“Have you finished the book?” It was the first thing Fred said when he saw me one day and he followed it up with, “I’m going to ask you that every time I see you.”
And he has, too. He asks when he arrives for dinner, or at Cafe Dewitt where we are meeting for lunch, or even at his own retirement party at Ithaca College.
“Getting there,” I say. Inwardly I ponder the process, briefly touching in on a world that has become intimately familiar while remaining utterly strange – the world of the war in Vietnam in 1967 to 1969.
Since Mark Smith handed me an armload of files over a year ago, I have fallen into the familiar editor’s role: cleaning up and organizing, deciding which vignettes to include and which to leave out, looking for segues, clarifying dates, asking endless questions.
But those are just the mechanics of the job. The real work is taking it in, letting it activate my all-too-vivid imagination. I do this not just as an editor but as a person: this story engages my humanity. So the going has seemed slow to me. Armed with my electronic red pencil (Track Changes) I can edit an academic paper quickly, scouring for extra words, subject-verb agreement, and organization, like a mechanical harvester. This work is different. Beyond the expected challenges of confronting the senseless violence, the twisting of values, the relentless stress, I feel this story changing me. From time to time I resist that. I metaphorically – or actually – run away, fearful that simply by being the intermediary between this story and its readers, I will acquiesce in something beyond my control.
Early on, for instance, I idealistically believed that if people just knew the truth about war, war would stop. That’s why I was playing a part in this project, to make one small contribution to stopping war! The more I read, though, the more I asked Mark questions or sat with him over a glass of wine, the more I had to accept war’s attraction to young men and increasingly, to know the bitterness that drives old men to exploit that attraction. Mark talks about both.
I grew fearful about my godson, who had a fascination with war. He and I visited a veterans’ museum together, me walking right along with him as he told me about the exhibits. That story is here – Memorial Day – and it speaks to my state of mind after visiting Vietnam the first time and before Mark reappeared in my life. It does not escape me that my godson looked much like Mark at that age.
What is the purpose of war stories? Mark considered himself a witness, the man behind the camera. He was also the man behind the gun, but even then he was a faithful witness to his own experience. As faithful as any of us can be. I consider any story worth telling but I am deeply skeptical of war stories. At what point do readers of war stories – or viewers of war movies – become voyeurs, getting a vicarious thrill out of horror, thinking the horror is temporary and will end when the lights come up? And how often do the authors of these stories, consciously or unconsciously, turn their experience into a soundbite: horror! glory! sacrifice! It worries me.
There is no agenda to Mark’s book, though. He does not spin the story in any way. In fact, he frustrates me sometimes because he stubbornly refuses to resolve his experience. Something in me still yearns for the kind of redemption that would reassure me that my time has been well spent. It isn’t there. There is only the truth, in all its complexity. Excitement and terror, humor and grief, daring and resignation – and all weaving back again so the terror becomes excitement again and persists that way in memory.
So we keep going – there is no turning back now, in any case. More and more people know this book is coming and they ask. I have finished the narratives for both tours. I have to put together the time between, in Berlin. Then we will choose photographs and maps and find a publisher.