How the fuck did Vietnam War happen? How were we (America) that fucking stupid? The whole thing – why we fought, who we fought, how we fought – all of it just makes no kind of fucking sense! It’s only that much more incredible when you consider how recent it all was. How insane is it that a whole segment of our population – a huge percentage of our working class youth – just went off and did their “duty?” Why didn’t they riot in the streets instead? Oh wait, they did, it just took a while and the war was basically over by the time they did. It’s important to remember media was slow back then; it was also exclusive, controlled by the forces sympathetic to the government. The people had no way to question authority, to demand an explanation for what was being asked of them. “God and country,” our leaders said, “it’s up to you (young person) to stop communism. Off you go.”
I’m pretty much obsessed with the Vietnam War, particularly in regard to literature. If there’s a better definition of hell than jungle combat I don’t know it. It’s a nightmare just to imagine it. Those soldiers had no idea who they were fighting. Or worse, why they were even fighting them. Military objectives were constantly shifting, incredibly non-specific and arbitrary. The newly integrated armed forces (blacks and whites had never fought alongside one another before) were rife with racial tension. Things were so bad soldiers sometimes took things into their own hands and killed officers and other soldiers they didn’t like (it was called “fragging”). But most of all, these dudes were fighting in a fucking JUNGLE! Impenetrable jungle with snakes and bugs and tigers and leeches. What a fucking nightmare! It’s amazing anyone came back. Period.
Unfortunately for the soldiers, those conditions make for great books.
One of the first books to spark my interest in the subject was Pugilist at Rest by Thom Jones. This is a great, highly lauded book of short stories from 1993, and as I look for it on my shelf to refer to it, I find I must have loaned out yet another copy. I’ve owned at least three. The stories are not exclusive to Vietnam – they also deal with subjects like boxing and cancer – you know, fun, lighthearted stuff (that was a joke), but the story “Break on Through” specifically is one of the most harrowing descriptions of close quarters combat ever written. It’s about a dude high off his nut on speed, racing through the jungle, helping out his friends, looking into enemy soldiers eyes and killing them via different means, one after another. It left such a strong impression it started me looking for other books about the subject. Now I need to order another copy and re-read it. It’s a classic.
What prompted me to write this post however was a recent discovery (for me) in Matterhorn: A Novel of the Vietnam War by Karl Marlantes. It came out in 2009.
I’ve been told this amazing book will feature prominently in the forthcoming Ken Burns documentary about the war. Which is great, because this story really tries to take on many of the crazy contradictions that make the Vietnam War so interesting. There’s the built in absurdity of war, the absurdity of this war, ambition, class, loyalty, race, hunger, deprivation, death, rage, despair, pity, lust, love, you fucking name it, and it’s in this kick-ass book.
In short, it’s the story of a young Ivy League educated Lieutenant Mellas taking control of a rifle platoon near the Laotian border in 1969. It covers just a couple of months and it’s safe to say Mellas and his platoon get into some shit. But the shit – the North Vietnamese soldiers – are almost the least of the lieutenant’s worries. It’s the politics from between, within, without, above and below the platoon that really complicates things for Bravo Company. You really feel, in a way that I’ve experienced with few other books, like you know what this guy is going through when he’s curled up in a foxhole in the middle of the night, artillery shells exploding all around him, the sounds of his wounded buddies whimpering nearby. It’s really quite an achievement. And the leeches… Good Christ, I would have fainted from the leeches alone.
There’s huge bonus in all of this is that this big – over 500 pages – wonderful novel, almost didn’t get published. Apparently Marlantes has been trying to get it into print for 30 years. 30 frickin’ years! I’m going to paraphrase an interview I read where he said he was told that Vietnam war wasn’t in fashion in the 80’s. In the 90’s they tried to get him to adapt his story to the Gulf war before finally in the aughts, at witt’s end it was taken on by a small independent publisher. Marlantes payment came in the form of a case of books to give to friends. Thank god once the book was published it started winning awards and word spread and in became a publishing success, but you gotta love seeing beautiful literature being snatched from the jaws of obscurity, especially just as the artist is about to give up.
That’s the shit that keeps me going.
We, as a species, are fucking stupid, selfish, vindictive, profoundly violent and cruel.
So, what can we take from this? We’ve learned that America and by extension all-humanity is all-kinds-of-messed-up. But then, we knew this. We, as a species, are fucking stupid, selfish, vindictive, profoundly violent and cruel. We create unknowable suffering for our fellow human beings and most other life forms on the earth. We fought the Vietnam War, think on a societal level that private prisons are a good idea AND we elected Donald Trump to be president. We are a despicable species and a discredit to the earth. If nothing else can come from all this suffering, at least we’ve got a few good books to show for it.