Tim O’Brien: Where is Our Allegiance to the “Toneless Dead”?

On the Scars of War and the Bonds of Vietnam

Except for my family and a couple of close friends, I am most at home and most wholly happy in the company of former members of my unit in Vietnam. I see these men only rarely; I don’t know them well and never did; many are like ghosts, or like ghosts of ghosts, whose faces are familiar but weirdly indefinite. I recall only a few complete names. A good number of them I remember only by nicknames. Many, perhaps most, are entirely nameless.

Still, on those rare occasions when I bump into my former comrades, I feel a sense of belonging that otherwise escapes me in life. There is nothing we must prove. Abstraction and generalization vanish. What we have, when we are together, is that particular paddy dike, that firefight, that corpse, that tree line, that deserted village, that one and only killer afternoon in July of 1969. We refresh one another’s memories with scraps of detail; we laugh at things most people don’t laugh at; we occasionally debate matters of sequence and chronology—who died first, who died next.

There is no boasting. No one uses the word “glory.” If anything, the tone of conversation has a rueful, excessively modest, almost puzzled quality, as though none of us can truly believe that what happened happened, or that what happened actually happened to us. There is a shocking gentleness to these guys, something close to shyness, and it seems improbable that nearly a half century ago they were the fist of American power in Vietnam.

The closeness I feel toward the men of Alpha Company can be represented only dimly with language.

My buddies were grunts, 11-Bravo, and they did the daily, nasty, grinding, lethal work of war. They slept in the rain; they fought the firefights; they spent their nights lying in ambush and their days trudging through minefields out on the Batangan Peninsula; they were not cooks or clerks or mechanics or supply specialists; they were infantry; they lived in the war, and the war lived in them, and 50 years ago they did your killing and your dying for you. These quiet old coots, these war buddies of mine, seem generally untroubled by all they had once witnessed and endured. As far as I can tell, they entertain few second thoughts about the righteousness of their war and few doubts about whether all the dead people should be dead. Now and then, mostly through the back door, politics will slide into the give-and-take of reminiscence—“that lefty New York Times rag”—and in those instances, for a moment or two, I’ll feel the solid world buckling beneath me, but then somebody else will say, “Hey, this ain’t the John friggin’ Birch Society,” and another guy will say, “Yeah, and you’re pissing off O’Brien,” and then the first guy will shrug and grin at me and say, “Sorry, man, I forgot you was a communist.”

With only a couple of exceptions, my buddies avoid mention of my books. Privately, I’m almost certain, they disapprove of my outrage at the war, and I’m even more certain that they take vigorous exception to my literary portrayal of the American soldier as less than purely virtuous. (One member of my platoon named his son after a lieutenant whose behavior I considered plainly criminal.) In an unspoken, matter-of-fact way, the former members of Alpha Company view themselves as the good guys, the angels of liberty and decency. They display scarce sympathy for their old enemy. Over the years, in fact, I’ve heard only one or two of them express a word of distress, much less remorse, about an estimated three million dead Vietnamese. Reflexively, but without real enmity, they still speak of their former enemy as gooks and dinks and slants and slopes, and yet most of my buddies would claim—indignantly and forcefully—that no racist intent lurks behind such language: it’s grunt talk, pure shorthand, just another way of distinguishing the cowboys from the Indians.

I have serious trouble with this, and yet, for all our differences, there remains the paradoxical fact that I do love these men. I dream about them. I feel their presence when they are not present. Cop and Willy and Reno and Kid and  Howard and Vince and Wayne and Red and Joe and Greg and Roger and Chip and Tom and Squirrel and Ben and Buddy Barney and Buddy Wolf and Myron and Everett and Doc and Art and Frenchie—these are the names that endure in my moth-eaten memory, and right now, as I try to complete this sentence, their faces are once again youthful, and together we’re again humping through the Vietnam dark, heading for some murderous destiny, the moon overhead, a dog barking, our boots making sucking sounds in the foul paddy slush.

The closeness I feel toward the men of Alpha Company can be represented only dimly with language. The feel of blood-fraternity requires a kind of willful dreaming, a summoning of the actual here-and-now shuffle of troops on the move; the long nights of pulling guard along the shoreline of the South China Sea; the smells of poverty and mold and smoke and tropical decay as you enter a badass village at dawn, and how those smells combine into a single brain-deep tapeworm that stays with you forever, even in your sleep, but how, when you try to talk about it, all the adjectives in the dictionary can’t make you smell anything and can’t do anything to your pulse or blood pressure or bowels. When I’m with my buddies, no one struggles to explain these things. We know soldiering the way a lover knows love. Without ever saying so, we understand that the word “Pinkville” does not mean “pink village” or anything remotely rosy or cheerful. It means we might die today. It means, man, this is one nasty piece of a nasty war.

*

Back in 1968 and 1969, when Vietnam collided with my life, I yearned for revenge against the cheerleaders and celebrators of war. Somehow, I imagined, I would strike back with sentences, make the monsters squirm in shame. This was a ludicrous and naïve fantasy. Sentences don’t do shit. We just keep killing and killing, always for godly reasons—just as the enemy kills for its own godly reasons—and then we all stagger up Main Street with our walkers and war stories and watery old-man nostalgia. Three million dead. What if it were 70 million? Four hundred million? Every human on earth? There is no known limit to what we will tolerate. There is precious little shame. And so now, on this Thanksgiving Day in 2016, I remain torn between my affection for the men of Alpha Company and my dismay at their mostly self-congratulatory, mostly uncritical, mostly America-right-or-wrong values. It’s like being married to Oliver North. True, plenty of Vietnam veterans opposed the war, and plenty spoke out against it, and yet studies show that the social and political attitudes of Vietnam veterans generally mirror those of nonveterans of the same age—traditionalist, conservative, pro-military, and hawkish. These findings are predictable.

Even back when they were young, the men in Alpha Company seemed more or less to fit the standard profile, and now, decades later, it’s no surprise that their opinions have hardened along the lines of the aging male population as a whole. The real surprise, at least for me, is that the historical judgments of my old war buddies are served up without the linguistic spices of Vietnam, without a touch of the weird, without sarcasm or astonishment, without rock ’n’ roll dissonance, without wit, without ginger, and without the old FTA skepticism that was once scribbled on helmets and jeeps and M-16s from Danang to the Delta. The tone of their voices—the music beneath their politics—sounds to me more like Sinatra than the Animals, more like “My Kind of Town” than “We Gotta Get Out of This Place.”

*

Recently a member of my old unit emailed me a 1968 Thanksgiving message to the troops from General Creighton Abrams, once the commander of American forces in Vietnam. “We should never forget,” wrote Abrams all those years ago, “that in Vietnam our actions are defending free men everywhere. We pray that peace will come to all the world and that all of us can return to our loved ones in the not too distant future.”

Had some gigantic eraser wiped away the daily, second-by-second realities of our war?

Forget the Mad Hatter weirdness of praying for peace while spending every waking second hell-bent on slaughtering people.

Forget the Orwellian doublethink and the “smelly little orthodoxies.”

Forget that “free men everywhere” were freely standing in peace vigils.

Forget that free men were freely burning draft cards.

Forget that nearly three-quarters of the dwellings in Quang Ngai Province had been obliterated by Thanksgiving Day of 1968 and that at least some free men were having trouble digesting this. Forget, as the general did, the untidy complications of French colonialism, Vietnamese nationalism, the Geneva Accords, Buddhist monks aflame in the streets of Saigon. Forget that only months earlier, outside the Chicago Hilton, free men had been using clubs to beat on the heads of other free men. Forget that all across America, in the halls of Congress and at family dinner tables, free men everywhere were disputing the general’s felicitous proposition that in Vietnam our actions were “defending free men everywhere.”

What unnerved me was not the pass-the-napalm Thanksgiving Day piety of Creighton Abrams. Any grunt takes such crap for granted; it’s what a general is. Rather, I was startled that my old war buddies, nearly all kind and decent guys, seemed to receive this platitudinous nonsense without any trace of the bitter, hooting irony they had shown as grunts back during the war itself. Was it amnesia? Had some gigantic eraser wiped away the daily, second-by-second realities of our war? When a guy died, for instance, did any of us shake our heads and say, “Well, he’s dead, for sure, but he defended free men everywhere”? Did any of us talk that way? Did any of us think that way? Am I wrong in remembering that instead we said things like, “There it is, man—don’t mean nothin’—the poor guy’s wasted.”

*

In various ways, to various degrees, virtually everything I’ve written over the past several pages will seriously irritate a large number of Vietnam veterans. A substantial majority, I’d guess. And beyond any doubt it will irritate one particular Vietnam veteran, a man who declared in a 2016 letter to the Austin American-Statesman: “For me, the war was never about right or wrong but duty and honoring my uniform.”

As they move into old age, most of my former buddies see themselves as unappreciated scapegoats.

Three million dead people. Never about right or wrong.

Granted, it’s dangerous to generalize, but over the decades I’ve encountered thousands of Vietnam veterans with strikingly similar attitudes. The bulk of my fellow veterans, like the author of that letter, seems to believe that in the last analysis it doesn’t matter much whether their war was a righteous one. Their country told them to fight. They did. Inflated body counts and free-fire zones and secret bombings and dead children and burning villages and Ngo Dinh Diem and Bao Dai and the Pentagon Papers and the recorded Oval Office lies of Nixon and Johnson—all this is irrelevant. It’s not a question of disagreement. It’s a question of relevance. What seems to matter to my former war buddies is not politics or history—certainly not disputes over what occurred on that dark night in the Gulf of Tonkin in 1964—but rather something almost wholly personal: personal sacrifice, personal honor, personal duty, personal suffering, personal patriotism, personal courage, and personal pride. Most Vietnam veterans, I think, will concede that their war was far from morally ideal or clear-cut. It wasn’t World War Two.

But even so—in fact, especially so—they saluted and sucked it up and endured the nightmare. Good war or bad war, they did their best. And now many of them are bitter. As they move into old age, most of my former buddies see themselves as unappreciated scapegoats, victims of an unpopular war, and as a consequence they have retreated from discursive politics, shying away from contested judgments about the war’s rectitude, taking refuge in personal (and therefore incontestable) values of honor, duty, sacrifice, pride, and service to country.

In a way this is understandable. I feel the bitterness myself. I feel the resentment. I yell at my TV set when I hear World War Two veterans described as “the greatest generation,” as if the blood spilled on Okinawa was of higher quality per pint than the blood spilled in Vietnam. “The greatest generation”—it doesn’t merely sound like an insult. It is an insult. No wonder so many of my buddies have retreated into a private interior space, a space insulated from challenges to the war’s rectitude, a space in which they can hold fast to their beleaguered sense of virtue.

Still, although I sympathize with this insularity, I fear that a dangerous egocentrism—a kind of selfishness, a kind of narcissism—has blinded many Vietnam veterans to what the war did to other people. They don’t seem to care much. They don’t seem to think about it much. Among my fellow veterans I almost never hear expressions of pity for the orphans and widows and grieving mothers of Vietnam; in fact, I rarely hear the word “Vietnamese” at all. It’s as if the country had never been populated by the very people we had come to rescue from the legions of evil. What about the sacrifices of the Vietnamese? What about their honor? What about their victimization? What about their three million dead? What about their burned-to-the-ground houses? What about their PTSD problems? What about their missing legs? What about their Gold Star Mothers? What about their 300,000 husbands and sons and brothers who have been listed as missing in action for almost half a century?

I’m appalled.

It is one thing to take personal pride in military service. It is another thing to do so without somehow acknowledging the consequences your service had on others—including millions of non-combatants. One man’s pride is another man’s sorrow. One man’s service to country is another man’s dead son. Rectitude is not a one-way street.

*

For all the differences between us, I can’t help but feel the instantaneous urge to sob when I encounter my old war buddies. An email will do it to me. I’ll choke up at old photographs. On several occasions—maybe a dozen or so times over the years—former members of Alpha Company have shown up when I speak at colleges around the country, and when I see their timeworn faces in the audience, the urge to cry stops being just an urge and becomes a fast heartbeat and stinging eyes and a voice that cracks and won’t behave itself. This is love, I guess. And love forgives a great deal.

More than that, I admire so much about these men.

Half a century ago, amid the horror, their courage and comportment had seemed to me close to miraculous. They stood up under fire. They made their legs move. They did what they believed to be necessary and even virtuous. They searched tunnels, walked point, gave aid to one another, and obeyed even the silliest and most lethal commands. No one faked illness; no one refused to advance under fire. Also, what made them special, at least to me, was how relentlessly ordinary they were—so matter-of-fact, so impassive, so young, so stolidly unexceptional as they endured things that seemed beyond enduring. In a way, my war buddies are like a mirrored reflection of all the anonymous grunts populating the age-old record of man killing man, including a reflection of the enemy we had once faced, an enemy who also made their legs move, who also did what they believed to be necessary and virtuous, who also obeyed the silliest and most lethal orders, and who also endured the unendurable.

After my buddies and I shake hands and say goodbye, returning to our decaying lives, there is always a melancholy that stays with me for a day or two.

The melancholy reaches into history.

I’ll think about Willy and Cop and Kid and Buddy Wolf and Buddy Barney, and then I’ll think about Shakespeare’s band of brothers, we happy few. I’ll find myself deleting the word “happy.” I’ll wonder how happy the dead were to become the dead, or how happy the legless were to become the legless, and although Shakespeare’s music stirs the brotherhood inside me, it is also true that the toneless dead must be included among my war buddies. To them, as much as to the living, I am allegiant.

________________________________

Dad's Maybe Book

From Dad’s Maybe Book by Tim O’Brien. Used with the permission of the publisher, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Copyright © 2019 by Tim O’Brien.

Tim O'Brien
Tim O'Brien
Tim O'Brien received the 1979 National Book Award for Going After Cacciato. Among his other books are The Things They Carried, Pulitzer Finalist and a New York Times Book of the Century, and In the Lake of the Woods, winner of the James Fenimore Cooper Prize. He was awarded the Pritzker Literature Award for lifetime achievement in military writing in 2013.





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