What They Learned in School Today

(Recently, before reading from his war memoir Nothing Left to Drag Home, the author made these opening remarks to students at Boston College)

First, I’d like to thank Boston College and Prof. Seth Jacobs for this chance to speak to you and thank you all for coming to listen.

Fair warning: what I have to say will upset some. The events of my tour should upset any listener. I’ve been a lot more than merely upset about it for many years. There will be no “safe space” provided to you because there sure wasn’t any provided to us in Vietnam. 

I’ve been giving this talk for many years, and each year it gets just a bit harder, as I inevitably get closer to the emotion of Vietnam with every telling. I entered the Army when I was 17 years old. Those numbers are now reversed. And nothing, nothing, in all the years since then, has had the vivid intensity or the corrosive impact of Vietnam. Not even the 20 years I spent as a firefighter and first responder. 

Carlo Malaparte, an Italian writer said of WW1 veterans; “I didn’t know that a war has no end for those who have fought it.”

To some, Vietnam is a place. To you it’s a course you’re taking. To me, Vietnam is a state of mind. Or, better put: it’s my slow decent into a feral state of insanity. My journey into darkness began, as most journeys do, simply enough. Normal was what I was used to, what life was like, you know, “normal.” But once immersed in Vietnam, normal began to slowly yet inevitably change. Day by day, night by endless night it eroded. What had once seemed bizarre over time became common, until finally it became unworthy of noticing.  

I’ll try to explain it to you: if I plopped this classroom down in a war, initially you would care about everyone around you. But, as those around you got killed and wounded, there would come a slow constriction of your emotion. You’d begin to care only about those in your class. Then, those in your row. Then, well perhaps that one person next to you; and when they got hit—wounded, shot—well, then you learned to do your level best not to care, period. The best description I’ve ever found of this state comes from Captain Wyn Griffith of the Royal Welsh Fusiliers, who describes attacking Mametz during the Battle of the Somme in WWI.

“It was life, rather than death, that faded away into the distance. As I grew into a state of not-thinking, not feeling, not-seeing. I moved past trees, past other living things; men passed me by, carrying other men, some crying, some cursing, some silent. They were all shadows, and I was no greater than they. Living and dead all were unreal.”

Sometimes, on no particular day in Vietnam, I found I too had passed through the veil. I had gotten to a point where nothing fazed me. Except the Nam, Oh the bloody Nam, she who never sleeps, always managed to find a way through. She sought out that last tiny chink in your armor. She’d find that soft spot that you’d hidden away. She’d hold your head so you could not turn away from the horror. Until that obscene, perfectly white shattered femur pierced your final defense. Bloody Nam had a way of doing that. 

Oh, she left me some gifts in return. First and foremost; an awful clarity of vision, and I mean that in a biblical sense: I feel like a hermit on a wilderness mountain watching my nation slide into ruin. I’m a resident alien in the land of my birth with a harsh but accurate ability to judge human character. This has been quite useful, though it’s offset by a total inability to suffer idiots, no matter the degrees they hold or what insignia they pin to their collars. I have a bullshit meter that can detect a cow fart at a half-mile. But most of all, came the certain and hard-won knowledge that anything that comes out of the maw of Government and/or the media (which has become the same) is a deliberate, premeditated, galactic lie.

I was in Vietnam late in the war: from May 1970 to April 1971. While the people in charge of the war persisted in a false optimism about the future of the Republic of Vietnam, most of us at the sharp end knew deep in the place where our hearts had once been that this war was over. It was purely a matter of time. The smell of defeat was in the air, thick enough that you could taste its gunmetal flavor. We were leaving and none of us expected the ARVN to cut it against the NVA. It didn’t take any great foresight to see what was going to happen next.

Initially the blame for the war was deposited directly on the veterans, and we carried that and other burdens that survivors do, for a long time. We were victims or perpetrators, depending on the political leanings of the speaker. It took about 20 years for the general public to grudgingly change. Then it became convenient and popular to blame it all on the politicians, to the exclusion of the military. I hope to make it clear that in my experience many in the military deserve a heaping helping of that steaming plate of crap, too.

I took part in Operation Dewey Canyon II/Lam Son 719, the little known invasion of Laos in the spring of 1971 and the last major ground operation involving American troops of the Vietnam war. I fought against North Vietnamese soldiers, some of the finest light infantry in the world. They were armed with tanks and artillery.

At my age, I’ve lost most of my certainty. Like an asteroid after reentry, most of the lighter elements have burned away. Yet I still believe that the mark of one’s soul is what you do after catastrophe. In the end, each of us who were touched by fire had to either embrace the darkness or turn away from it. To create, if only for ourselves, a new meaning for what happened to us. To Vietnam.

I know it is only by the grace of God that I am here. I struggle each day to reflect a mere fractured sliver of the grace of the walking wounded, who first ask mercy for those around them.

Gary Rafferty served in Vietnam in 1970-71 with A Battery, 2nd/ 94th Artillery, 108th Field Artillery Group. He is the author of Nothing Left to Drag Home, The Siege of Lao Bao During Operation Dewey Canyon II as Written by an Artilleryman Who Survived It.  Email: maddog7337@yahoo.com