I Can't Remember Anything
Can't Tell If this Is True or Dream
Deep down Inside I Feel to Scream
this Terrible Silence Stops Me
Now That the War Is Through with Me
I'm Waking up I Can Not See
That There's Not Much Left of Me
Nothing Is Real but Pain Now
Metallica 'One', from 'And Justice for All'
"To make a long story short, we were not pleasant people and the war was not a pleasant business. I have no doubt we radicalized more southern Vietnamese to Ho Chi Minh's national revolution than we 'saved.'" So writes Larry Heinemann, author of two absolutely blood curdling novels about Vietnam, the first, called Close Quarters something of a memoir, the second, Paco's Story something of a nightmare. It is these nightmares i would share with you, being as we are so recently past Veterans day, you know.
I too have tasted a little bit of war, in Colombia, not generally well known, and in Iraq which is. Just a taste, enough to make it, for me something a little more than stories on a page
But these works do not just give you a taste of what war does to people; they grab you, pin you to a chair, force your mouth open and poor the bloody horror down your throat, making you choke. So lets imbibe.
Before I start, I thought I would embed this video. Feel free to listen as you read this. The movie that the video intercuts to, of course, is 'Johnny Got His Gun' from Dalton Trumbo's novel, about a quadruple amputee whose face is so mangled he cannot speak,see, or hear but who's brain can still feel pain. Trumbo directed the movie, by the way:
And that is where the quote comes from
Larry Heinemann is a writer who came from a working background in Chicago and was drafted in 1966, spending a year in Vietnam with the 25th infantry division, where he saw combat action and drove an armored personnel carrier (APC), a device he states was "deathtrap, because an RPG [rocket propelled grenade] will go through the armor like spit through a screen and hit the gasoline tank and the whole thing will go up like a matchhead when struck. I ever run into the genius who sent gas-powered to Vietnam, he and I are going to have a serious discussion". That's how he talks, and writes. Come to dwell on it, I sometimes talk and write that way. After the war he worked for a bit as a bus driver (the novel Paco's Story has a passage in it which could only be written by someone who has driven a bus and seen some of the crazy stuff that bus drivers see), went to college, started teaching creative writing and selling stories.
He wrote Close Quarters in 1977. It is an interesting read, nicely accurate; you can almost smell the weaponry and the fuel oil and the scent of military hardware (at least I could). There is an ear for detail, and military dialogue, which back then consisted on seeing how many colorful obscenities you could cram into a paragraph. It reads a little like "The Short Timers"; which was the basis for that half-witted Kubrick movie about the war 'Full Metal Jacket".
And just so you know, I kinda share Heinemann's opinion about those fucking APC's: they can be deathtraps. I was over in Korea awhile back and we got in a couple wet and very distraught troops; they had been driving one of those things across a bridge over the Imjin river, and using night vision goggles, and the lookout had called a left turn which was unfortunately just shy of where the bridge actually turned back into road. The whole thing, with five other soldiers in it had gone right into the river. Two tons of armor, the thing sinks like a cinderblock, and that's five bodies got sent back to their families. I'll take a Humvee, thanks . . . at least in Korea there aren't roadside bombs that blow up at you.
Heinemann speaks in interviews of 'fragging' which is to say the assassination of junior officers and NCOs who are deemed dangerous by their troops and killed by shooting them during a firefight or planting a fragmentation grenade in their vicinity and booby-trapping it so everyone has a credible alibi when it goes off. No dusting for fingerprints is going to help. In fact, he wrote a short story based on it for the Atlantic, and say guess what, I have found it on the inter-tubes; peruse The Fragging at your leisure.
It is however in 'Paco's Story' that Heinemann's language and style and experience come together to make one of the most harrowing novels I have read. . .I first heard of it when I was in training camp in Korea, going for my Expert Field Medic Badge and since I had already passed the written test for it, I had brought along Stewart O'Nan's The Vietnam Reader and had the time and space to read it, that is when I wasn't practising putting my chemical protection mask on in eight seconds flat, or memorizing the precise sequel of steps needed to assemble a field radio and call in a dust off medical evacuation helicopter. I was hooked, and then later bought the book, a hardback purchased in Baltimore.
The book tells the story of Paco, a young veteran of the Vietnam war who arrives in a small southern town with a limp and a cane and his ghosts. Literally. He is the only survivor of a platoon that had been wiped out in a firefight and heavy aerial bombardment (the event makes one believe that Heinemann intended the coup-de-grace to be a friendly fire incident) and the novel has a disembodied narration that we eventually find out is literally the ghost of one of the men who died; they haunt Paco at night in his dreams. He takes a dishwashing job in a small diner and is regarded as a curiosity by the townspeople, most notably by the cafe owner who is himself a veteran of Iwo Jima and Guadalcanal and a young woman named Cathy who is a student at a local teachers college. Paco is covered with scars, you see, scars from his incredible injuries that he suffered during the firefight and lived for two days with, before medics from another company found him on the remains of his firebase and brought him in, not one expecting he was going to live. The medic who cared for him later becomes an alcoholic, sitting at a bar later in life drinking and telling the story again and again.
In this, as in the previous book, you get the detail and the language and the smell of war, guys on their firebase or in their stand-down base camp at 'Phuc luc', drinking warm beer, smoking dope or cheap cigars and shooting the breeze (and we did the same in Iraq, except by that time booze and marijuana weren't tolerated, but the cigars were high quality, not cheap, we would get them shipped to us from cigar wholesalers in the U.S who used our business as advertisement). The novel narrates Paco's time in the Vietnam field hospital with the medical personnel including the compassionate night nurse who cares for him after his extensive operations; there is an account of him being flown to the regional hospital in Japan where his care is continued. . .and yes, air-evac flights used to be as painful as the story narrates. One of the major advances in medical treatment for wounded soldiers is pain control on their flights to the regional hospitals. Imagine how cramped you feel after a cross country flight in budget-shit airline and then imagine how you would feel if you had to take that some flight strapped to a litter with freshly broken bones, open surgical wounds, or amputated stumps of limbs? Yes, continuous infusions of pain medicine are a good thing.
But Paco also carries war guilt with him, the things that he seen and done, and although he never talks to anyone about it. . .cannot talk in fact, they haunt him. Like in the climactic scene in the novel where Paco is lying on his bed, hearing the sounds of the young woman Cathy fucking Marty-boy,a classmate of hers at the local teachers college, getting turned on by it, wishing he could have her, wishing he was normal again:
By this time, Paco's cock is iron hard and feels as big as a coke bottle. And he's just a man like the rest of us, James, who wants to fuck away all that pain and redeem his body. By fucking he wants to ameliorate the stinging ache of those dozens and dozens of swirled up and curled round purple scars, looking like so many sleeping snakes and piles of ruined coins. He wants to discover a liveable peace - as if he'd come up a path in a vast evergreen woods, come upon a comfortable cabin as solid as a castle keep, and approached, calling "Hello the House" been welcomed in, given a hot and filling dinner, then shown a bed in the attic (a pallet of sweet dry grass and and slim cedar shavings) and fallen asleepBut it is not to be, because he then gets triggered into remembrance of what he and his unit did to a peasant girl of sixteen or so, who had become a VC guerrilla fighter and ambushed his unit listening post, killing two of his comrades. They tie her arms around her back with wire, string the wire up across a post, forcing her to bend over, and gang-rape her, including Paco (their Lieutenant deliberately turns a blind eye to what is going on). And after they finish, their unit badass shoots her in the head with his Magnum .357 - all of this related in harsh unsparing detail:
We looked at her and at ourselves, drawing breath again and again, and knew this was a moment of evil, that we would never live the same.
How could they? No wonder that even as ghosts, the soldiers know no rest
Paco sprawls spread-eagle on his bed in his one-room room, itchy hot and stinking drunk, thinking about Gallagher's red and black dragon tattoo, and the girl and the rape, and the look the dustoff medics gave us
All he can do now is wait for dawn, when the day will start and he will be able to go to work and stop thinking about the war, and the ghosts will go away.
* * * *
After Paco's Story, which won the 1987 National Book Award for fiction (somewhat controversially beating out Toni Morrison's Beloved) Heinemann wanted to write something that was quite a bit lighter in tone, and even deliberately funny, so he came up with Cooler by the Lake, a novel set in contemporary Chicago about a hapless thief. But the book is a bit thin. More meaningful was his memoir of his life and his Vietnam years and his account of visiting this exquisitely beautiful country many years after the war was over 'Black Virgin Mountain' The Vietnamese are surprisingly welcome to Americans these days, and they have their own literature as relates to the war. It is also populated by ghosts, and I think the thematic connection may be why Paco's story was the first American Vietnam war novel translated into Vietnamese, with an introduction by a very prominent Vietnamese writer.
I realize these kind of novels may not be to everyone's taste. But I believe them to be necessary. Paco's suffering and war guilt have been replicated in our experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan, both wars run by 'lifers' - strutting peacocks of men who do not or cannot know exactly what war does to people. I find it heartbreaking beyond measure that within my lifetime we failed to learn the lessons of Vietnam and started an unnecessary war, and threw away a possible victory in a necessary one. And I have very little doubt that there are guys out there that are just like Paco. So this is my reminder shortly after veteran's day, the speeches and the flags and whatever -don't ever forget what war actually does to people. It ain't pretty at all