I wondered, in the months since the election, if events had outrun my book. The war I write about seems almost quaint today. What use can telling its story be to us now? No one wants to hear any more about it anyway, right?
So I drag myself to my computer, barely able to take small actions, make some calls, donate. The valor I need to carry on is missing and I don’t know how to summon it. On my better days I see that we have been catapulted into the space Sebastian Jünger describes in Tribe. Suddenly we are no longer oblivious but assaulted, challenged, called to choose up sides, to speak or try to sleep for the rest of our lives without waking at 2 am. The people Jünger profiles face the deepest danger, the grimmest of conditions and they find humanity, loyalty, courage. These are the very qualities veterans speak of that makes them miss wartime conditions, no matter how bad those were, because they don’t feel those qualities in ordinary consumer life.
We aren’t in ordinary consumer life any more, not since January 20th.
Then I remember something William Prochnau reported on in Once Upon a Distant War. On December 11, 1961, he says, Stanley Karnow of Time magazine was having a drink with an American military information officer at a hotel by the Saigon River when to his astonishment he saw the aircraft carrier Core maneuvering among the junks and sampans. In full view on the deck were forty helicopters.
“‘My God,’ said Karnow, ‘look at that carrier!’
‘I don’t see nothing,’ the officer replied.”
Karnow connected the dots. He saw not only that the war was about to heat up but that the strategy of the American government was not to fool the Viet Cong, but to fool the American public. The government lied about the reason for the war, about how bad it was, about what we were doing to that country, and about the fact that we were losing. In every way it could, American leadership at all levels told the American people that the sky was green and the grass was blue. Many, many people watched them do this and agreed to go along. They saw the carrier and agreed not only that those helicopters meant nothing but that nothing was there. They looked at the sky and agreed that it was green, at the grass and agreed that it was blue.
In spite of the miles of words written about the war in Vietnam, it isn’t over. We never resolved it. We never probed the wound for all of its infection, the deepest of which was the rupture of trust between government and people. And because we never had anything resembling a Truth and Reconciliation Commission, that loss of trust has grown and become venomous and has produced a leader who no longer even attempts to conceal the lies. He doesn’t attempt to conceal the truth, either, the truth that The People merely serve the interests of those who profit from war.
In such an atmosphere, speaking the truth becomes a powerful act of resistance. And if, as Hiram Johnson said during the First World War, the first casualty of war is truth, speaking the truth is also a powerful deterrent to war. In such an atmosphere everyone is Stanley Karnow knowing what he sees, being told not to see it, and saying it anyway.
A veteran once told me that they had had an unspoken rule, “What happens in Vietnam, stays in Vietnam.” He meant something deeper than the accounts of military actions, something deeper than what generally appears in memoirs and even exposés. I think he meant that thing that later is going to make us look the other way, try to pretend we don’t know what we know because it is too painful to know it, that thing that, if we give it voice, will undermine the very foundation of what we thought we knew about our country. But when we don’t talk about these things, we end up where we are now, the truth batted about like a shuttlecock.
The sky is blue and the grass is green. My book seems more timely than ever.
The U.S. Military Sea Transport Command aviation transport USNS Core (T-AKV-41) transporting Douglas A-1 Skyraider aircraft up the Saigon River, Vietnam, circa 1967. Credit: Department of Defense.
Note that no attempt is made to disguise the helicopters. They are not even tarped. And the photo comes from the Department of Defense.