A few weeks ago I picked up the morning paper and, for the first time in months, there was no front-page story on Iraq. My response? I went right to the sports section. I knew I was indulging a delusion. Real peace had not arrived. Events in Iraq were as chaotic and distressing as ever. Even the killing hadn’t stopped. American troops were firing on crowds of demonstrators; armed looters were still rampaging; children accidentally detonating unexploded ordnance; shoot-outs over gas evidently commonplace. But our Top Gun president had landed on the USS Abraham Lincoln, victory was all but declared, and troops were headed home. The war was over, it seemed, so what was going on with the Celtics?
How easy it can be to avert our eyes from suffering. “How everything turns away quite leisurely from the disaster,” W.H. Auden observed in his great poem (“Musee des Beaux Arts”) about Brueghel’s “Icarus.” “Something amazing” had happened, “a boy falling out of the sky,” yet even those who must have “heard the splash, the forsaken cry. . .had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.”
We’ve turned away most obviously from the casualties. Of course, even during the race to Baghdad the major networks gave little attention to Iraqi suffering, but they did at least keep a running tally of American casualties, offering profiles of just about every one of the initial fatalities. When the number of American dead reached 100 and U.S. troops helped topple the now famous statue of Saddam Hussein on April 9, the media stopped counting and looked elsewhere. The most recent numbers I can find come from mid-May. A reasonable guess is that by now perhaps 170 American military personnel have died in Iraq. This means that “postwar” fatalities, from every possible cause, may already exceed combat deaths during the war.
As for the Iraqi military dead, it’s impossible to find an estimate. Even antiwar critics have concentrated mainly on civilian casualties. We know the total is in the “thousands,” but whether five, ten, or twenty thousand may never be determined. Somewhat more attention has been given to counting those war-related civilian deaths. Several sources, including a carefully reported count in the Los Angeles Times, put the figure in Baghdad at around 1700 and rising. For the nation as a whole, 4000 would probably be a conservative estimate.
American officials refuse to calculate civilian deaths or to initiate an investigation of which ones were directly caused by the United States. But they have offered a number of odd denials of responsibility. One of the most striking, if least noticed, came on April 25, when General Richard Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, claimed that the 1500 cluster bombs dropped by American forces had resulted in just a single Iraqi civilian casualty. Estimates coming out of Iraqi hospitals, however, put the number of civilian deaths due to cluster bombs at several hundred and growing. Among the most indiscriminate of weapons, cluster bombs spray hundreds of small bomblets in every direction. Five to ten percent routinely fail to explode, but can later detonate when touched or moved by unsuspecting people, often children, who don’t recognize them for what they are. These casualties continue to mount.
Of course, adding up the dead and wounded is but the narrowest way of measuring the costs of war. Haidar Tari, of the Iraqi Red Crescent, has been tracing Iraqis killed in the war who were buried without documentation. With a single example she focuses our attention on the legacy such a war leaves its survivors. “On one stretch of highway alone,” she told a Los Angeles Times reporter, “there were more than fifty civilian cars, each with four or five people incinerated inside, that sat in the sun for 10 or 15 days before [the victims] were buried nearby by volunteers. That is what there will be for their relatives to come and find. War is bad, but its remnants are worse.”
Even the shortest wars produce wounds of every imaginable sort that extend years, even decades beyond the cessation of combat — wounds to the body, to the emotions, to the land, to witnesses and relatives, to every human relationship, to historical memory, to the generations that follow.
My work has made me acutely aware of war’s long afterlife. For the past five years I’ve been crisscrossing the United States and Vietnam talking with people from all sides of a war that killed some 58,000 Americans and three million Vietnamese. I interviewed men and women, civilians and combatants, relatives and eye-witnesses, hawks and doves, increasingly conscious that the lives of an almost unlimited variety of people had been swept up and transformed by a history far bigger and more complex than any single person could fully grasp.
Whether talking with former grunts in small Appalachian towns, veterans of the North Vietnamese Army in dilapidated convalescent homes near Hanoi, or journalists in fancy hotel lobbies, what struck me was how visceral the memories still were, how close to the surface the emotions of war remain. It was often hard to believe that the accounts I was listening to were drawn from a many -decades-old war. Strangely enough, I found some of the most painful stories inspiring. The sheer struggle to make meaning of history’s hardest moments — the moments that don’t go away when we turn to the sports pages — is one of the greatest gifts anyone can offer the future. In the presence of those struggles I felt hope. Out of the wreckage emerged a few remnants of war with enduring value.
Now, with Memorial Day still fresh in the memory, and in the wake of our most recent war, one that will not end soon for many Iraqis and some Americans, it’s worth turning back to the suffering caused by another war, now long distant but still painfully present, to help us recognize the kinds of realities we are too easily tempted to ignore.
George Watkins was a grunt with the 196th Light Infantry Brigade. In April, 1968, near Camp Evans, in Quang Tri province, he stepped on a land mine. He lost both legs and both eyes. His legs were amputated just a few inches below his pelvis. He lives with his sister in the Appalachian town of Big Stone Gap, Virginia. “She cooks and cleans the house, but I take care of all my personal needs–getting on and off the couch, into bed, going to the bathroom.”
Sitting sideways at one end of the couch, he carefully lights a cigarette. His empty wheelchair is next to him, an ashtray attached to one of its arms. He taps an ash into the familiar spot and asks about my minidisc recorder, wants to know how it compares to the cassette player he uses for books-on-tape. Looking into his bright blue artificial eyes, I have to remind myself that he cannot see the machine; that I need to slide it over to his hand.
My daddy built this house. He built it from the ground up, a piece at a time. We moved down here when I was three-years-old. He wanted to get all us kids out of the coal camps. He was a coal miner for thirty-six years and he did not want us in the mines, period. That’s one thing Daddy would not let. He told the man who run his division of Westmoreland Coal that if he hired any one of his sons, that’d be the day he’d walk out of the mines. I have a brother in the railroad, and one that makes mining equipment, and one that just retired from the highway department. So we all stayed out of the mines.
I was drafted on June 19, 1967. I knowed it was coming. Just a matter of time. Come close to not getting drafted. Had high blood–borderline. They kept me three days at Roanoke to watch my blood pressure. I think the three days just laying around doing nothing brought it down.
I knowed very little about Vietnam. I mean what I know now about it and what I knowed then is just from scary. I didn’t really pay a whole lot of mind to it. I just knowed that we was fighting over there against Communism, so-called. I started doing more thinking about it after I got drafted, in basic training, trying to find out more, but in there it was hard to find out anything.
I went to Fort Bragg and then to Fort Leonard Wood. Spent two months training as a combat engineer. That’s what my MOS [military occupational specialty] was. I was told when I left I would be with an Engineer Battalion at Pleiku–that’s where I thought I was going. But when I got to Vietnam, I reckon they needed infantry and I reckon they just drawed the line somewhere on the list and I went to infantry and the rest of them went over to what they’s supposed to. In Cam Ranh Bay they said I was going to Chu Lai to the 196th and I hadn’t had one bit of infantry training. The first night I was out there, they put me behind an M-60 machine gun and I had about a two minute lesson. “Here’s the safety, here’s the trigger, and here’s the bolt.”
Our worse time was about the entire month of December, 1967. We stayed in the field. Everything we had, we had on our back. Where we stopped, that’s where we slept. It was just a continuous patrol and ambush at night. Search-and-destroy in the day, and every third night you was on an ambush. You was lucky to get four hours sleep. It was nothing to go thirty to forty hours with no sleep. As a matter of fact, the longest we ever went was seventy-one hours. We lost quite a few people that time. Seemed like everywhere we moved, they was right behind us. Seemed like we couldn’t get away from them. We went from ninety-three men down to forty. They brought one Chinook in and took us all out. One Chinook. As they say in the army, we was no longer an effective fighting force.
Then we was in one valley, called the Que Son Valley, two miles wide and ten, twelve miles long. We cleaned out every living thing in that valley–people and animals–and destroyed everything else. We just rounded them all up–four to five hundred people–and started moving them eleven klicks to some type of a camp. All their animals was killed. Then we made the valley a free-fire zone. After we cleaned it out, anything you saw was a legitimate target. Two days later, half the people were right back in it. They went back to nothing because we burned and destroyed everything.
They had to be some good people to withstand all that. They come right back to nothing and start over. Go out and get some thatch or find some that wasn’t burnt, tie it together with a couple branches over some poles and sit up under it with their little beat up aluminum pots. They’s some of the most determined people I’ve ever run into. I don’t hate them. They did what they had to do. It’s the politicians that put everybody in that place. Although I would like to get ahold of that one that set the booby trap. [Laughs.]
They moved us up to Camp Evans right after the big push into Hue during the Tet Offensive. That’s where I got hit. We was doing a road sweep. We had about a five mile stretch of road and we had to sweep it every day for mines. All that area is flat and sandy–real sandy country. There just about wasn’t any cover. Just dirty white sand. Over the years it had blackened like soot. I’ve still got some of it in me. The doctors say that sand was probably the only thing that saved me. Instead of coming straight up, it spread the explosion out real big.
It was real early, just after day break on a Sunday morning. We moved out in two platoons to that road we were supposed to sweep. My platoon was last and I was second or third from the very last man. We had just moved about a hundred feet when I hit it. Seems like I remember looking at my watch and seeing seven-thirty. Sometimes I think that’s why I was looking down–why it got in my eyes. I was unconscious for just a couple minutes. I come around and I was laying in a hot hole with my arms up on the side. There was absolutely no pain, just numbness–total numbness. It was hot from the blast. That’s the only thing I remember. I told them to get me out of that hole because it was hot. I got some burns on my back from that.
They tell me I hit a pressure-detonated mine–one of our duds, a 105-millimeter round that had been booby-trapped. Its about twenty inches long and 105 millimeters in diameter. Roughly forty people walked by it before I hit it. It also hit a boy in front of me and one to my immediate right. That boy lost a left eye, his left ear, and I think some movement. And I had just mentioned to him to move because he was way too close, just about shoulder to shoulder. I met him later at the hospital in San Antonio and he thanked me. He thinks it would have got him worse if he hadn’t moved. And the boy in front, the radio saved his life. He was carrying the radio on his back. Our platoon leader wrote me a letter while I was in the hospital saying they found a piece of shrapnel the size of your hand embedded in the radio.
Doc patched me up and the helicopter sent me to an aid station at Camp Evans. A doctor did something and I was right back on the helicopter and they took me out to the S.S. Sanctuary hospital ship. That’s when the pain really started hitting me and then it was just unbearable. They pushed me over to the side and was taking people over me. I think it was a triage decision, probably taking the ones that was worse. I can remember laying on that stretcher and it seemed like a long time, but they say in circumstances like that sometimes you don’t lose a lot of blood. A lot of times the force of the explosion will seal the ends of the arteries and veins.
I knowed something was wrong with my eyes, but I was telling myself that my sight wasn’t gone, that it was just sand or powder burn. When I come to after surgery my whole head and face was wrapped in bandages and I just kept telling myself I could still see. Nobody did tell me, but the more the days went, I finally began to tell myself, “No, you’re going to be blind.” A few days later a doctor says my eyes were just like you took and scrambled an egg. Like you took an egg and you just scrambled it. He said that was the shape my eyes was in.
I’ll tell you what’s surprising. I didn’t think about my legs. Legs was a second thought. For some reason my sight meant a lot more than my legs. That’s all I can say. All my thoughts and worry was on my eyes.
I still had my right leg for seven days. The doctors told me there’s four inches of bone missing, but there was a little bit of tissue still holding it together. They tried to save it, but after seven days gangrene set in and my temperature got up to a hundred and six. I was plum out of it. The next thing I remember is running my hand down to my leg and feeling with my fingers. I just said, “It’s gone.”
I don’t have much bitterness. Well, I don’t think I do. I just wish that none of it ever happened–for everybody’s sake. It was a bad political mistake. Have you been to the Wall? I was there in ’85. I guess that made me feel the worst that I had felt since I’d been home. I sat right in the middle of it, right at the “V” of it, and run my hands up a ways on it. All those names. And then we went from end to end and picked out some that got killed in our outfit. I felt them. Spelled them out even. Each letter. I sat right there and just tried to think, ‘Why did all these people die?’ The majority were my age. Their lives and their families all messed up. What was gained from it?
At the end of the interview, he worries about how the published version will turn out. “I say things that don’t look good in print.” He cannot be convinced otherwise. On my way out, he makes a request I do not know how to honor: “Fancy it up,” he says.
I was asleep in the jungle hospital when a male nurse woke me to tell me that Hue’s blood pressure had gone down. Hue was one of our patients recovering from serious wounds in a post-operative care unit, a makeshift underground room with an A-frame roof made of logs and covered with a tarpaulin. So I got out of my hammock to go see him. I remember putting the stethoscope in my ears to listen to his pulse. I glanced at my watch and it was almost eleven o’clock. That’s all I can remember.
Later my friends told me that we were hit by a bomb from a B-52. There were six of us in that room–myself, two male nurses, and three patients. I was crouched over Hue when the roof collapsed. It broke my spine and paralyzed me from the middle of my back down. They dug me out of the rubble the following morning. I was the only survivor. Somehow there was enough air to breathe and I was closer to the surface than the others, easier to dig out.
I stayed in the South another four years, treated that whole time in a jungle hospital, just wishing the war would end quickly. I couldn’t communicate with my family for six years. Even if they had carried letters South, how would they have found us? We moved all the time.
In 1971, they were finally able to take me home. I was flat on my back in a hammock, two people at a time carrying me. They carried me the whole way back to the North. A third porter went along to relieve the other two. There were many stations along the way and I was relayed from one group of porters to another. It took us seven months. Of course it was very painful to be carried like that. I took painkillers but they didn’t help much.
When I got home, I think everybody, including myself, was sick of the war. We abhorred it. It was not only cruel, it was absurd. Foreigners came to our country from out of the blue and forced us to take up arms. Don’t you think that’s absurd? We just wanted to be prosperous and live like other people. Of course we had to fight to protect our country but we were really sick of the war. Deep down we didn’t like it. Casualties were enormous. And not just that–our savings, our houses, our plants and animals, everything was wasted by that war. I have many memories but I don’t want to remember them. It sounds like a paradox to say that, but it’s because I don’t like war. I don’t think anyone liked the war.
I went to Valley Forge High School in Parma Heights, Ohio–a big, working-class, white, ethnic neighborhood just outside Cleveland. We were the Valley Forge “Patriots.” Something like thirty-five kids from Parma died in the war. The principal would come on the intercom periodically and say, “We’ve just received the very sad news that Terry Kilbane, a marine lance corporal, has been killed in Vietnam. Let’s please observe a moment of silence.”
I think we sensed that we were all pawns of forces much larger than we were, and over which we had no control. It all seemed somehow like a roll of the dice. Some would go, some wouldn’t, and it depended on accident, on how well we did in school, on what our parents’ expectations were for us, lots of factors–but none of us were really that different from one another.
There was this one guy who sat next to me in homeroom named Greg Fischer. I played basketball, he played hockey. We didn’t know each other very well, but because my last name began with D and his with F, we were in the same homeroom for three years. Toward the end of our senior year I remember talking with him about our plans for the future.
I said, “Well, actually I’m going to college next year. I just went down to visit this place called Kenyon and it seemed kind of cool. What are you going to do?”
He said, “Ah, I don’t think I’m going to go to college. I’m thinking about going into the marines.”
“The marines? Really?”
“Yeah, I mean, I’m going to get drafted anyhow, so if I’m going to get drafted, why not the best, you know?”
When we heard those obituaries over the school intercom it was a reminder that the war was there, and it was real. But one of the ways we coped with it was through a sort of black humor. It was almost as if the humor was an effort to make it go away, to make it unreal. For example, a few months after my talk with Greg Fischer, all eight hundred and thirty-five of us marched into Cleveland Public Auditorium for commencement–the Class of 1967. Suddenly some kid starts whistling the theme song to The Bridge On the River Kwai–the movie about British prisoners of war. And we all joined in! Believe me, it’s not easy to whistle when you’re laughing. This was followed by a very low, teenage, guttural version of “The Caissons Go Rolling Along.” I’m not kidding. Meanwhile, in the background, the high school band is wailing away on “Pomp and Circumstance.” You can just imagine all these guys in bright blue caps and gowns with the gold tassels, laughing away. It was fantastic.
So I go off to my first year in college and I’m really kind of oblivious of the war. The Tet Offensive is raging across South Vietnam and I’m trying to figure out what the hell Paradise Lost is all about. But I came home from college in late May.
On Memorial Day 1968, I opened up the Cleveland Press and there was this really angry editorial on the front page with the title “He Was Only 19–Did You Know Him?” It turns out to be about Greg Fischer and how he died at Dong Ha up near the DMZ. It just hit me like a hammer. I remembered that conversation in homeroom and it suddenly had this profound significance. I had gone off to this cloistered college while he was going off to die in Vietnam.
Unlike some, I’ve never had any guilt for not going to Vietnam. But I understand how easily it could have been me. Like any kid who had grown up in the fifties there was a certain allure to the military. And especially the marines. But my parents hadn’t been able to go to college and they were determined that I would.
The Cleveland Press article concluded by quoting a letter Greg had left in the drawer of his desk. On the envelope he had written, “Open this if I don’t come back from Vietnam.” The letter was about what to do with the ten thousand bucks his family would get from his military life insurance–the standard death benefit for an American KIA. Primarily he wanted the money to go to his sister so she could go to college. The letter ended with a P.S., “Don’t forget to give Joey my hockey skates.”
The editorial was really asking, how many more people like Greg are we willing to waste? This is just an ordinary kid we’re talking about. He wasn’t an Eagle Scout, or a class president, or an all-American athlete. He was a kid who had worked in the local pharmacy. We all know the high school kid who works in the pharmacy, even if we don’t know his name.
I think that was the moment when “Middle America” really turned against the war. The Cleveland Press was part of the Scripps-Howard chain, a conservative syndicate that had strongly supported the war. So it was remarkable that this newspaper would run such an angry editorial about an American casualty. It reflected a feeling that was spreading all over working-class communities like Parma. I think a lot of World War II vets who had been sitting around their kitchen tables saying, “You’ve got to fight for your country,” were starting to say, “Fuck this. It’s not worth Greg Fischer’s life or his buddy’s life.” Or maybe they weren’t saying it, but they were starting to feel it.
In 1982, I went to Greg Fischer’s grave. What struck me more than anything else was the simplicity of Greg’s marker. There’s just one small plaque on the ground surrounded by hundreds of marble headstones. It has his name, the dates of his life, and one word: “Vietnam.” That’s the only epitaph.
I felt good about having gone. And stood there. And remembered. The only tribute you could really pay, and I can still pay, is to remember. What else is there?