1. Preface and introduction

A War Journal

My Encounter with Empire: Vietnam

Preface

In the first half of the 20th Century, the United States began to dabble in the affairs of a tiny country in Southeast Asia known as Vietnam. The French spent a number of years there, learning much of the iron will of the Viet people before they decided to leave. The US, imbued with great optimism and hubris about its military prowess, jumped in behind the French, first with advisers and later with troops.

The intervention became, famously, a quagmire. By the mid-sixties, most everyone who wasn’t blind or biased realized that the US involvement there was unwise, but the political and military realities of the country, its inclination toward Empire, kept us plodding along through this foolishness for almost another decade.

I had the misfortune to be dragged into this conflagration by virtue of my age and socioeconomic status, so in 1968, I found myself enlisting in the US Air Force, despite my distaste for the US invasion of Vietnam, and despite my opposition to war and aversion to the military in general.

What follows is the story of how I came to be in the Air Force, a bit of what it was like being in SEA during the declining years of ‘The War’ that wasn’t really a war, how I eventually got out, and what the effects of it all were on me. In addition, it is the story of another Vietnam era veteran with whom I became friends. Together “more or less in line” as the song says, we journeyed across the US in search of some kind of absolution.

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Acknowledgements

Inspiration for this work came from many sources.

Toni Morrison and Michael Ondaatje are my favorite authors, and along with Susan Griffin’s A Chorus of Stones – the best book I ever read – were a big influence on how I put this all together. I also drew inspiration from Tim O’Brien’s stories of Vietnam and its aftermath.

Laura Palmer, whose book, Shrapnel in the Heart, was important not only to my writing, but to my survival in those dark years when I began to try to come to terms with the experiences, took me to see The Wall in Washington, D.C., which may have saved my life. I offer her once again my undying gratitude.

To Jan Gehorsam and Susan Lamb, deep thanks for encouraging me to write this story and supporting me in the process. It was in Jan’s writing group that I wrote the first story – and all the rest was written to provide the back story to make it believable. And it was in Susan’s therapy that I found I needed to write about it all, and found the strength to face it.

Through the years of this process, my wife, Giana, and my children have been tolerant and understanding beyond all reason. No words can express my gratitude to them for the love and support that made it possible.

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Before you begin reading the book, a few words of warning are in order!

This is an experimental work and so asks of the reader a bit of work and patience. It is written as creative non-fiction, so it’s true, in the sense that all these things actually happened, just maybe not exactly as I’ve written it, due to the vagaries of memory or the needs of the story.

This is a multi-genre work, which means it includes straight narrative, stories, journal entries, re-created journal entries, poems, songs, graphics, news accounts, quotations from other works, and pieces in other voices both real and imaginary. All these various genre pieces are intended to work together to tell the story and paint the picture of my experience; some of them may stand alone as individual pieces as well. All the journal entries are italicized and have dates and places introducing them.

This work employs an exploded timeline (i.e., it’s not all in chronological order – things move around!), thus each entry is dated to help you keep the sequence clear. There are two main streams, however: the first is the time prior to and during my service in the Air Force (most of these have a date in the title), and the second is a trip across the country with my friend, the other vet, which began about a year after I got out of the Air Force. I named this sequence The Trip, and it’s pieces are numbered as Chapters in the list. (I’m thinking of some typographic variation for these chapters as well.) The story more or less alternates between these two streams, with some exceptions… for example the opening two pieces are out of time order for either stream – “Get a Haircut” actually would fall somewhere near the end of the Vietnam stream, and “What Was It About?” is more present day.

Interweaving the two steams together serves to juxtapose various elements of the story in ways that would not happen in a straight, time-order narrative.

Good luck! And thanks for your willingness to undertake this journey.

 

The telling and the hearing of a story is not a simple act. The one who tells must reach down into deeper layers of the self, reviving old feelings, reviewing the past. Whatever is retrieved is reworked into a new form, one that narrates events and gives the listener a path through these events that leads to some fragments of wisdom.

— And you, though you don’t know him, though you will never even see him, will retain some sense of him as you begin, after the war, to put down on paper all this that you saw and heard.”

— Susan Griffin, A Chorus of Stones

[All the pieces are now public. Thanks for your interest. If you have questions, please leave a comment, or send me an e-mail. I would appreciate comments on the story and the format – please be honest, and try to be kind…. As Miss Erika Badu said, “I’m a artist and I’m sensitive about my shit!”]