I went to war for this country.
I hate that I went to war for this country.
My American war ruined my life.
I work hard to find anyone who gives a damn.
As a kid, I played war and reveled in dirt-clod heroics.
As a teenager, I fought in the American war in Vietnam.
In middle-age, I ran from my memories and tried ineptly
to heal the suppurating mind-scars.
Now, in old age, I stand vociferous against war,
against war’s inundating acid torrent. I weep at war’s relentless,
dismemberment of life, its disembowelment of being.
I hate—to the dregs of my heart—all war, all war-making.
My words are caustic, inelegant, intentionally and painfully direct—
steaming scat at your pretty dinner parties. I chose them to be.
Other poets are graceful word swans, beautifully flicking forth flumes,
diaphanous brocades of the finest in quotidian life. I’m duck-ugly—
gawky and ungainly at refined word-smithing. I’ve thought
of making my poems funny: maybe I will make everyone laugh,
then surreptitiously slip in a seriously different way of being …
maybe I will use funny spoons, clacking in rhythm …
maybe I will hire twin midgets playing tiny twin trombones …
maybe I will lease the Marine Corps Band to play Jimi’s
Star Spangled Banner and have them, at finale, smash
their instruments in one grand,glorious gesture of defiance.
Ah, but none of this is me.
I’m an angry American veteran, a voice writing madly what I know,
seeking to excise love of country and human ideals
from pompous patriotism and sanguinary selfishness.
How did I get here?
I want you to know …
Spring 1968: Khe Sanh, Rowen & Martin’s Laugh-In, the USS Pueblo, the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and, of course, the Tet Offensive. Sacramento, California: I am 17, a senior in high school; white kid who grew up in blue-collared, conservative-Christian America. I enlist, going on active duty two weeks after high school graduation: U.S. Marine Corps, semper fi! A Man! – by instant American mythology.
January to July 1969:I arrived “in country” Vietnam, January 9, and get assigned to B (Bravo) Company, 1st Battalion, 9th Marine Regiment, 3rd Marine Division, in I Corps, just below the DMZ. Our nickname was “The Walking Dead.” My MOS—Military Occupational Specialty—was an M-60 machine gunner. My first operation was Dewey Canyon, a sweep south through the A Shau Valley, where the Ho Chi Minh trail comes back into Vietnam from Laos—six weeks of constant dread, fear, death, and jungle. Leeches suck—clothes shred—we go without food—we carry our dead—jungle rot eats to the bone on both my shins. Months of bad combat ahead.
Late July 1969: I’ve survived so far and now I get tremendously lucky! I remain with Bravo, 1/9, when Nixon includes it as he pulls out the first 25,000 troops from Vietnam. (You had to be more than halfway through your 13-month tour and I had just crossed off month seven!) I was getting out—out of the bush, out of the country! Alive and, physically, unharmed.
July 1969 to January 1970: We shipped out of Da Nang harbor aboard Navy troop ships—OMG! Fresh water and daily showers!—and landed at Okinawa, training as a ready-reaction force. I came down with malaria in Manila: I listen through the wonderful glaze of my med-induced hallucinogenic stupor to the monkeys playing in the green and palmed courtyards, swaying to south Pacific breezes. I shipped home after 13 months overseas and took a 30-day leave.
February 1970 to Fall 1970: I am assigned to Marine Barracks, Headquarters Marine Corps, 8th and I, Washington, D.C. The company does ceremonial duties at the White House and Blair House; weekly dress parades at 8th & I and the Iwo Jima Monument, in addition to security at Camp David, the presidential retreat. The district is thick with anger and anti-war sentiment. My Lai hits the news. William Calley is arrested. The shootings at Kent State and Jackson State shock me deeply. I think long and hard about deserting to Canada.
Fall 1970 to Spring 1971: Nixon appoints a Navy Admiral—Thomas Moorer—chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. I’m picked to become his orderly: walk his briefcase in and walk his briefcase out. I join Vietnam Veterans Against the War (VVAW). I am investigated by the Defense Intelligence Agency and have my Top Secret security clearance taken away. I take this opportunity to file for a discharge as a conscientious objector.
April 1971: VVAW stages its historic three-day anti-war demonstration on the Mall, west of the U.S. Capitol. I wear the jacket from my dress blues—a large embroidered cartoon character hand-stitched on the back. Still on active duty, I return my combat and military medals to the U.S. Congress. Nixon, hurt politically by the authenticity of the VVAW, jerks away international press coverage by inflaming the MIA/KIA issue. (I still can’t see that black and white flag without my blood pressure rising in anger.)
May 1, 1971: I am honorably discharged as a conscientious objector. I am 20 years old. I start college in the fall, studying religion at Anderson College in Anderson, Indiana, trying to fit in. The scars were already showing up, but I wasn’t seeing them.
In my mid-50s, post-trauma jerks my mind backward, and I begin to know the trail of litter I have left behind: three marriages, two affairs, deserted sons, multitudinous jobs, distracted dreams and wasted meanings, zero retirement. All this, muddled together with shards of anger, hopeless love, resentment, hope, impatience and, from a warped conservative Christian upbringing, misunderstood carnality. War taught me to feel fierce force everywhere. War conditioned me to breathe hyper-vigilant states of anger, fear, distrust. I would look around my narrowed world and blearily see others, less embattled than I, set the unblemished sails of their lives for cashmere horizons and glistening goals. I look up and see my life-sails pierced and ragged by bloodied bone chips, blasted fragments of life, grisly sprays of blood and brain, piss, shit, and madness.
Now, in old age, I accept that I stand forever bathed in war’s dirty light, my throat and thoughts forever knotted to a titanium lamppost designed by Homeland Security to withstand a direct hit by a terrorist’s dirty bomb. I know my neck is noosed for life with a hangman’s knot. My ’60’s mates are gone—into releasing death or well- paid corporate life, sub silentio; middle-class America has been pimped off by an all-volunteer military of the poor, the immigrant, the dumb, and the politically blinkered. The brute elites—pretty and well-coiffed in their grey suits tailored—enter their banks, laughing amongst themselves over their latest 24/7 mass market manipulation. My battles—they tell me, when they deign speak—are non-existent, self-chosen, delusional. Life is good, brisk, easy-in-Tahiti, for those smart enough to work it. To hell with the rest, they whisper, smiling.
If the toxic words of my poems hurt you—and I want them to pierce deeply—figure out why. But you need to know I ask of no man, no woman, permission to carry this stake through my heart, traipsing across America’s plush white carpeting, splashing sloppy blood and bowel with hard angry steps. I am trying—with an intent for which I am truly willing to die—to scribe upon every American’s mind, heart, eyes, and hands, a true picture of how we cause so much pain and death worldwide. I know deeply I can—you can—we can stop war with nothing more than singular hard work to halt nationalist gore and the people who ignore their blind-eyed role in its perpetuation. I don’t mourn the combat dead: I mourn the civilian living; mind-dead and fatted on force-fed lies; I mourn for the future of the living, those numbed to the unlearned lessons of the available past.
For me, I refuse to let my combat in the American war in Vietnam be the signal event of my life. Millions died and millions more were injured for lifes—generation after wounded generation. Children, including my own sons, grew up in chaos and death and weary, lonely, soulful sadness because of our uncritical acts of ugly, human idiocy. I willingly accept this debt I owe them—all of them, both Vietnamese and American. I vow to die for peace worldwide: That will be my repayment.
Where are the Joseph Rotblats? Where the Mordechai Vanunus? Why are we not cloning all the Gene Sharps we can? I ache for more humans like Alice Herz, Norman Morrison, Roger LaPorte, Nhat Chi Mai, Florence Beaumont. But my old age blunts my blades of fierce fight and steals my small tools of anti-warfare. My last weapons are refusal and will and they too are fading. I hone what small steel I have left on the black angry granite where I have rebuilt my thunderous soul.
We don’t have peace because we don’t want it.
Yes, that simple.
If we wanted it, truly and deeply,
we would rise up and make it.
Copyright Tim Bagwell 2013