fought in Vietnam, a young veteran named Jan Scruggs founded the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund and pitched the idea for a memorial on the National Mall—one that would specifically honor veterans’ sacrifices rather than the cause, the conflict, or its leaders. There was initially little public support for the idea, but the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund began to receive support from influential veterans serving in Congress and elsewhere, and shortly thereafter the movement had raised the necessary funds and, even more impressive, secured approval to build a memorial on the National Mall adjacent to the Lincoln Memorial. President Jimmy Carter signed the order for this memorial in July 1980.
At the time, the design selected for the memorial was controversial.
The architect, Maya Lin, a young Asian American college student and nonveteran had proposed a radical departure from the heroic conventions of earlier war memorials. Occupying two acres of land on the National Mall, the memorial consists of two highly polished black granite walls that recede into the earth from their point of intersection at the center. The names of more than 58,300 dead and missing American soldiers are inscribed on the highly reflective surface along the entire 500-foot length of the memorial.
The horizontal orientation and unobtrusive silhouette of the memorial wall drew criticism from those who felt that a minimalist memorial would not sufficiently honor the sacrifices of those who died.19 Yet Lin’s design was consistent with the specifications set forth for the competition, which called for a memorial that would “harmonize with its surroundings” and “make no political statement about the war.” Although her design was not explicitly political, the placement of the memorial on the National Mall, so close to the location of the many anti-war protests, was itself seen as a political gesture.
The dedication of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in November 1982 represented a major turning point in how Americans thought about the war, in particular by helping them to distinguish between, on the one hand, the moral and ethical issues associated with America’s policies in Vietnam and, on the other, the profound sacrifice of individuals called upon to fight the war. Although the memorial was at first highly controversial, its impact was profound and almost entirely unanticipated.
For many Americans seeking a way to express their feelings about the war and their empathy for those who suffered through it, the new memorial came to serve as a locus sanctus. It quickly became one of the most frequently visited sites in Washington, and remains so today. One of the most surprising responses to the new memorial—which began at the very outset—was the practice of leaving objects at the wall, ranging from everyday items to deeply personal gifts to war-related relics. Kristin Hass argued that for many the site “captures the unlikely simultaneous experiences of reflection and burial,” functioning as both a memorial and a collective headstone.
Shortly after the memorial was dedicated, the Parks and History Association published a commemorative volume entitled Let Us Remember: The Vietnam Veterans Memorial, which provided a historical overview on the project and outlined the purpose of the memorial. The booklet included a single poem, which was placed on the final page: “If You Are Able” by Michael O’Donnell.
Throughout this process of national reflection and painful debate, and especially following the dedication of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, Michael O’Donnell’s poetry found increasingly larger audiences among veterans, writers, filmmakers, and the public. Over the next few years, O’Donnell’s work would be incorporated into several other memorials around the nation, most notably the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in New York City, but also those in California, Illinois, Kansas, and South Dakota. At the time of its dedication in New York in May 1985, the Memorial Commission stated that the memorial “should express reconciliation and an awareness of the enduring human values which are reflected in the conflicting experiences of the Vietnam war.” Some years later, Bernard Edelman, who had led the effort to create the New York Vietnam Veterans Memorial, described O’Donnell’s poem “If You Are Able” as the “anthem poem for Vietnam veterans.”
Following the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, Michael O’Donnell’s work found a new audience when his poem “If You Are Able” was included in a memorial volume published to honor the New York City police and firefighters who had been killed. In the five decades since Michael O’Donnell wrote this poem from his remote base in the Central Highlands of Vietnam, his prophetic call for reconciliation has become a treasured legacy of the war.
Excerpted from In That Time: Michael O’Donnell and the Tragic Era of Vietnam by Daniel H. Weiss. Copyright © Daniel H. Weiss 2019. Reprinted with permission from PublicAffairs, an imprint of Hachette Book Group, Inc.