Remembering Wars

I woke from a nightmare I can’t remember and had the feeling it was about the war in Ukraine.

Before I got up this morning, I remembered other wars that have gone on in my life. I remembered protesting various wars, and I remembered ignoring wars. I remembered feeling sad and distressed about war, as I feel about the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

Now we’re at the beginning of learning to live with yet another ongoing war, just as the covid pandemic settles into an endemic we may have to live with for the rest of our lives, in the same way we live with the Israeli-Palestinian nightmare that has been ongoing for seventy-five years, and the war against nature we are fast losing.

As a young boy I played Army with my friends and we fought against the Japanese and Germans because we’d seen John Wayne and Gary Cooper fighting Japanese and German soldiers in movies on television. The imagined enemy soldiers were not people to us, but vague soldier phantoms we shot at with our pretend guns. We fought battles, not wars. We had no concept of war, only skirmishes that ended when we imagined we’d killed all the soldiers attacking us.

I went on my first anti-war march in 1963 when I was thirteen. My father and I marched on Market Street in San Francisco with a small group of people protesting US involvement in Vietnam. I wasn’t sure where Vietnam was and I never dreamed the Vietnam War war would blossom into the horror it did and shape our society and the world so profoundly.

Most of the people watching us march up Market Street had no idea what we were protesting. I vividly remember a red-faced heckler shouting at us, “Go back to Russia you commies!”

In 1966 I went to Europe with my family. In Paris, my sister and I went to a movie, and before the movie they showed a newsreel of US jets bombing and strafing villages in Vietnam – women and children fleeing American tanks and soldiers. None of this was yet being reported in America.

When we came home and I told my friends about the newsreel, they didn’t believe me. And then the war started being covered on television in America and everyone got to see the horror. Since then, the leaders in America, and apparently in Russia, too, know not to show anything resembling the truth to the home crowd. Spawns resistance.

In PE my senior year in high school, 1967, I lined up for roll call beside a guy named Jim who had lied about his age and joined the Army at 16 and was sent to Vietnam during what would have been our junior year. He’d been wounded within a few weeks of arriving in Vietnam and spent three months in a hospital recovering, after which he was discharged when they discovered he was only 16.

And here he was in my PE class, standing beside me for roll call. One day I overheard him say something about Nam to another guy, so I asked him about the war. His eyes narrowed and he said, “You don’t want to go over there, man. Go to Canada if you get drafted.” Then he gave me a sad angry look and said, “I mean it, man. You don’t want to go over there.”

I remember my huge relief when I got a medical deferment in 1969 and could safely drop out of college. A couple years later, some of my friends drew high numbers in the draft lottery and rejoiced, and some friends got low numbers and joined up or fled to Canada. A college friend, Jon Sumida, went to prison rather than join the Army, and a high school friend, Elgin Juri, got killed in Vietnam.

In 1970 I travelled to Central America and crossed the Honduras/El Salvador border during the war between those two countries. My companions and I were traveling in a big van, and as we drove across the long bridge over the river dividing the two countries, we were stopped at three checkpoints erected by soldiers extorting money from travelers.

Because I was the most fluent Spanish speaker in our group, I negotiated our way through these roadblocks. As I spoke to the surly young soldiers armed with automatic weapons, I was keenly aware of how easy it would be to anger them and get us all killed. We paid them whatever they asked for and didn’t try to bargain.

On our return trip, having gone as far south as Costa Rica, the war was over, peace established, the roadblocks gone.

I wrote my novel Inside Moves in 1975, the year the war in Vietnam ended, and the book was published in 1978. The narrator of the novel, Roary, is a Vietnam vet, wounded and disabled in that war. In the years after the movie of Inside Moves came out in 1981, I met several Vietnam veterans who told me they loved the book and were disappointed the movie makers changed Roary into a failed suicide rather than leaving him a man disabled by the war. I told them I had begged the filmmakers not to make that change, but the people who made the movie were not interested in what I thought.

One of those disappointed veterans explained, “That’s because the people in power never want to tell the truth about war.”

A fact most Americans are deeply uncomfortable with is that many more American soldiers committed suicide after coming back from Vietnam than the 57,000 American soldiers who died fighting in Vietnam. More than three million Vietnamese died in that war.

In 1983 I met a man who had been a medic in Vietnam. He had written a novel about his experiences as a helicopter medic. We had the same literary agent and she asked me to read his book and give him suggestions for his rewrite. I thought his book was brilliant and important. Unfortunately, his book was never published.

My next-door neighbor in Sacramento, a man exactly my age, fought in Vietnam and survived two horrific jungle firefights. In his first battle, he was one of two survivors out of three hundred American soldiers. In the second battle, he was one of three survivors out of four hundred American soldiers. Each time, he was saved by grabbing onto a rope dangling from a helicopter and being lifted out of the carnage into the copter. His comrades were not so fortunate.

Just prior to the first Gulf War, I was asked to speak at a rally at the California state capitol protesting America’s impending invasion of Iraq. I stood at the microphone on the steps of the capitol and gazed out at the few hundred protesters surrounded by a huge army of heavily armored riot police, and I felt we were in the jaws of a monster who would never negotiate with us.

The Way Things Go song by Todd