Vietnam Ghosts

By Claude Thomas

The other day I picked up a magazine, dated February 14, 1994, and read an article titled "The Ghosts of Vietnam." The article began with the caption, "A Marine who served 'in country' tells why we must keep faith with the dead — but leave the war behind." A few days later I was at a friend's house and saw a newspaper on the kitchen table. I glanced at the front page and my eye caught the photograph of Lewis Puller. I read the story reporting his suicide. My reactions to the words, "leave the war behind," could not have been played, out more poignantly. Lewis Puller, like Bradford Burns and Melvin Adams, is a "casualty of war." Contrary to our beliefs, war does not begin with a declaration and end with an armistice, withdrawal, or ceasefire.

Since Vietnam, tens of thousands of people like Lewis have taken their own lives. One out of three homeless people are veterans of the Vietnam war. Forty to sixty percent of those incarcerated for violent crimes are Vietnam veterans. Even those who aren't touched in these ways, the "success stories," are suffering. They have higher than average rates of alcoholism, divorce, and drug dependency. They are the walking wounded.

As surely as we are scarred physically by the cuts of knives, the puncturing of bullets, the shredding of our bodies by shrapnel, so too are we scarred spiritually, emotionally, psychologically, and psychically by the trauma of war; the brutality, the inhumanity, the surrealism, the insanity. We are disfigured for the rest of our lives. Once involved in the trauma of combat, there is no getting on with our lives in any traditional social or cultural sense. Acquisition of titles, degrees, property, or positions does nothing to ease the pain or relieve the suffering of living with inhumanity, that is, in forgetfulness.

There is a plague of profound proportions affecting veterans and survivors of war. It escapes medical diagnosis because it exists beyond a material plane and 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 and to touch deeply the consequences of our aggression. When we cling desperately to our illusions and deny reality, we merely perpetuate our suffering at even more profound levels. Our suffering expresses itself in manifestations that we look at with bewilderment. We say to ourselves, "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 three years, I have had the privilege to live in community with Vietnamese people in Plum Village. The majority of the people in this community are refugees or the children of refugees, boat people, and those who were my enemies. I have sensed in contemporary American media 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 us. The effects of war are not much, if any, different on them than on us. They are just more obvious because there are less layers of material veneer to hide these effects.

I recently spent two months in the Balkans, primarily in refugee camps, hospitals, housing projects, and the frontlines of Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina. I discovered that there wasn't a significant difference between the effects of their war on them and the effects of my war on me. When I watched the survivors of war trying to "forget" their experience and "get on with their lives," I could see my father, I could hear my first wife, I could hear the voice of my society and culture. It did not matter what ethnic group or nationality it was; there was no difference. The posturing was the same: anger, rage (expressed and repressed), and an outright commitment to stifle the reality of suffering 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. If left unaddressed, it becomes a ring through our noses dragging us through life. 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 we are suffering and searching for escape.

There is no blame, there is no fault. But we are responsible for our healing. Through this process I have learned that healing does not mean "forget about the war, get on with your life" but rather the acceptance of it in our life and the knowledge, from a place beyond intellect, that the war and our pain never end. We merely learn how to be with the pain like still water, with a clear and unequivocal commitment to not create more suffering in ourselves and the world. We cannot 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. Walking through the excruciating reality of the effects of combat, trauma, and the debilitating social demand to anesthetize, I am learning a new and substantive meaning to the reality of healing. I am experiencing that as I heal so does my father, my mother, my sister, my son, my family, my community, my culture, and all of us who served in this place named Vietnam. Lewis Puller, Bradford Burns, David Ignasiak - REST IN PEACE!

Claude Thomas is a combat veteran of the Vietnam War and a writer, who helps lead meditation retreats for veterans and others.

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