I've been a Vietnam veteran for 42 years. During that time, I've taught and written and thought about the war and its aftermath just about daily. I'm the author of one book about Vietnam -- and co-author of a soon-to-be-published other.
So, you'd think I've heard it all and am not likely to learn something new or be surprised by a Vietnam-related conversation or encounter. But, then again, if I know anything at all about Vietnam -- its complexity and elusiveness and insolvability -- then I should know damn well that I still have a helluva lot to learn.
Case in point. Earlier this week, the Milwaukee Veterans for Peace sponsored a book talk/signing by me and Erin Celello, author of Learning to Stay, a riveting book about an injured Iraq vet and his long-suffering spouse, at the Boswell Book Company near the UW-Milwaukee campus. It was a "dark and stormy might," so who'd come out to hear us talk about war and pain and survival and guilt?
Well, as it turns out, quite a few folks, among them Vietnam veterans, Iraq and Afghan veterans, Desert Storm veterans, an Israeli Army vet, widows, teachers, students, neighborhood folks and others. And if there was a common thread among them and their questions and interests, it's the sorrow and suffering of war, and the difficulty, the challenge, of dealing with post-war pain and loss.
Neither Erin nor I offered any simple answers or antidotes. But we did share our stories and, in a way, that was probably enough. The Vietnam vets in attendance spoke of their isolation and stereotyping and scapegoating while the more recent vets seemed puzzled at just what the slogan "you can support the troops but not the war" means for them now that they're home. Different wars, different enemies, but the same trauma and stress, the same loss and guilt.
The most poignant moment came when the young widow of a U.S. serviceman killed in Iraq soldier spoke. Her voice wavering at times, the young, widowed mother thanked us for our stories, and she also thanked the Vietnam vets who were there for helping to make it easier for her and her family to be appreciated, and supported.
We were all moved by her words, and her tears, but the very best thing we could do for her, and what we're incapable of doing, is to give her back her husband, to return their father to her children.
That's what war does and will keep on doing. That's what needs to be stopped. Creedence Clearwater Revival perhaps said it best, in a song that my colleague Craig Werner and I play at the end of every semester of our UW-Madison course on music and Vietnam. As CCR poses the question, "Who'll Stop the Rain?"
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