Fred, my writing mentor for The One-String Violin, was afraid of this. “You’ll get a young editor who will reject it because it doesn’t fit the stereotypes,” he said. I dismissed it. It is so time for a new look at everything to do with the war in Vietnam, I thought, and that will be self-evident and editors and agents will pick it up in relief. Isn’t everyone exhausted from the effort it takes to buy into that Rambo thing – man against the jungle and the bad guys (who are never us), blood and sweat, violence, snarls … ?
Who do you see as the market? In my experience, the only Vietnam books that have really worked are on snipers, SEALs, LURPs, etc., that is, individuals or small units who seem to be all by themselves with no support, then against the jungle and world. In other words, adventure stories where the politics and overall madness don’t have a place.
And there it was, just what Fred had feared. But this man had asked a question, so I answered.
On more than one occasion when I have talked about my project, the person I am talking to will get a faraway look and say, in a wondering tone, “My brother/uncle/father was in Vietnam. He never talked about it. I would give him your book. Maybe then we could talk.”
I asked Mark what he wanted people to say to him when he got back. He said he wanted them to “ask him what happened.”
Most veterans were not snipers or SEALs, or LURPs, or even trapped in dire circumstances having to fight their way out amidst a hail of bullets, etc., etc.. Most were there doing a job, which might not have been glorious and does not fit into our cultural stereotype of what the Vietnam War was. Their experience was “ordinary” and yet, for many of them it caused them to shut down, hold ‘what happened’ inside. Without even understanding why they were doing it, they didn’t talk to anyone and the experience grew into what gets diagnosed as PTSD.
One of the veterans who went on my last trip to Vietnam downplayed his role and minimized my attempts to get him to the place he had served. He had been support only, he said, nothing was left of the places, we didn’t need to take the time. But we did take the time and the experience was profound for him, allowing him, in the company of his fellow travelers, to tell his story, to tell what happened.
This book is one veteran telling his story, without hype and without an agenda. It is one civilian, a woman, learning to listen without needing either the hype or the agenda. If it allows a new conversation to happen, one that honors veterans in a more profound way than “thank you for your service,” it would, after 50 years, be not a day too soon.
So then he asked, basically, why I was in the story. And I said,
By and large civilians do not know how to talk to veterans and that does harm to veterans of the war in Vietnam especially because that war is so fraught, even now. It does harm to civilians also because as a culture we have not healed and we do not know how. We need to talk about it in a new way, without stereotypes or clichés. Time does not heal all wounds.
There are two voices in this book, Mark’s and mine. Without his, mine is too abstract. Without mine, his is another Vietnam memoir, of which there are a great many. What is new in this book is our conversation, our struggles to “makes some sense” of that experience.
He didn’t see how the two parts of the story fit together and turned it down.
So I sit here, looking at two pictures:
Mark in War Zone C 1969
and this one:
Mark with five Vietnamese veterans in Hanoi in 2016
I have all due respect for SEALs and LURPs and anyone who has been in dire and desperate situations. The real SEALs and LURPs (who I once described as a week of bad news) might even feel their real story has not been told because they were forced to play to that testosterone-driven audience. Ironically, they may have been a part of creating their own stereotype and have lost hope that will ever change. In any case, the story of what it takes to get from that picture of Mark in 1969 to the one in 2016 is about peacemaking and healing. That isn’t “exciting” in the video game sense, but it is profound. That story is worth finding an editor who understands it.