Several years ago I visited the Vietnam Veterans Memorial wall. It was a very emotional experience. I walked past the names of 58,256 men and women who fought and died in a deeply unpopular war.
Although I served two tours of duty in the military, I did not serve in Vietnam. During the early months of the war I began to have serious doubts regarding the US intervention in Indochina. Throughout the war I was involved in several anti-war protest activities and hopefully helped, in a small way, to bring an end to a senseless war.
Today I belong to several groups that support peace activism. I am a member of Vietnam Veterans Against the War (VVAW), Veterans For Peace (VFP) and Peace Action, a national organization working for peace since 1957. I also write frequent letters to the editorial pages of major newspapers. I have published several poems that focus on the human and economic costs of America’s tragic wars. Healing the wounds of war continues to be a high priority in my life.
Barry L. Reece
Dear brothers and sisters: I am delivering this letter to you on this Memorial Day as a survivor. And as a seventy year old father and grandfather. And as a veteran who made it through 411 days and nights along the Bong Son River back in 1969 and 1970. I do not pretend to speak with wisdom; only from the experience you were robbed of as you took your last breath in that land far from where this wall now stands.
Over the years I have come to a place of great remorse. If you had survived, I think you would be joining me. Many of us have fond memories of our buddies and the bonds we formed, but we must also come to terms with a stark reality — those relationships were forged in a war that was both unjust and immoral.
I do not believe we who have survived have the right to ask the Vietnamese people to forgive us; however, we can hope that they will bestow forgiveness on us if we work to heal the wounds inflicted on their children and grandchildren over these years. If we work for peace. So, that is what I have tried to do.
I have also found that poetry lends itself more to my efforts than any other form of expression. Here are two poems I have written from this place of remorse. Both have been translated into Vietnamese in the hopes that I may act as an emissary of sorts for those of us who deeply regret the suffering we brought to their land.
UNEXPLODED ORDNANCE: A BALLAD
for Chuck Searcy and the thousands of Vietnamese who have labored off and on since 1975, working to undo what we have done
So I was maybe all of twenty-one
when they whipped me
into some kind of soul-less shape
Yet another one of America’s
weeping mothers’ sons
sent forth into this world
to raze, pillage, and rape
And now it’s coming on
to another Christmas Eve
And songs of joy and peace
fill up our little town
How I ask myself
could I possibly believe
I could do what I did
and not reap what I had sown
In that land far away
from what I call home
a grandfather leads
his granddaughter by the hand
Into a field where we did
what had to be done
They trip into a searing heat
brighter than a thousand suns
QUẢ BOM KHÔNG NỔ: MỘT BẢN TRƯỜNG CA
Thân tặng Chuck Searcy và hàng ngàn người bạn Việt Nam
đang miệt mài công tác hàn gắn vết thương chiến tranh
Năm tôi hai mươi mốt
quân đội kéo tôi vào
những tháng ngày binh nghiệp
Người mẹ chiến binh Mỹ
rơi lệ thảm vì con
Bị gửi ra tiền tuyến
tàn phá, cướp giết và hãm hiếp
Và nay mùa lễ hội
trước ngày Chúa Giáng Sinh
Vui khúc ca hòa bình
tràn ngập thị trấn nhỏ
Tôi tự vấn thân mình
rằng tôi có thể tin
Những gì tôi đã làm
mà không gặt quả gieo
Nơi miền đất xa xôi
cách nhà tôi vạn dặm
Một cụ già dắt cháu
tay bé gái xinh xinh
Thả bước trên cánh đồng
nơi chúng tôi đã làm
những nhiệm vụ được giao
Hai ông cháu sẩy chân
ngã vào vùng lửa bỏng
nóng hơn ngàn mặt trời
THE GIRL IN THE PICTURE
for Phan Thi Kim Phuc
“Whatever you run from becomes your shadow.”– traditional
If you’re a namvet, a survivor of sorts,
she’ll come for you across the decades
casting a shadow in the dying light of your dreams,
naked and nine, terror in her eyes
Of course you will have to ignore her —
if you wish to survive over the years —
but then your daughters will turn nine
and then your granddaughters nine
As the shadows lengthen.
So, you will have no choice on that one night
screaming down the Ridge Road, lights off,
under a full moon, she standing in the middle of the road,
still naked and nine, terror in her eyes
Now you must stop to pick her up, to carry her back
home to where she came from, to that gentle
village where the forgiving and the forgiven
gather at high noon. There are no shadows.
BÉ GÁI TRONG BỨC ẢNH
dành tặng Phan Thị Kim Phúc
“Bất cứ thứ gì bạn chạy đi đều trở thành cái bóng của bạn” – châm ngôn
Khi anh cựu chiến binh, người sống sót sau những ngày bom đạn
hình ảnh ấy sẽ theo anh qua bao thập kỷ,
chiếc bóng hằn lên ánh sáng trong những giấc mơ đen
chín tuổi, trần truồng, mắt nai sợ hãi
Anh tất nhiên phải cố quên cô bé ấy —
để tiếp tục đời mình trong những trang kế tiếp —
nhưng đến lúc bé gái con anh lên chín
hay đứa cháu ngây thơ vừa tròn chín tuổi
Khi bóng xế đêm dài
Và một đêm anh không còn lựa chọn
tiếng kêu thét trên đường đê trong đêm tối không đèn
dưới ánh trăng rằm cô bé đứng giữa đường
vẫn chín tuổi, trần truồng, mắt nai hoảng sợ
Giờ anh bế bé lên nhẹ nhõm
đưa em về lại mái ấm thân thương
ngôi làng hiền hòa, nơi kẻ vị tha và người được ân xá
hòa hợp cùng nhau giữa buổi trưa đứng bóng . Đời không hắt bóng.
Rest in peace,
14 May 2017
A Third Letter for the Vietnam Memorial
The first time I approached the Vietnam Memorial and began my descent into the darkness that culminates at its low point, I soon came to understand the brilliance of Maya Lin, her ability to capture with the visual/physical metaphor of descent the moral and political failure of our country as it entered the Vietnam War. At the request of Doug Rawlings, founding member of Veterans for Peace, I have written twice about my response to the war itself, first when I encountered angry European protests while living in Germany in 1965, second when confronted with the distress of a returning veteran in 1968.
For this third letter I wish to focus not on anger and distress but on the power of art that enables us to confront this anger and this distress, to turn those emotions into positive ones, emotions and ideas that may enable us to prevent future armed conflicts and the social disasters that stem from them. I wish to praise Maya Lin for her design. I wish to praise the poets who spoke against the war then and speak against war today. This includes Doug Rawlings, who recently handed me two short poems about the war, with English versions on one side and Vietnamese translations on the other. But mostly I want to praise the musicians and song-writers, those who sang out about the war and against the war and about the need to come together against not only the war but also all the injustices that infect our daily lives.
I’d start with the local singers who brightened the anti-war teach-ins I attended in my last year as an undergraduate in 1964. I don’t know their names, probably never knew their names, but I remember the positive energy they created as others laid out the details of our invasion of yet another country. And of course I’d include that scrawky voice tempered by the harmonica as Dylan asked how long the cannonballs would fly “before they are forever banned.” And Baez and Seeger who came to our rallies in North Carolina during the aftermath of King’s assassination, shortly after he had expanded his political criticism to include the war in Vietnam as well as the racial war at home. And those who continue the tradition today, both famous and unrecognized, as they make their case for understanding among peoples and peace among nations.
Recently, driving across Maine to attend a rally, I slid into the slot a cd I hadn’t listened to in a few years, songs recorded in 1984 by HARP, a blend of then old and almost old lefties, Holly Near, Arlo Guthrie, Ronnie Gilbert, and Pete Seeger. From the speakers soon came music and lyrics that keep me alive in this dark time, when war again threatens,: “We are a gentle angry people.” “I will fight, live and die freely human, in our revolution.” “The greatest warriors are the ones who stand for peace.”
The Hungry Ghost
Now, 50 years after “Beyond Vietnam,” as we send Tomahawk Missiles exploding into Syria, we must recall the words of Dr. King: “A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.”
I come to the wall palms up, head up, with open heart. I bring my tears of sorrow, my deep despair. I know you can shoulder one more load.
Perhaps you heard my whimpering cries… or was that grandmother? It is all so blurry. The long line of many, so deep is the suffering, they keep coming, wave after wave, like dead fish washed up on the beach looking for… what? Sweet mercy, this nightmare called life.
The corporate militaristic reaper-binder hears nothing. It chugs on unceasingly, a Hungry Ghost devouring everything… everything.
I don’t know how to stop the poisoning. I am my helplessness. Yet, in that place of emptiness, the dreamer lives. There is hope. There is still possibility.
Hold on to the dream, for what other choice is there?
LETTER TO THE WALL #2
I just saw your name on The Wall.
I’m so sorry.
Whether you swallowed the lies our government fed you about how you were going to save us from the scourge of communism; or whether you were drafted, knowing that you were being sent to fight a rich man’s war with nothing in it for us (or them) but death and heartache; your name is here on The Wall.
I’m so sorry.
I’m sorry I don’t know why you went to Vietnam.
I’m sorry I don’t know how you died.
I’m sorry that I wasn’t able to stop the insanity that came to be known here as the Vietnam War. Did you know that there it’s called the American War?
It’s been more than 50 years since you died on some battlefield or in some rice paddy or in a peasant’s hut, killed by a Vietnamese patriot defending his homeland from the American invaders or maybe by one of our own.
I’m sorry I don’t know your story.
All I know is that your name is on The Wall.
And I am so sorry.
I’m sorry, too, that your death, like the deaths of the other 58,306 names on The Wall, has taught us nothing at all.
Did you know that we’re still doing it? In Afghanistan, in Iraq, in Pakistan, in Libya, in Nigeria, in Yemen, in Syria, we’re still lying to ourselves and the rest of the world, still thinking that if we just kill a few more people not like us we’ll be safer and more secure.
I’m sorry it doesn’t work that way.
I’m sorry that I still haven’t found a way to stop the madness.
I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I’m sorry.
Durham, North Carolina (May 2017)