My father was stationed with a PT boat squadron in the Aleutian Islands during World War II. He'd been drafted at thirty-seven years old (such things happened in that war) and found himself a petty officer in charge of supply. He was gone by the time I was six so I only saw him at intervals as per the custody agreement, particularly later in life. He'd tell the same two stories as if I'd never heard them before. One was losing his shaving kit in the snow and being unable to find it because of a blizzard. The other was the day a survivor of a sunk Japanese mini-sub found an American Navy uniform and slipped into to the line in the base chow hall. He was starving. They captured him immediately, of course. For some reason, those two stories had to be told over and over again.
I’ve never understood the story with the shaving kit. Was it about something lost and irretrievable in his life? Was it about his fear of the danger of blizzards where a man can be as easily lost?
But I do understand the story about the captured Japanese. It was about the understanding that the enemy was human and vulnerable, something that violated the mythological version. It created a kind of cognitive dissonance that took time to work through, especially in a time of intense patriotism after Pearl Harbor.
I repeat many of my own stories about Vietnam. Some people have heard them all and humor me. But each time I tell them, sometimes in writing, I am refining the articulation of them so that the words are most transparent and true. Does the memory edit? Not all of it: some memories are burned indelibly into the mind. I remember, for example, each man I couldn’t help. As a platoon corpsman I sometimes tried to keep men alive knowing I couldn’t, so he didn’t have to die alone. It is impossible to save a man who’s been shot through the subclavian artery, in the head, or three times in in the direct center of his chest. Most likely an operating room would not have helped, he bled out so quickly. But I keep telling their story. And I tell stories of the demythologized enemy, the ones we captured, who were scrawny and underfed and sometimes just kids and terrified.
Here is one that will not go away: there was a Viet Cong with a stolen M79, who gave us a lot of grief for a few months. He traveled with two other guys. They specialized in hit and run ambushes. An M79 was a hand-held artillery piece that fired a forty-millimeter grenade. We called this guy the "Mad Seventy-Niner" for the risks he took. We finally killed him just south of Kim Son Mountain. Strangely, we were saddened at his death, even though he'd killed a few of us. He'd become mythological and some little sensor way down in the amygdala saw him as a warrior brother.
Contrary to the fashionable rhetoric, women veterans need to tell these stories too. My friend Anne flew a Kiowa helicopter in Iraq and killed a lot of people. After her deployment she got in her car, disabled the airbags, unhooked her seatbelt and drove as fast as she could into a telephone pole. She broke her neck in two places and was in Walter Reed hospital for two years. When I heard her tell her story at the Joiner Institute in the summer of twenty-eighteen, I knew she had to tell it. Narrative is powerful and necessary and like food, we can’t live without it. She is still young and quite lovely and will be telling this story as long as she lives.
These are the indigestible facts of war. They will always be so. This is what the repeated stories are teaching, both for the listener and the teller.