Vietnam

Vietnam Agonistes

THIS YEAR MARKS multiple 50th anniversaries of the U.S. escalation of the war in Vietnam and the beginning of major anti-war protests. To mark the anniversary of the war, the Pentagon is sponsoring an official, multimillion dollar Vietnam War Commemoration to “thank and honor veterans.” This program has been criticized as a Vietnam whitewash and an attempt to rewrite history. The Pentagon commission will sponsor more than 1,000 events around the country that will have the effect of honoring the military and obscuring, behind a façade of false patriotism, the painful truths of the Vietnam War.

The Pentagon’s commemorations are missing any consideration of critical unlearned lessons, such as: 1) the Vietnam War was unjust and never should have been fought, 2) wars of military intervention have failed and should be avoided, 3) militarism and war have corrupted U.S. political decision-making, and 4) diplomacy, development, and peacebuilding strategies are preferable and more effective means of resolving international conflict.

Also missing from the Pentagon’s plan is any mention of the massive public opposition to that war, including from many of us who were GIs and veterans. There is no acknowledgement in the Pentagon’s official events of Howard Zinn’s important truth: “In the course of that war, there developed in the United States the greatest anti-war movement the nation had ever experienced, a movement that played a critical part in bringing the war to an end.”

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Redemptive Verses

POET BRUCE WEIGL inhabits two places in his life, in his work. Two places that could not be more different. But in the course of our conversations, I come to think of them as a single place, the way two hands are part of a single body. One place is Lorain, Ohio. The other is Vietnam.

Ever since the Vietnam War ended, the life of this mill worker’s son has swung between those two far-flung poles.

I met Weigl at a Starbucks in Manhattan’s East Village. I was interviewing a friend of his, Adrie Kusserow, about her book of poems on South Sudan. Weigl was content just to drink his coffee and listen to us talk. He intervened only once, when Kusserow and I began decrying public indifference to South Sudan’s pre-independence history of slaughter, enslavement, and banishment by Sudan.

“If I may defend my fellow human beings here, there are so many places in the world today where there is suffering. It is understandable that people may miss one or two,” he said.

The suffering of the Vietnamese, and of soldiers like himself who fought in Vietnam, is still burned into his psyche like some gory tattoo. It is to be found in every one of his 13 books.

In his poem “Ice Storm,” from The Abundance of Nothing (TriQuarterly Books), short-listed for the 2013 Pulitzer Prize, he writes:

I got my own personal Jacob’s ladder,
buddy, reader, listener to this
sad song. I built a temple for the ghosts
because they just kept coming.

Weigl’s work is strewn with ghosts: ghosts of Vietnamese children hit by American fire (but also the cherished non-ghost, his adopted Vietnamese daughter, Hahn), the ghosts of a soldier’s legs severed by a Bouncing Betty, the ghost of his own lost self, inflicted miserably on bar girls. He constructs a stairway of ghosts that empties into a redemptive space. A space that has prevailed over the ghosts, while being unable to actually evict them.

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