November 11, 2014


So I'm reading this book about Vietnam. Mostly photos, some narrative. The kind of book you flip through without spending a lot of time reading the text. Until you get to page 106. There you find a photo of a letter written by Jim Hart, who was assigned to the 12th Security Police Squad at the Phu Cat Air Base. He was in the Sentry Dog Section. With his partner Flop, Hart patrolled the perimeter of the Air Base. Like all such teams, they grew very close. Inevitably, there came the day when Hart would leave Vietnam. Hart describes the moment he said good-bye to Flop in a letter he left at the Wall:
I didn't want to leave you behind in Vietnam but I had no choice. I told you where I was going and I know you understood. I know you wanted to go home with me, please forgive me. I thought you'd be coming home someday. Had I had any idea the military had no intention of bring you home I never would have left you. The way you looked into my eyes; I really believe you were reading my mind. Coming home was great, but knowing you were still over there bothered me a lot. All these years, I never knew what had happened to you and there was never anyone to talk to who would truly understand what I was going through.
Anyone who has ever owned a dog knows exactly what Hart is talking about when he says Flop understood that he was being left behind by his master. You've seen that look in a dog's eyes when you are leaving, and you've seen the joy they experience at the moment of reunion. To know that moment will never come, to know there will never be that reunion, to know that you are leaving behind a partner who day after day, month after month, gave you total loyalty, total love ... Jesus Christ, how do you deal with it?

If there was ever a more gut-wrenching description of the cost extracted by a war, I haven't come across it. I read the descriptions of My Lai in that same book and was largely unmoved. Maybe unmoved is the wrong word. My Lai is something I don't dwell on, because you have to be willing to ask yourself if on that day, having gone through what the soldiers of Company C had gone through in the days and weeks leading up to the tragedy ... you have to be willing to ask yourself if you would have stood up or stood by. Anyone who says they have the answer to that question just doesn't get it.

If you are wondering what happened to Flop, what it was that Jim Hart found out, well, it's just what you might think if you imagined the worst possible outcome. Left behind by his master, Flop went from handler to handler, each of whom went home and left Flop behind. Finally, Flop had had enough and refused to work with anyone else. The Air Force put him down.

On this Veterans Day, if you want to think about war and what it does to the people who are caught up in it, then the story of Flop is as good a place as any to start. You come to understand that the war never ends. You leave it behind, but it comes home with you, a feeling of unfinished business that hangs over you for decades. No matter what you did, whether you were a grunt or a cook or a boy with a dog, so much is given, so much is left behind, so many wounds to the heart, wounds too painful to talk about even if you could find someone to talk to. We ask too much. Always, we ask too much.

Flop with Jim Hart
 The book is "Not Yet At Ease: Photographs Of America's Continuing Engagement With The Vietnam War," written by David Chananie.