My new book, Wandering Souls: Journeys With the Dead and the Living in Viet Nam, almost did not get written. Friends, in America and in Viet Nam, had urged me to write it. The subject matter, they assured me, was relevant, and the story was compelling. But I was reluctant to write about the Viet Nam war again. What was the point of one more war story? Like many other veterans who had become writers after the war, at least part of the motivation for what I wrote stemmed from the illusion—or self-delusion–that I might in some small way subvert my readers’ comfort about the ease with which the civilized slip into the solution of murder.
But watching the news from Iraq, seeing again the steel caskets hidden by flags unloaded from cargo bays, the armless and legless and brain damaged stacked and discarded in the crowded wards of Walter Reed, or walking among us, their seared eyes still seeing images they could not share, underlined the arrogant futility of that notion. All the words ever written about war had pressed no weight on the direction of the world.
And yet, conversely, I also understood that the story I had been handed and drawn into, left me no choice but to write it. It embodied in its pattern and substance the reason why stories of damage and redemption still needed to be told.
In 2005, I was contacted by Homer Steedly, Jr., a 59-year-old retiree from the University of South Carolina, who knew I had connections with people in Viet Nam due to an ongoing project I have with Vietnamese writers. Thirty-five years earlier, then an American infantry lieutenant patrolling down a trail in the steamy highland jungles of Pleiku, Homer had come face to face with a North Vietnamese soldier, a medic named Hoang Ngoc Dam, the son of a farmer, just as Homer was, though Homer would not know this fact for many years. When the enemy soldier had tried to bring his weapon to bear, Homer stitched him across the chest with rounds from his M-16. Kneeling by the body, watching the light go out from the young man’s eyes, Homer extracted a notebook and other documents from the pockets of his enemy. He had sent them to his mother, had spent another bloody year in the war, and then had come home to decades when he tried to deal with the dreams and waking nightmares he suffered over that death–and the many more he’d both caused and witnessed–by encasing himself in a silent grief.
The silence was self-imposed. At first he had tried to tell his friends and family what he had experienced. But what he told them didn’t fit the preconceptions that comforted them; they were shocked, and soon, he found, they would look at him differently, and soon after would avoid him. Unable to knit his story back into the narratives of his own community, unable because of that to ever really come home, he shut up, kept it to himself, drank the memories to numbness, until he met, fell in love and married Tibby Dozier, the daughter of a soldier, who encouraged him to face, and share, the past he had tried to bury inside himself.
It was a past he had literally shut away—the letters from the war kept in a box in his mother’s attic. When he asked her to send them to him, she told him there was also a notebook and some papers with Vietnamese writing on them that he had sent her. He had put the documents, and the killing, out of his mind, but seeing them, taken out of the darkness, the carefully drawn anatomical pictures and medical notes of a meticulous mind, everything came back to him. What he held, he understood, was the unfinished business of his war. Soon afterwards, he had asked me to help locate Dam’s family so he could return the objects he had taken to them.
I was able to find the family, Dam’s surviving brothers and sisters and his widow, living in the village of Thai Giang, in northern Viet Nam–a place noted on Dam’s documents–through an article some of my journalist friends in Vietnam published. They never knew how their brother died; in fact had not even been notified about his death until four years after it occurred. They were intensely grateful to Homer for preserving Dam’s possessions, and felt no hatred towards him—they understood war. In fact, they wanted him to come to Viet Nam, to bring the documents himself. But he couldn’t make himself face them, and that summer I brought Dam’s notebook and papers to them, to be placed on the family altar.
Two years later, when Homer was finally ready to meet the family, I went to Viet Nam with him. Together with Dam’s brothers and sister we traveled back to the Central Highlands, to locate the remains of the man he had killed and to bring them back to Thai Giang. When we returned, not only the extended family but the entire village came to greet us with wails of a grief that seemed as fresh and deeply-felt as if Dam had died the week before. As if his casket contained the remains of everyone from that place who had been taken by the war.
In essence, it did. Dam had been one of 142 People’s Army soldiers—including his younger brother—lost from the village of Thai Giang during what the Vietnamese called the American War, lost in the truest sense: their bodies had never been recovered, the facts of their deaths largely unknown. Three hundred thousand soldiers from that side of the war had shared that same fate. For the Vietnamese, such soldiers were “wandering souls,” never to be at peace until their remains, or even some object they had carried with them, was returned, as Dam’s had been, to be placed upon the family altar. Until their stories could be told.
In Pleiku province, we had placed Dam’s bones, contained in a small cardboard box, on the side of the mountain ridge where Homer had shot him, and had performed a ceremony, lighting incense to thank, as his brother Dieu, himself a war veteran said, “the spirits of the forests and rivers” that had allowed us to take the remains from this earth and to now bring Dam’s home. Two days later, at the funeral attended by the entire village, Homer helped carry the casket, the weight of the man he killed, to the village cemetery, bearing, it seemed, the weight of all our dead, Vietnamese and American, at the head of that grim parade. In the cemetery, he and I were asked to be the first to throw handfuls of dirt into the grave—and so were connected to the earth which Dam had worked, just as Homer had once worked his own father’s land, and which held Dam’s umbilical cord, as it did all born to the village.
As the grave filled, as Dam was brought to rest, we knew that we were burying the war. We had accomplished what war stories needed to accomplish. We had not left the dead restless in their mass and anonymous graves, and in doing so we had attended to all the wandering souls, Vietnamese and American, dead and still living, that could not come home from the war. We had unearthed the damage of the war, and had brought it into the light, and had grieved it and tried to understand it, and in an act of mutual grace and forgiveness, had buried it: not to forget it, but to commemorate it by bringing its pain and its lessons of waste into our lives.
We had brought it home.
Wayne Karlin is author of Wandering Souls: Journeys with the Dead and the Living in Viet Nam (Nation Books, 2009).
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