t h e s a l o n
with Valentine M. Smith
This is a hard piece to write/rewrite, because I want to talk about hate, Vietnam, war in general, Armistice/Veteran's Day, and what a couple of folks mean to me.
Vietnam is "my" war, the war of my generation, the war that killed 58,000 + fine Americans, many of whom died without a bloody clue as to why; too many of them poor, or black, or reluctant draftees of every stripe. This war tore my generation apart, is still causing rifts between people twenty-five years after the war's end. In the dark days of the Sixties, and they were a lot darker than those who accuse us of all manners of sins - drug use, permissive and public sex, that we were anti-government, anti-American, traitors, anti-everything - we struggled with the war on both sides of the question, with generation pitted against generation.
Vietnam HURT! It hurt those of us who went, and fought, and died, and it hurt those of us who couldn't (my fate) or wouldn't go, and who got entangled in that complex web called "the anti-war movement." Either way, many of us are still scarred a quarter-century later, and still the polarizations exist, much to my dismay and puzzlement.
Now, let me take to an aside here, about that grand and glorious institution called "hatred." My friend Liese six years ago asked an eloquent question at the end of one of her overwhelmingly intellectual posts (and she's always one of my heroes, that woman can write!), which was directed at the POLITICS rightists, "What does it feel like to hate so much?" I thought to myself, "Aren't any of those guys going to admit to hating anybody?" so I thought I'd tell you about one person's battle with hate. That hate kept me out of Vietnam, the Army decided I probably might kill damned near anybody; I was that angry and hateful when they latched onto me just before my 20th birthday in 1967. Though it was the following year before they actually caught me in Kansas City, and I decided to volunteer to go. I did not want to go, I thought the war was wrong, but I figured it was better to go than spend xyz years in a Federal slammer, and still feel that way all these years later...
That hate was kindled in me by harsh parenting, too many beatings, and six years of battling against 41 other young men just as angry and pissed off about life as I was. When I was 15 and 16, hate burned in me white hot, I'd soon as punch you as talk to you, and I was crafty, fought dirty, fought to win. I was raised (at least in the institutions, and partially at home) to always fight, gamble, play to win, and even in hell, which I believed I had descended into, I didn't want to lose. Losing meant being in that shithole for life, and I KNEW it wasn't going to happen to me. That drive to escape living hell drove me at that white hot heat for five long years. I wanted out even though I was subsumed by hatred for a long time after I got out. Yet, I kept on hatin' and fightin', and reading those damned books, always reading something, and slowly, over time, the hatred melted away.
Now, I have never read all that hifalutin' stuff Liese has read, I know nothing about deconstruction or multiculturism, which probably makes me relatively culturally ignorant, but reading was my anchor in that miasma called Northville State Hospital. That was one of the things that finally cured me of that all-consuming hatred, another gets back to Liese's question. Let me tell you something. It feels shitty, as perhaps you can imagine, to be eaten up by hating folks - I hated my Mom for fifteen years almost incandescently, and absolutely all my waking hours were wrapped up that abiding, miserable state of mind. I told my second wife once that being consumed by rage or hate screws you up completely, you can't focus on yourself or life when you are consumed by such emotions.
I hated hating, because it left no time to be young, or to fall in love, or trust anyone, or just to be happy once in a while. You want to know what hate feels like when you hate that much? You want to die every bloody minute you're alive, you know you're the lowest son-of-a-bitch alive because you hate your own mother, so bad that for two years, you refused to see ANY of your family so you didn't have to deal with hate. And you are quick to want to, and to do, hurting of other people. Too quick, to my post-hatred way of thinking. That's a lot of aloneness, isolation and anger for a teen-aged boy to carry around. I carried it pretty badly, let me tell you. I was depressed a lot (a condition that stayed with me until I was 31), and injured a lot, and I left a trail of injuries behind me as my boiling rage roared out of my mind, mouth, fists and feet.
But, when I was 17, the institutions that held me "hostage" let me go to "outside school," "real school," we called it. I had to decide, did I want to get out of this joint, and be the first "mental patient" in Michigan history to graduate from "town school," or did I want to be a "lifer," like those guys in the place who I knew would be there twenty years later if they lived? I DID become the first mental patient to graduate from a "real school" in the history of the department of mental health in Michigan, but at a terrible price. My fellow students all feared me, I made no friends, I was just as isolated as I was inside the walls. Why? Because I was unpredictable, moody, quick to violence, and devastating when I attacked anyone.
I had to begin learning to curb my hate, and focus on shining enough, being calm enough, to "win" a route out of the hellhole that NSH represented for me. I did, by the backdoor, so to speak. I ran off, and after an unbelievable pursuit by the Michigan State Police (and others) for three weeks, I manipulated (I frankly admit that's what I felt I had to do) the hospital, my parents and my doctors into letting me go, even though I had NO social skills, no idea where I was headed, and was ill-prepared to deal with the "outside" world.
While I was there at the high school in town, (I went twice, I got busted out for a semester for running off, that was a no-no - my despair at ever beating all that anger got away from me, and I scuttled away in the dark for a cold run in the rain, and ignominiously surrendered, frozen - it was a six month "stepback" from my alleged "forward progress"), I was allowed to read anything our high school library had to read. A few days before this post a few years ago, my friend Mike McCarthy reminded me about a war I read a lot about as a boy, the war that spawned Hitler, and Doug McArthur, and dozens of other intense heroes and villains of my parent's day, World War I, the War to End All Wars, they called it then.
When I was 17, I read Barbara Tuchman's The Guns of August. She's pooh-poohed some these days as a "popular" historian, but I have liked her books over the years. Anyway, though I cannot find the exact citation, let me share with you my impression of that fateful day of 11 November, 1918 - "At the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month of 1918, after four of the bloodiest years of war Europe had seen since the Hundred Years War a few centuries before, the guns stopped firing. A great hush fell over the torn and bruised land as silence reigned supreme. The war was over, done, the combantants had agreed to an armistice, the carnage stopped, silence fell across the devastation of the battlefields, for a moment of time most of mankind stood still in quiet reflection of what had just transpired." (My paraphrasing)
My grandfather's generation believed that World War I was the end of war - Kaiser Bill had been beaten, that nasty Tsar was gone, as were all that damned Kings and Emperors, many Americans said; now all we have to worry about are the Reds. My folks worried about those Reds, and we, my generation, were accused of BEING those nasty Reds because we thought the government was wrong, we smoked dope, we espoused "socialist thoughts," and we liked fornicating far too much.
I came out my hell, my well of hatred, seared to the bone, continuing a lifelong steeping of self into all kinds of history, spanning the four major wars fought through this century by my country - World War I, II, Korea, and Vietnam - and all the politics you could ever want to devour, plus a lot of strange byways because I'm of a curious type of mind.
Somehow, by the time, I had married, in 1969, I had healed to the point of being half a functional human. I stepped back into the well of self-hatred for four years when I got divorced in 1973, and almost lost all the ground I had gained since graduating from that outside school back there in '65. I tried to kill myself during an eclipse of the moon in May, 1975, and that was the purgative of the last of the old hatred, and the beginning of the end of the new self-hatred. In a very true sense, I was reborn after that attempt to remove myself from life.
But, in the years after 1975 I was meeting the more dysfunctional folks that served like all those good men that tale and song have immortalized in the years since Vietnam ended. They did what they thought was right, they paid a high price for it, and they have all my respect and honor, be it that they survived relatively intact or they are still in the pain a few Vietnam AND World War II vets are still in. Even worse for me was those poor folks who fell in the void, and all those who didn't come back! It hurt me to the core in the late Sixties and early Seventies to hear about flying in copters and planes with body bags holding flesh that had been your buddies, being in the jungle for weeks with gung-ho ninety day wonders that everybody disliked, trying to get by doing whatever your job was, some shirking, some being superb, like all armies before and since.
It is agony still to understand those guys who went and fought thought we who didn't were cowards for being against the war and the government. It was exhilarating to lose a primary against a sitting President, and "win" when he packed it in. LBJ was the "enemy," but he, too, helped me cure my hate. I understood he thought he was doing the right thing, I just thought he was wrong, I did not hate him like most folks did, even though I did say bad things about him and our military leadership because I though they were leading us into a morass of no end.
My views of Vietnam are kaliedescopic flashes of scenes on the tube, fleshed out by the word pictures of the guys who lived to tell about it. I can see those jungles pretty clearly even now, I can still "hear" the thump-thump of mortar fire, the thudding whirring of 'copter blades, the staccato of machine gun bullets, the screaming, thundering warplanes roaring out of DaNang or Saigon, hellbent to drop some crap on Uncle Ho. My view of that past also sees quiet, unsung dying, like all wars, with blood pumping out too fast, horrible pain from a gaping wound that's going to cost a hand or a leg, or the ability to walk, and for some, life itself. My hindsight view sees a naked napalmed girl running down a road screaming (a view I'll NEVER forget!), and of desperate Vietnamese clinging to helicopter runners in the last hours before the fall of Saigon, and a lot of unspoken vignettes in between.
It felt shitty to hold all that hate and pain, it felt even crappier to be pitted against folks you basically liked and respected because you didn't go and they did, and yet out of that searing divide that was MY coming of age, I beat "hating so much." I am not a Democrat or Republican, Libertarian or Communist, I'm just me - a vaguely tired guy trying to do too much, like a lot of other folks, being in touch with a past both grim, and critically alive. Folks who were just words on a screen now have dimension for me, heft, a past and a face, personalities and lives instead of trying to glean them through their words alone. The war's bitter passage actually had positive results for me. I continually understand "community" more wholly, "humanity" more fully as people take on greater shape for me, the worn and wheezing writer just trying to stay even within, and move ahead some.
I don't condone the burning of flags, but I also cannot condone those who would do violence to those who feel compelled to do such a thing. Flag-burning unto itself isn't bad - when I was a boy, that was flag ettiquette for worn, ripped, damaged or soiled flags - but what people do in its wake often is. Many of my friends, and my father's friends, and my grandfather's friends, died to allow us to have the freedoms our Constitution says we have, which includes "free speech." What is spice for you might be shit for the next guy, both of you are allowed to feel that, but neither of you are allowed to IMPOSE what you believe on that other guy. I respect Toby, and all those guys who sang with him on "In Country: Songs of the Vietnam War" a few years but I'm glad I didn't go.
My hatred would have been fed by that war, I often feel its killing resonance deep with my cleansed soul and its dark memories. I would have been a LURP par excellent, a killer in the dark, a murderer without conscience, acting out all those rages in a politically, socially accepted way, and THEN I would have come home even more screwed up than I had been before I went. Legal killing. I dreamed about it often in the dim, pained years I was locked away, and many times after until the army bluntly told me one day in '68 they didn't want me, that I was "too erratic" to be in the service. One Major put it to me straight, "Boy, we're not sure who you'd kill if we gave you a gun!"
So, I was passed over, and I've been reviled often in the years since for turning sharply "left" to war opposition, marching in the streets and all that. The Quakers helped me find myself, and part of that "finding" was that I disliked being angry, violent and hatred as a state of beingness. I was neither left nor right, Communist or Fascist - I just believed, still believe, that there is a better way than war. I don't see that path practiced, not sure humans really want a better road than war, but I believe that route is there.
I expunged my hate, walked away from fixed, narrow beliefs, vowed to like myself and my world, to learn every day, to care, to respect those routes and people whose direction I did not take, to understand we are all different, we all have meaning, and no hatred can be as strong as love. I mean caring, "real" love that transcends belief, ethnicity, gender, sex itself to genuinely understanding we all live on this mudball, beauteous as it is, befouled as it sometimes can be, together. Our pasts are a chunk of who we are, but in the end, all that pales against the straight fact - we are in this world t o g e t h e r.
I remember the past on this 11 November, revel in the wondrous friends I have and who are all over the place, and say, look forward to tomorrow. If we can put the warring behind us, we really could make this planet a pretty fine place to live. While I'm no paragon, and I hope you don't EVER think I am (I am always bewildered, puzzled and bemused when folks say the net holds me "in awe," are you really talking about *me*?), and I'm surely no optimist, though often I can be, I see this from my past, that hatred leads to killing that leads to war, of one kind or another. Who needs that? I negate not those who've had to fight, but I deplore that such a choice had to be made. "What does it feel like to hate so much?" So bad I had to leave it behind, without regret.
11 November was an end to a war, but it also serves to remind me that it also helped me to expunge my own hatred and anger six decades later.
Discuss in the Eclectica Forum! -or- read previous issues of The Salon