~H. PALMER HALL~
WHY I STILL WRITE
ABOUT THE WAR
I began to think about
of writers who have focused
closely and not
but often on that "splendid little war"
that so many of us share
way. I wondered how
they could possibly stop
not why they should
to do so.
move forward without writing about Vietnam in my journal and then
brings it back to me: the way the water looks in the Laguna Madre, a
breeze on campus, catching the silhouette of a telephone pole above the
woods in my backyard late at night and mistaking it for a giant bird
a huge beak, the smell of peanut butter cookies in the oven, almost
if it hits at just the right moment. Almost it is as if someone
a switch to the ON position and words begin to flow. Not always
words, not always the right words, but words tumble out.
the other day when a friend asked about Bruce Weigl and thought maybe
should start writing about other things and leave the war behind him,
perhaps focusing so much on Vietnam was limiting in some way, and I
to think about a number of writers who have focused closely and not
but often on that "splendid little war" that so many of us share in
way. I wondered how they could possibly stop writing about it,
why they should continue to do so.
walk through the hill country here in Texas, or hike into the Organ
outside of Las Cruces, or stroll down a trail in the Big Thicket,
a canoe through the bays of the Texas coast or down the Guadalupe River
when there is no drought, I feel more alive than I do at almost any
time, even when, no, especially when, I am alone.
I see these things, find myself away from other people, way out on the
still waters of Espiritu Santo Bay or between lines of hills where I
hear cars on the highway or on a path hiking up to Dripping Springs
Las Cruces, I find myself not exactly flashing back, with all the
connotations that accompany that phrase, but seeing once again the
and low mountains of the Central Highlands in Vietnam, hearing the
of the South China Sea at Chu Lai, looking again into a schoolyard in
and seeing a giant Buddha smashed apart. That particular memory
to a poem:
÷for the Children of Pleiku
I walked two klicks down Le Loi Street
to a schoolyard, a Buddha broken in the dust
shattered by a rocket meant for us,
and saw you sitting in his hand
tossing carved pieces of the statue's feet,
not even caring where they'd land.
What mattered was that I did not want to be
where and what I was and saw
that you had also had no choice. Some law,
legal in my case, chance in yours,
with no way out that you or I could see,
gave me a twelve month, you a lifetime, tour.
We shared a cigarette and watched the smoke
rise into the red dust Pleiku air.
You laughed, blew smoke rings with the flair
that comes only when you're very young.
You told me I was on the Buddha's throat
and should beware the Buddha's tongue.
I remember that once, when the war was calm,
we laughed and played with shattered stones,
and know there can be no way to atone
for all the death, the wounds, the pain.
If you still live, rest quietly in father Buddha's palm;
if not, sleep peacefully with all the slain.
day, I had to replace two tires on my Ranger and went to NTB, a
of Sears. The salesman's name was Jesse something and, as he
out at the rains beating down on the parking lot, he said that whenever
it rained it reminded him of the monsoons in Vietnam. I told him
I had been there in 1967-68 and he said, "No shit, man. Me,
I was with the first of the 46th, Americal Division. I laughed
told him I'd gone over on the USNS Gordon with the 198th Light
Brigade. He'd been on the same ship. We talked about it for
a while, all the time looking out at the rain. He's not a writer
and he doesn't suffer from a bad case of PTSD, but his war is always
know how anyone who was there, whether in combat or not, could avoid
moments or why they would ever want to do so. Another friend was
talking about Christmas in Vietnam the other night and that day for me
remains hazier than most days. I didn't get drunk often when I
stationed in Pleiku, but I did on December 25, 1967. Just
about the holidays.
a fifth of Ruffino's Chianti, the only portable drink other than beer
Club had on that day, and wandered down to the berm. The 555th
had bulldozed the thing and the bunker line was right in front of it
down the hill before you got to the Air Force Base and the city lay a
thicket and, if I remember correctly, a small village walled in with
bamboo. I sat on top
berm looking down at the lights of the AFB and the comparative darkness
of Pleiku and drank until I drained the bottle.
had held fairly well that Christmas, probably in preparation for the
that would mark the Tet Offensive of 1968, only a little more than a
away, but occasionally, I saw a flare go off and heard what had to be
artillery unit blasting away just to make noise to celebrate
That Christmas produced its own poem:
for My Students in Pleiku
The English class at Lake Bien Ho
laughs, shouts, sings Christmas carols
in broken English, sing-songy, tonal
inflections, music that does not, somehow,
fit in this warm, green land. A small boy
talks about the Buddha. Not long ago
a bonze kindled himself in Saigon, burned
with intensity, no screams, a desperate
song, silence fell on a noisey city.
At Lake Bien Ho, the teachers
have brought a Christmas tree, presents
for their students: books, candles,
cakes and candy. They sit on the bank
and sing of shepherds and their flocks.
An old man on a water buffalo watches.
After I finished the bottle,
back on the red dirt of the berm, saw the same stars I can still see
in Texas and fell asleep.
story. Nothing happened. No one dropped any mortars in the
compound. No one that I know of got hurt. When I woke up in the
I had a hangover, but no one got angry at my not being where I was
to be in "the appropriate uniform at the appropriate time" that morning
after Christmas. It's a hell of a moment to have memories about
a drunken night when absolutely nothing out of the ordinary
part of the reason, not just the anger, not just the violence and
that I think writers like Weigl and Ehrhart and Komunyakaa and so many
others can't not write about Vietnam or, at least, must come back to it
frequently. It's always there, sitting in the landscapes of our
even for those of us who didn't wander into danger very often.
© by H. Palmer Hall