Max Hastings’ Vietnam

I have come up for air after submerging myself in Max Hastings’ massive Vietnam: An Epic Tragedy, 1945-1975 (HarperCollins, 2018). The book is 755 pages of text plus 43 pages of notes and 24 of bibliography, which includes “only titles that have had a direct influence on my narrative.” It is the longest and most detailed of the books I have read on Vietnam—and I try to read every major work on the subject. Only volumes that devoted their entire content to single events during the war, such as Gregg Jones’ Last Stand at Khe Sanh (Da Capo Press, 2014) and Mark Bowden’s Huế 1968 (Grove Atlantic, 2017) offer more particulars on what occurred and who was involved.

Reading the book was, in many ways, like reliving my own history. I was in Vietnam at least four months every year between 1962 and 1975 and was repeatedly on the battlefield supporting combat units, both army and Marine Corps, in fighting all over South Vietnam. Ironically, the photo on the book’s dust cover is from the 1967 battle of Dak To that I was deeply involved in (see my 2017 New York Times article on the battle at https://www.nytimes.com/2017/11/03/opinion/vietnam-tet-offensive.html).

I came away admiring Hastings’ no-holds-barred style that plunged the reader into the grisliness of combat. With journalistic detachment, Hastings gives the facts of bodies torn apart, severed limbs, organs ripped out, and soldiers burned alive. It’s not that I savor the gruesomeness of the battlefield. It’s that I want people to how ghastly combat is so that when they decide we must go to war, they’ll bear in mind the consequences to which they are subjecting our young men and women.

What surprised me most about Vietnam was Hastings’ reporting of wide-spread drug use and the failure of military discipline among U.S. forces in the early 1970s. During my many trips to Vietnam during that period, I caught hints that there were problems, but I had no idea how widespread they were. My best guess is that these curses were concealed from me, a visiting high-ranking civilian. I saw no evidence of them during my time with the troops in combat.

I was also shocked at the deliberate and cynical dishonesty of the Nixon administration. Hastings quotes at length the tape-recorded conversions between Nixon and Kissinger which demonstrated that they knew well what was going on in Vietnam and were fully aware that the U.S. was losing the war but chose to lie to the American public for political advantage.

More tomorrow.

Writing to Help Others (2)

The second of the two issues that has driven my writing is combat and the damage it inflicts on the human soul.

Friendly Casualties, The Trion Syndrome, and Last of the Annamese center on the Vietnam war. Friendly Casualties, a novel-in-short-stories, tells of people damaged by the war. The Trion Syndrome is about a Vietnam vet suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Injury (PTSI), just as I do. And Last of the Annamese catalogues the horrors of the fall of Saigon, which I survived.

I wrote all three novels because I wanted people to know how unspeakably ghastly war is. And I wanted to show the psychic wounds that combatants are subject to. I wanted to convey to the reader the suffering exacted by memories so hideous that they will never rest.

To my surprise, readers’ response has so often been to express gratitude. Combatants thank me for letting people know the horrors they have endured. Ordinary citizens who have never been to war thank me for helping them understand. And sufferers of PTSI are grateful that someone else understands their torment. Many talked about how my insights helped them handle their memories.

I know another Vietnam vet who is struggling to write about his bouts with PTSI. I urge him to write because he can help other men and women with the malady. I tell him how men who went through combat and grapple with their unbearable memories have thanked me for helping them cope.

And what greater fulfillment can a writer have than to know that his work has helped others?

Writing to Help Others

I start with a quote: “A musician must make music, an artist must paint, a poet must write, if he is to be ultimately at peace with himself. What one can be, one must be.” That’s from Abraham Maslow, psychologist (1908-1970), one of my favorite writers.

As I explained early in this blog, I write because I have to. To refuse to write would be to accept damnation. In my mind, there’s no question that I was put here to write.

Feedback from readers includes compliments on my style and ability to tell a story, but far more often than I would have expected, readers thank me for helping them. That is, perhaps, my greatest satisfaction.

I write about issues that won’t leave me in peace—experiences from the past that still roil my soul and force themselves into my stories. One is my time caring for men dying of AIDS. But the biggest among them is what combat does to the human spirit.

In the 1980s, to help me cope with Post-Traumatic Stress Injury (PTSI), I spent five years taking care of men dying of AIDS. I had seven patients. They were all gay, and they all died. I was a volunteer at the Whitman-Walker Clinic in Washington, D.C., a gay organization. I was the only straight guy there. I was forced to confront my unconscious biases about gay men—that they were weak and effeminate and trivial. The men I worked with were among the bravest and hardest-working I’ve ever encountered. Their courage and self-sacrifice put me in mind of the men I’d served beside in combat. And the patients matched them in bravery. They faced their inevitable deaths with resolve and peace.

My experience moved me so deeply that I wrote a novel about a straight man caring for a gay man dying of AIDS. It’s No-Accounts. That book is arguably my greatest critical success. And it is the only one of my published books not about the Vietnam war.

One of the reasons I wrote No-Accounts was to inform the public about the sheer gruesomeness of AIDS. It’s a monstrous disease. In the book, I catalogued AIDS’ destruction of the human body. And I wrote of the bravery of the care givers and the patients.

So many readers have thanked me for No-Accounts. Some have praised me for debunking myths about gay men. Others have expressed gratitude for helping them understand AIDS and the brutality the disease visits upon its victims.

The response of readers is my fulfillment.

More next time.

Stubbornness (2)

Years later, as I reached “maturity”—past middle age—I came down with lung cancer. I realized how serious it was when my doctors hinted in a round-about way that I might want to get my affairs in order. There was a real possibility, I realized, that I might not survive. My old obstinacy kicked in. I wasn’t about to let this nuisance of an illness do me in. I had too many books left to write, but mainly I was insulted that fate dared to threaten me. I dug in my heels.

After I underwent chemotherapy and radiation to reduce the size of the tumor, a surgeon removed the upper lobe of my right lung. As I regained consciousness from the anaesthesia, I listened to the sounds around me in the recovery room. I imagined that I was lying by a black stream. It was close enough I could touch it. A voice urged me to reach out my hand and put it in the dark liquid. If I did, my struggle would be over and I would die. I refused.

My physicians were surprised and delighted at my recovery. They credited my survival to my excellent overall health. They didn’t know I was an obstinate bastard that wouldn’t give up. Once again, it was up to me. I had to do it myself, and I did.

Friends and readers sometimes remark on my intelligence and creativity. But I agree with my early counselors that I’m not really very smart. And I wouldn’t know creativity if I met it naked in the shower room. I am, though, the most determined man I know.

In short, my stubbornness saw me through time after time. It got me through the war in Vietnam with minimum damage. It saw me through my struggles with Post Traumatic Stress Injury (PTSI) and cancer. It guided my writing. Thanks to my stick-to-itiveness, I now have 17 short stories and four novels in print, with another short story collection and another novel due out early next year.

You never know what the future holds, but if the past is any predictor, I’m tenacious enough to live to be a hundred. I insist on it. I’m too stubborn to die off sooner.

Stubbornness

As readers of this blog will have noticed, I’ve had a rough life. For thirteen years, I trundled between Vietnam and the world (the U.S.) and faced life-threatening situations on the battlefield and elsewhere. Later I went through lung cancer that damned near killed me. Some credit me with courage and tenaciousness. Not really. I’m just stubborn.

My mulish obstinacy started in my childhood. With an alcoholic mother and a father in prison, I was left on my own. I learned how to forage for food. I got part-time jobs to buy necessities like clothing. I taught myself to play the piano and to speak foreign languages. It was up to me. Nobody was going to help me. I learned not to rely on anyone else. If I had a need, I had to meet it.

My grades in school were so poor that counselors advised me not to go to college—I wasn’t bright enough. I did it anyway. I enrolled in the University of California at Berkeley, close enough to home that I could commute. The tuition was $58 a semester for a state resident. I found a way to earn it with part-time jobs. Working twenty hours a week while attending classes, my grades were mediocre. I couldn’t attend my own graduation because I was in the university hospital with pneumonia due to exhaustion.

Then I enlisted in the army to go to the Army Language School for Chinese. They taught me Vietnamese instead. That changed my life.

Years later, after the Vietnam war, I decided to go to graduate school. Advisors at the George Washington University counselled me not to try—my undergraduate grades suggested I wasn’t smart enough. I did it anyway. While in school, I was working full time at a demanding job and taking care of a wife and four children. Friends suggested I was unwise to push myself so hard. I didn’t listen.

Throughout graduate school, I maintained a straight-A average and graduated with honors. I now could call myself Dr. Glenn. More important, I discovered for the first time that I wasn’t stupid after all.

More tomorrow.

Medicine as a Business

I am more and more struck these days by the venality of medicine as practiced in the United States. Health insurance is far from universal. Those without it, if they can’t afford to pay, are left to manage on their own, without treatment. Some die.

We are the only modern nation which does not provide some form of medical care for its citizens. All European nations, the United Kingdom, and Canada do. What makes us different is our emphasis on “rugged individualism,” that is, favoring the individual as opposed to the group. We expect everyone to work hard to earn the benefits of a good life. We condemn indolence among the poor but fail to notice it among the rich. We express fear that a helping hand may encourage sloth.

Many, particularly among those with a comfortable income, condemn “socialized medicine” as a give-away to the undeserving. We label it as communistic and warn that it is a threat to democracy.

And because we are unwilling to enact controls, the price of medications in the U.S. dwarfs prices in other countries. In our willingness to reward innovation in medical research, we make its results unavailable to those who can’t afford the stiff prices.

I argue along with many philosophers that medicine should not be a profit-making business but a vocation. Health care is a right, not a privilege. We desperately need to rethink our priorities.

A comparison between the medical profession and the teaching profession has always struck me. We grossly underpay our teachers and richly reward our doctors and nurses. Isn’t it time that we, arguably the greatest nation on earth, reconsider how we do things?

Welcome Home for Vietnam Vets

Last Friday and Saturday, I attended welcome-home celebrations for Vietnam veterans. Both featured speakers who touched on the memories common to all of us who experienced the war in Vietnam.

First the weather: searing heat and pounding rain during the monsoons, chilling nights in the highlands—so different from what most of us were used to.

The scars from combat, physical and spiritual: No one who was on the battlefield came through unscathed. Post-Traumatic Stress Injury (PTSI) is widespread among us.

The hostile crowds who met us when we came back: angry mobs calling us “baby killer” and “butcher” and spitting on us.

Our silence: Since we weren’t welcomed home but cursed, we said nothing about our war experiences for decades. It was a shameful war, we were told, and we were shamed for risking our lives to follow orders to fight for the good of the country. Those of us with wounded souls didn’t share our unspeakable memories. We kept them to ourselves.

For me the Vietnam experience was profoundly meaningful. I was there on and off for thirteen years. Before 1973, I was regularly on the battlefield with the troops, both army and Marines, in combat. The deaths I witnessed were so savage that I still can’t talk about them. Then I lived through the fall of Saigon and escaped under fire when the North Vietnamese took the city. I left behind men I had worked with for years, Vietnamese soldiers we failed to evacuate. They died hideous deaths.

Now, finally, after all these years, we’re being thanked for our service and welcomed home. When speakers at the two gatherings used those words addressed to us, all of us were moved.

“Thank you for your service. And welcome home.”

I cried.