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"The Legacy of War"
Claude AnShin Thomas
I picked up a magazine the other
day, it was dated 14 February '94, and read an article titled
"THE GHOSTS OF VIETNAM." The caption at the beginning
of this article read (in bold print) "A Marine who served
"in country" tells why we must keep faith with the
dead - but leave the war behind."
A couple of days later I was
over at a friends house in Cambridge, MA and on the kitchen table
lay a newspaper. I glanced casually at the front page and my
eye caught the photograph of Lewis Puller, I read the 1st few
lines of this story, a story reporting his death, his suicide.
Never more poignantly could my reactions to the words written
in the magazine article ("leave the war behind", "It's
time to stop rooting in that rag-and-bone shop of our hearts",
and "the war is over. Finally.") been played out. Lewis
Puller, like Bradford Burns, Melvin Adams, are "casualties
of war." Contrary to our standard beliefs war does not begin
with a declaration and end with an armistices, or withdrawal,
or cease fire.
Since Vietnam tens of thousands
have, like Lewis, have taken their own lives. 1 out of every
3, living homeless, are Veterans of the Vietnam war. 40-60% of
those incarcerated for violent crimes are Veterans of the Vietnam
war. Even those who aren't touched in these ways, the "success
stories", are suffering. They are looking at higher than
average rates of alcoholism, divorce, drug dependency (both illegal
and prescribed), the walking wounded. And society doesn't look,
doesn't notice, it turns away thinking that by not seeing, this
reality doesn't exist. It has been said by the Vietnamese Zen
Master Thich Nhat Hanh "that the non-veteran is more responsible
for the war than the veteran." This reality is the reason
why there is a pressure to forget the war and walk on through
some masquerade of life haunted by it's dreams. A pressure to
fight every minute of every day to keep them repressed. Or the
pressure to keep the memory of soldiering alive. A tangible reality
that the "war is not over."
As surely as we are scarred physically
by the cuts of knives, the puncturing of bullets, the shredding
of our bodies by shrapnel - so are we scarred spiritually, emotionally,
psychologically, and psychically by the Trauma of War; The brutality,
the inhumanity, the surrealism, the insanity. We are disfigured,
permanently - indelibly, for the rest of our lives.
There is a plague affecting Veterans,
survivors of war, of inexplicable proportions. So profound that
it escapes medical diagnosis; escapes diagnosis because it exists
beyond a material plane, transcends the precedent of medicalization.
It is the result of our unwillingness to look deeply, with mindfulness
into the nature of war at whatever level it is occurring - to
touch deeply and profoundly the consequences of our aggression
(passive or active) not only on the aggressed but on the aggressor.
Once involved in or touched by the trauma of combat, there is
no getting on with our lives in any traditional social or culture
sense. To acquire titles, degrees, property, positions, does
nothing to ease the pain, relieve the suffering of living (in
forgetfulness) with our inhumanity . Ascribing to this notion,
clinging desperately to our illusions, merely perpetuates our
suffering at even deeper and more profound levels. Denying this
reality, repressing it merely causes then our suffering to express
itself in manifestations that we look at with bewilderment and
say (to ourselves, and out loud), "How could that happen
he, she, or they, had everything","How can this be
happening to us, here of all places". Child abuse (physical
and sexual), the raping of our environment, Children killing
children "Live free or Die?"
Lewis Puller took his life.!!
For the past 3 years I have had
the privilege to live in community with Vietnamese people in
the South West of France in a place called Plum Village. The
majority of the people in this community (98%) are refugees or
the children of refugees. Boat people, and those who were my
enemy. I have sensed in Contemporary American media (books, magazines,
newspapers, etc.) that the Vietnamese are somehow more sensitive
than we are, more forgiving, more open to healing. They are no
better off, nor worse off than we. Their plight, the effects
of war on them is not much (if any) different than it is on us.
It is just more obvious because there are less layers of material
veneer to hide these effects.
Also, I recently spent 2 months
in the Balkans. I was primarily in Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina.
I spent a good deal of that time under fire in besieged areas
of Bosnia-Herzegovina. What I discovered on this trip in refugee
camps, hospitals, front line bunkers, the housing projects that
were under constant small arms and mortar fire was that there
wasn't a significant difference between the effects of their
war on them and the effects of my war on me. And when I watched
the survivors of war trying to "forget" their experience
and "get on with their lives" it did not matter what
ethnic group or nationality, I could see my father, I could hear
my first wife, I could hear the voice of my society and culture,
there was no difference. The posturing was the same. Anger, rage
(expressed and repressed), an outright commitment to stifle the
reality of their suffering, their despair at any cost.
When the physical manifestation
of war ends - the cessation of fighting - the effects of that
Trauma "do not go away" but linger on and on and if
left unaddressed becomes a ring through our nose dragging us
through life where we discover ourselves in places we don't want
to be, with people we don't want to be with, doing things we
don't want to be doing and telling ourselves all the while that
we love it, or that we must, or that we really don't have a choice.
All the while suffering - searching for escape.
There is no blame, there is no
fault. But for our healing we, as I and many others like me have
learned, are responsible. And through this process I have also
learned that healing does not mean "forget about the war,
get on with your life" (the absence of pain) but rather
the acceptance of it in our life and the knowledge (at a place
beyond intellect) that the war and our pain never end we merely
learn how to be with it like still water, with a clear an unequivocal
commitment to not create more suffering in ourselves or in the
We can not make peace, we must
be peace and the rest of the process becomes self evident.
I am disabled as a result of
my service in Vietnam. I served there in 1966 and 1967 as a Crew
Chief on Helicopters, "B" model and "D" model
Walking through the excruciating
reality of the effects of combat, of trauma, of the debilitating
efforts to anesthetize (a social and cultural demand) I am learning
a new and substantive meaning to the reality of healing and I
am experiencing, that as I heal so does my father, my mother,
my sister, my son, my family, my community, my society, my culture
and all of us who served in this place named Vietnam. Lewis Puller,
Bradford Burns, David Ignasiak I heart and soul are with you
- REST IN PEACE!!