“What spot on earth,”
He said, “what region of the earth, Achates,
Is not full of the story of our sorrow?
Look, here is Priam. Even so far away
Great valor has due honor; they weep here
for how the world goes, and our life that passes
Touches their hearts.”
Virgil, The Aeneid
The war, I’m told, with its white-tailed rockets and hard crack ricochets; the war, with its thumping whirl of trembling choppers; the war, with its shirtless gun crews manning steel- wheeled cannons; the war, with its fine plumed shells cutting silver arcs through infinite sky; the war, with its lumbering tanks and sun bleached bunkers; the war, with its steep, lush highlands, emerald lattice of checkerboard paddies; the war, with its mangled torsos triaged too late; the war, I’m told, on scheduled clinic days, had ended quite some time ago.
I keep a notebook of my nightmares. Page after page reads like this: We’re being chased by enemy troops and my M-16 jams. Flying low, skimming the canopy, we crash and burn. We kill the enemy and like it, like it very much. We’re out of ammo. I’m blinded by swirling smoke. Can’t see the man who call’s ‘MEDIC!’ A burst of machine gun fire. I’m hit. On patrol, we get lost in the jungle. We kill each other by mistake. Enemy mortars drop from the sky: BANG: my teeth fall out. My platoon lies dead, like the enemy platoon that howled all night.
Even now I hear their screams. See the struggling survivor. See the machine gunner open up; hear the rattling bullets, smell the bitter cordite, see the man with no head. But the girl next to him, badly wounded, spattered with brain, lives. My squad stares as she claws at my canteen. They wonder if I will give her water. I splint her bleeding, broken legs with bamboo, tilt the green plastic jug to her parched cracked mouth. Turn to hide my tears.
Dream: 1 June 2001
I’m sent to my old platoon without medical supplies, pack, weapon or ammo. We patrol thick jungle much like Song Be. I sling an M-79 over my shoulder, it’s awkward, doesn’t feel right. I’m angry. We pass a patrol that has taken a prisoner. We enter a large school. I get lost.
A young woman sends me to a man who listens to my angry story. He says I shouldn’t be mad at him; he’s a conscientious objector. He asks, “Do you know what that means?” I say, “No.” I say I’m politically and morally ignorant. I say I’m worried about my platoon. Who will help them if they are hit? I say, “Look, I have all kinds of medals, so I know about war. I want the right equipment and to be with my men.”
I wake up talking. I say, “Don’t you understand? I’m angry. Where’s my forty-five, my grenades, M-16, ammo, pack, my helmet, aid bag and bandages, morphine and medical supplies?” It’s 4a.m. I go back to sleep.
For many years I woke up crying, anxious, sad, startled from sleep with fists clenched, arms cocked, ready to strike. Sometimes kicked the wall, shouted, “Who goes there?” Or, trapped in a bad dream, forced myself awake.
I’m lucky. I no longer keep a loaded pistol under the pillow, a canteen next to the bed. Or meat cleaver. Or machete. If there was noise at night, I would walk the perimeter of my apartment, ready to cut and slash. The gun, the canteen, the steel blades are gone. My nightmares have tapered off, but the bedroom door is always shut. Sleep does not come easily.
For combat vets, war widows and widowers, non combatants, dark dreams persist long after the salvos, ambushes, night raids have stopped. Bedded down, they kick and caterwaul, groan and wail, wake with fear in their eyes; they are shaken, whimpering, sheened with sweat. Across the world, untold survivors remain haunted by fearful dreams and secret sorrows.
Song Be, Vietnam April 1970
In the jungle we sit on our helmets as someone writes the letter that says Bill died in an ambush and we are sorry. Each man in the squad signs his name. We chow down. Pull guard. Move out. Weeks later we receive her desperate reply: what happened? what were his last words? how was he killed?
Ten years ago I found her. “Sorry to take so long,” my letter began. She wrote back: they were childhood sweethearts, got married, he was drafted, she had premonitions: the night he took shrapnel, the day he was killed. ‘He’s at peace now,’ she said. Then the last stunning lines, a quiver of arrows, a tangle of targets: ‘I’m so glad you wrote. Here’s my number. But don’t call. Please don’t call. I couldn’t bear it.’
Sihanoukville, Cambodia 1995
I can’t recall his name. He’s a short wiry Englishman. He runs a small backpacker’s guesthouse. At breakfast on the clean white porch, we sip lemonade. He tells me his wife is Khmer. She cooks the tasty meals, cleans the spartan rooms, scurries about, always busy. Her moods are unpredictable, he says. She is happy. Sad. Sullen. Quiet. She has angry outbursts. She tosses, turns in her sleep. When I ask about Pol Pot time he says she hid in the jungle, moved at night, lost her child, family, friends, to mines, Khmer Rouge, starvation. But now she is safe. ‘What’s wrong with her?’ he asks. Now she is safe but their marriage is shaky. Over perfect scrambled eggs and crisp fresh toast we talk about the killing fields, nightmares, PTSD. I tell him what I know. When I’m done talking he leans forward. “My god,” he says. “So that’s it. So that’s it.”
U Mass Boston 2006
His name is not William but that will do. He reads his war poetry in front of twenty people. He talks as if he must speak over outgoing shells, or the blast of incoming rounds, or the whirling blades of Blackhawk choppers. “My name is Tom and I’m from Montana,” the dying man says to the medic in the startling poem. And William, twenty-two, black-haired, dark-skinned, handsome, continues his pummeling words, then pauses, rocks, trembles, clenches his jaw, clenches it tight, clutches the podium, holds back tears, belts out the refrain, stares at the audience, stares, sits down next to me, cannot stop shaking. Cannot shake off Iraq.
“Let’s get out of here,” I say. We get up, walk to a quiet place. Standing close, I take William in my arms. Immediately we begin sobbing. When it’s over I say, “Have you ever cried like that before?” He says, “No.” I say, “You did good, William. You did real good.”
We return to the room, now emptying out. Two middle-aged therapists approach the young Iraq vet. The first leans against William, curls her arm around him. “You fought for your country. You must be proud of what you did. Welcome home, son,” she says. An embarrassed, shameful look fills his angular face. When she is done a second woman brays at him like a hungry wolf to a harvest moon. “You have a problem. You need counseling,” she says. “I know about trauma. I work with people like you.” I say, “Thank you very much. If you don’t mind, me and William need to be alone.” When she doesn’t stop, I say, “You can go now.” My voice is not pleasant; she is gone. I turn to a beautiful young woman who has worked with Vietnam combat vets. “He needs you,” I say. She takes William by the hand, leads him outside, sits with him, listens to him, for two solid hours. There is beauty in knowing what to do, and how to do it.
Question: When the killing is done, when they are safe at home, what can those who have murdered for the state tell us?
I’ve done my share of group therapy with combat vets. No one dreams of victory parades, high hoisted flags, happy home comings, no one speaks or dreams of freedom. No one! Combat veterans crave rest, but when we talk of sleep we recount nightmares, night sweats, not wanting to fall asleep. Because ghosts populate our dreams. Ghosts who do and say whatever they like, and often what they like is not pleasant.
Dream: 17 Feb 2001
On a cancer ward all the patients are men. One complains that his nose is too large. Another says without his doctor he would have died but has lived an extra two years. The ward is home-like. The doctors are friendly. Each has his own cure; some succeed, others fail. My doctor is a woman. She’s dedicated, loving. A staff member and I reach a doctor’s office at the same time. I push the door open. It’s immediately slammed shut, catching my finger. The staff member knocks, is let in. I leave knowing I must obey protocol. I get frustrated and rebel. For punishment I’m sent to a forest to gather pine needles in neat rows. After several hours on my hands and knees I try to escape. Using a dog my doctor captures me. I quit the ward. In her presence I get dressed. There are my two travelers’ backpacks. There is a toothbrush too small for my mouth. My doctor tries to stop me but I’m angry and sad. There is a photograph of a male doctor at war. He wears torn, dirty pants. His knees are wounded; he’s running for help. I say, “What does he know? I was the medic. They all came to me.”
What’s wrong with us who do not, cannot, will not wake up happy faced after grim dreams of chaos and killing? What’s our problem? What’s your cure?
In combat, gun-shot men writhe and howl, or twist and slump in landslides of blood and bone. Men who step on mines zoom into the air, cartwheel, thud to earth in a halo of red. Firing their weapons, ambushed soldiers yell and curse, the better to kill whatever moves. Then scramble forward, toss grenades into bunkers, houses, tunnels, wait for the fiery blast, rush to thrust bayonets in, yank them out. Shoot survivors at close range. When it’s done, our dead, their dead, lay sprawled on the ground like carpets gone sad and ugly. Freedom? Fuck freedom. Try fear, dread, rage, revenge. Try kill or be killed, pal. Kill or be killed. Now that’s what I call freedom.
Seated in front of their TV’s, conditioned by an absence of truth, many Americans know little of combat and its poisonous aftermath. But there are those who rally around the 24/7 rhetoric. To all couch potato patriots, armchair generals, cashed-out colonels who insist on fairytales, I bring you this: before you talk of heroes you must feel, taste, touch, smell the horror. You must forget the disconnected mythic language of harms way, perishes, ultimate sacrifice. Imagine chunks of human meat littering the ground, blood trails every ten meters; listen to the howling man, see his life leak out, his eyes go dim and he is dead. Look over there: a lieutenant with a bloody stump where his arm should be says he’s OK, then turns ghost-white, falls in a heap. Another man, shot in the head, tumbling down, shoots the man in front of him. Chickenhawks: you ever kill anyone? Ever held someone shot, blood gushing, you count the heartbeats, see the bones splintered like fresh-cut wood, tendons and raw muscle brilliant in fresh air? You ever see that? Only fools find glory in combat.
Here is truth: All euphemisms must die. Here is more truth: The business of murder will always be good until the day we all wake up.
I’m on the old French train from Hanoi to Hue. Each boxy white carriage is built like a battleship; each thick steel car is welded tight by ten thousand rivets made of blood and bones. It’s hot and cramped in the low slung four-bunk sleeper car. I take the right side bottom bunk, a six by three metal shelf with a bamboo mat. My traveling friend Seth takes the top. An ancient electric fan, bolted to a foot-square window, hurls hot air into the elongated lodge. We’ve spent a week in Sapa, two in Hanoi, it’s time to head South. Who will take the empty bunks? When will the train depart? What time will we arrive in Hue? Seth says take it easy man. Relax. But I can’t take it easy. I’m on the edge of the bunk. The edge of it. I check my money belt. The locks on my pack. Slap the pocket that contains my wallet. A fierce looking female conductor enters, impassively takes our tickets. Inspects our passports. Then she is gone.
Thud, thud, thud. Two thin men with high cheek bones and bushy black hair march into our half full metal jacket. They are North Vietnamese soldiers. They wear tan dress uniforms with red epaulettes. They wear jaunty black visored caps. One takes the top bunk, one takes the bottom. As they settle in there’s an awkward silence. Bile and fear fill my mouth; it tastes like bullets. Where are the foxholes? Where are the claymore mines? Where are the weapons, knives and radio? The war is everywhere and Seth is blind to it. I reach for my Swiss Army knife with its finger sized blades and bantam tools. Seth thumbs his dog-eared phrase book for greetings and salutations. The three of them begin to talk but I’m lost in a landscape of jungle, craters and wide open fields–there’s no turning back. If the ferocious NVA make one false move I will stab the blade deep and rip out their hearts. I will stab deeper and pull out their lungs. Me and my Swiss Army knife. Go ahead, talk. Go ahead, smile. I know your tricks you sons of bitches. I know the language and back beat of war. Can’t you see, feel, smell the crimson rage that fills my head? What’s wrong with you people? C’mon. Make your move. I can’t stand the tension.
In the morning, after twenty sleepless hours we pull into Hue. We’ve played chess with the enemy. They’ve showed us wallet-sized family photos. We’ve shared bread, crackers, soda. Spoken in playful phrases, artful pantomime. They bow and smile, wave good bye. They’re human beings. Just like us.
MARC LEVY served with Delta Company 1/7 First Cavalry as an infantry medic in Vietnam and Cambodia in 1970. His decorations include the Combat Medic Badge, Silver Star, two Bronze Stars for Valor, Air Medal, Army Commendation Medal. He was courtmartialed twice and received a General Discharge. His earlier piece on PTSD ran here on August 1. . He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.