November 10, 2013

What Did It All Mean?

In Vietnam, we reacted to the random weirdness of war by invoking the following call and response: "What does it all mean? It don't mean nothing." But, of course, it did mean something. For a time, it meant everything. The war shaped our hearts and minds in ways seen and unseen. Sometimes I wonder who or what I might have become if I had never been drafted, never gone to Vietnam. I wonder if the "me" who went through the war is just a distorted image of the "me" I might have been had I not been in a war.

Certainly, the two years I spent in the Army cost me in terms of promotions and who-knows-what opportunities that might have come my way. On the other hand, the career I resumed after the war led me into writing on a regular basis.  Is that something I would be prepared to give up in exchange for some other hypothetical life? I think not.

There are other things I have come to appreciate as I look backwards in the rearview mirror. Among these is a higher tolerance for the Class Insecta. We lived in primitive conditions, with nothing to buffer us from the rain and the mud or the heat and the dust, not to mention the abundance of creepy-crawlies both large and small, venomous and non-venomous who thrived in the tropics. J.B.S. Haldane remarked that "God has an inordinate fondness for beetles," and nowhere is that more evident than in the jungle. Compared to that lot, what are a few stink bugs or earwigs.

Generally speaking, my year in Vietnam left me indifferent to most forms of physical discomfort. After enduring months of rain, the odd shower or two doesn't make much of a dent. As for hot weather, well, let's just say I am ideally suited to a warming climate. The irony is that the coping mechanisms that work for hot weather also work for cold weather. It's a bit of a Zen kind of thing, finding the coolness on a hot day and the warmth on a cold day. Mostly it is just knowing I've been through worse. Cold comfort, indeed.

That's not to say I am a tough guy. Far from it. One of the hardest lessons I had to accept was that I would not be John Wayne.  I would never be that guy who dominated through sheer physical presence. I would not be the hero. A survivor ... yes, that I could do ... mostly by relying on my wits. It wasn't always pretty or noble. I did what it took to get by. Like the poet  Robert Graves, I developed “a brutal persistence in seeing things through, somehow, anyhow, without finesse, satisfied with the main points of any situation.” Call it the "whatever" factor. That, coupled with a lot of luck, got me through the war.

After I came home, I did find I had a much deeper respect for life in all its forms. Yes, I am that guy who picks up the stink bug and carries it outside to set it free. I never had to kill anyone while I served, but I was part of the machine that killed thousands of soldiers and civilians. So much death for ... what? To this day, no one can really say. What does it all mean?

Taking life is easy; bringing it back, impossible. We shouldn't take any life, no matter how seemingly insignificant it might be in the scheme of things, except in extreme necessity, and when we do -- as the ancients did -- we should offer a prayer for the dead as well as for the living. It ought to mean something.

I don't say any of this to make myself look good or to portray war as some kind of an ennobling experience. It isn't. The wounds are not always easy to see, and they take a long time to heal. For many years, I tended to operate along the shadow line between virtue and vice. You can get too used to that. Maybe that's the worst thing a war does, that blurring of the lines. Over the years, I have tried to pull back from the front lines of my inner struggle. Maybe that's the best thing the war does, that acceptance of self as an imperfect work in progress, along with a brutal persistence to see things through.


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