Just keep listening

January 11, 2016 § 2 Comments

listeningI found this, “How To Listen To Me, a Veteran,” on the website of the Office of Veterans and Military Personnel at Indiana University-Purdue University, Indianapolis and found it quite useful, not just for listening to veterans but for listening to anyone who has a difficult story to tell. Some of his points challenge the assumptions of a culture all-too-given to lionizing anything military while at the same time not taking the time to listen to what they say.

His point of view merits discussion. This, for instance: “If you make the offer to listen to me though, you had better mean it. You had better mean that you will sit with me and listen till I am done telling, not until you are bored or uncomfortable. Make the offer to listen to me, and then be prepared in case I decide you are the right person to tell my story to.” Those sentences alone are worth separate discussion and he has many of them. Respond in the comments, if you will. « Read the rest of this entry »

Peace, Delayed

October 19, 2015 § 3 Comments

270631_2385055881544_823137764_n-1It is March 1969 in a place west of Saigon that the men called the Tobacco Field. They also called it Ambush Valley. Civilians were rare here, so when this group of farmers walked nearby, Captain Meager (second from right) with his interpreter went to talk to them. Mark (who took the picture) said Capt. Meager asked them if there were Viet Cong nearby and they said, no, they didn’t know about any Viet Cong, which seemed too mundane a story for me so I saw more in it.

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Call to Action

August 19, 2015 § 3 Comments

ramseyclark I had one last look at the bin filled with playbills, meeting notices, and yellowing newspaper clippings just to make sure I hadn’t missed some critical memory from college before I finished writing the Prologue and Epilogue for The One String Violin. Caught among a random assortment of announcements I found this. I share it as a relic of an active time on the campus of UNC-Chapel Hill and of a time when organizing was done by extremely wordy fliers handed out at various between-classes crossroads. The organizers are not named, though the planned route (“march to law school”) suggests law students. There is no date other than the vague “today,” but I am guessing the spring of 1968.

1968. 47 years ago and the work isn’t even close to done.

Ramsey Clark, Attorney General of the United States will be speaking on campus today. We feel there are several important questions which Mr. Clark’s appearance at the University of North Carolina should raise in the minds of students. As a representative of the Johnson Administration and as head of the Department of Justice, Mr. Clark is an important figure in the system which daily sends more American men out to fight and die in a senseless and endless war in Southeast Asia. This same system perpetrate[s] injustice at home in the name of justice while destroying villages in Vietnam in order to “save them.” 1984 IS HERE, NOW. …

The oppression of a foreign nation is not unrelated to the repression of the Black minority at home; the slaughter of Vietnamese peasants is not unlike the massacre of Black students. …

It must be clear that Justice is a low priority at the Department headed by Ramsey Clark. While quick action is taken against those exercising their First Amendment rights of protest, lest their dissent spread and threaten “our” Vietnam policy, racists in police forces and the National Guard can murder Black people. Instead of  developing the idea of justice for all men, the department and Mr. Clark seem dedicated to perpetuating the injustices of the present society.


Saigon Slumgullion

July 24, 2015 § 2 Comments


Howie Anderson, Floyd Roger, John Ropp – War Zone C, 1969, photo by Tom Vinceguerra. (Note the spices in John Ropp’s hand.)

The One String Violin, the book I am working on with Mark Smith, is almost finished. Finally I put all the sections together and added up the words: way, way too many. Even our most devoted readers might think we had overestimated their patience. So I set about to edit. First to go are all the extra words, of course, but there weren’t that many. I had to cut whole incidents, entire thoughts. Happily, we plan a website where the outtakes will find a home but until I create that I will put a few things here. This is from my epilogue, in which I talk about the process we went through that made it possible for such different people to write a book together.


Mark and I share a disdain for stories that focus only on one aspect of the war. Too many books and movies hit only one emotional note –  all horror, or glory, or fury or brutality. Mark says war was 10% terror and 90% boredom. To me, 10% terror is plenty but there is that 90%.

So I learned about the ordinary. I learned about shipping film back and forth and what happens to clothing and skin in the heat and humidity. I learned about the way helmets were decorated and that the letters Mark received from home did not survive because he simply could not carry them around.

I learned, though, that dried spices were worth carrying because they could turn dreary C-rations into a kind of stew they called “Saigon Slumgullion.”

The war was filled with ordinary moments but nothing I could do would make them ordinary to me.

“I’m scared.”

June 9, 2015 § Leave a comment

The last stages of any writing project, and particularly the book I am writing with Mark, involve a shift from the solitude of writing and editing to the idea that this project will be public, that other people will read it and have opinions, and will be affected. This means I have to learn a new way of engaging even casual conversations. For instance:

I met a woman last week, an assistant in an oral surgeon’s office. She looked to be in her 40s, so a generation younger than me. She asked what I did. I said I was a writer and mentioned I was going to Vietnam in November.

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May 26, 2015 § 1 Comment

I spent Memorial Day trying to get the prologue to Mark’s book right. Like any good writer, I managed a dozen words, deleted seven of them, and then checked Facebook. But my newsfeed was filled with official announcements … “we pause to remember …” and I would think, “who is ‘we?’ Veterans don’t ‘pause’ to remember anything. From veterans the message is ‘never a day goes by …'” and then I would have to go back to the writing and try to make it fit the task and not get overwhelmed by the very gap between civilians and veterans I was trying to write about. « Read the rest of this entry »

“Memories that refuse to die”

April 30, 2015 § 2 Comments


Augustus Saint Gaudens, Adams Memorial, 1891.

It is 40 years since what we call “the fall of Saigon” and we are still struggling with memory. Forty years since the North Vietnamese reunified their own country and we still don’t know what to make of it. The military is trying to find as many heroic stories as it can to somehow recast the whole war as heroic. Anti-war activists are jumping on their anti-war horses to make sure that doesn’t happen. Most people just want to think about something else, everyone is confused and meanwhile, memory persists. « Read the rest of this entry »