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Larry Heinemann's story: a war of words

Update: September, 02/2012 - 14:49

 

Award-winning American author Larry Heinemenn served as a combat soldier for 12 months during the war in Viet Nam. Since then, he has penned two novels and a memoir based on his experiences during that time, and in 1987 he won the US National Book Award for Fiction. And now, more than four decades after exiting Viet Nam, Larry Heinemenn opens up about his career as a writer, and his relationship with Viet Nam during a special interview with Nguyen Phan Que Mai.

Inner Sanctum: Mr Heinemann, how have your experiences as a combat soldier affected your life?

It has been 44 years since I returned from the Viet Nam War, and I don't think a day goes by that I don't think about it; in a nutshell, I was party to a great wrong.

It certainly affected my marriage, the way I raised my kids, my world view, my approach to work, my attitudes about politics and social issues and how the world works. I don't own a gun; I won't tolerate firearms and won't have one in my house. I don't like what guns mean, and though there are plenty of folks in the US who cherish their right to own guns, I have always thought those people should simply grow up.

The war affected my writing in that there is no reason to shy away from stories that may upset people just because they might not be able to deal with the subject matter. I have a reputation for being blunt, and that's okay. I tell my students, never leave anything out.

I raised my kids to be kind, considerate of others, empathetic, and (most importantly) non-violent.

Inner Sanctum: How did you become a writer?

I became a writer because I had a story, not the other way around; I didn't have a lifelong ambition to be a writer, or go to war in search of a story. In 1968, I returned from the war and went back to school. I really didn't know what I wanted to do. I took a creative writing course, and on the first night of class I explained that I had just got back from the war, and wanted to write about it. Before our second class the teacher came up to me, and said that if I wanted to write about the war that I should read these two books; and he gave me his copies of The Iliad and War and Peace. That took a solid year, and when I was reading I was thinking to myself, "How am I ever going to top that?"

I wanted to tell the story of what I'd seen, what I'd done, and what it was I had become. Being an ordinary soldier is the hardest work I've ever done. War, for an ordinary combat soldier, is physically and spiritually exhausting. And my personal experience is common, both during and after.

Sometimes, as a writer, you are given a subject and you have to do the best you can with it. When I started writing, I did not know that the war in Viet Nam was going to consume my whole writing career.

I came to be a writer because I had a story that no one else had; a story that would not go away (and hasn't gone away in 44 years, mind you).

Inner Sanctum: Could you tell our readers about your two novels (Close Quarters and Paco's Story)?

Close Quarters is the story of Philip Dosier, a common soldier in a mechanised infantry battalion. The mechanised infantry used armoured personnel carriers (M-113s, what we called ‘tracks'), they were 13 tonnes, and armed with a.50 calibre machine gun, and two M-60s; a track is basically a moving bunker. Dosier is assigned to the reconnaissance platoon. The story follows him through his entire tour, which ends with the Tet Offensive of 1968. The novel is a reflection of my own tour as a soldier, though it is distinctly fiction. It is the story about the downward path to wisdom.

Paco's Story is the story about Paco Sullivan, and what happens to him after he returns from the war. He is horribly wounded in a large firefight that kills everyone else in his company. He arrives in the small town of Boone and finds a job as a dishwasher. The story of his distinctly ambiguous relationship with the townspeople is told by the 93 ghosts of those killed at Fire Base Harriette. As a matter of fact, the ghost story seems to be a sub-genre of fiction, both American and Vietnamese, that emerged from the war. The fact that there are many ghost stories about the war in Viet Nam speaks to the peculiar and particular dynamic of the war; ghost stories, indeed.

Inner Sanctum: How long did it take you to write these novels? Which was the most difficult?

My first novel took about eight years. I had never been a very good student, and during the first several years I was consumed with reading every war story I could get my hands on from The Iliad and War and Peace to the literature that emerged from World War Two and Korea; American literature, British, German, Russian. I was also reading bonehead grammar books and dictionaries to perfect my understanding of the rhetorical technicalities of grammar, spelling and punctuation; if a story is poorly told, then no one will read it. Writing a first novel, especially about war, well, it takes time to find the language and a way to tell the story; ask Kurt Vonnegut or Joseph Heller, or, for that matter, Bao Ninh. The one-year combat tour is dramatic, but the problem always was my determination to not be sentimental, to not rely on polite euphemisms, ambiguous metaphors, or ellipses. In the late 1960s and early ‘70s there was broad permission for language, subject matter, and point of view, and my writing benefited from that.

Paco's Story also took about eight years. Among writers there is such a thing as the ‘second book letdown'. That is, after pouring all that energy into the telling of your first novel, the second is likely to be diminished. So, I felt that I could experiment. I had been reading a good deal of post-WWII beat literature and Conrad's Lord Jim. It seemed to me that returning veterans have unique challenges to overcome, regardless of the war or its purpose, beginning with rediscovering your own sense of humanity and your connection with the rest of the human race. As a soldier you develop what modern psychologists call ‘combat psychosis'; basically, you become a functioning psychotic. We were not pleasant people, our work was not a pleasant business; we simply were not fun to be around. Paco's Story deals with the extremes of physical and spiritual destruction that ordinary soldiers have always endured. What to make of all that heart-killing madness or overwhelming ugliness.

Inner Sanctum: Were you trying to paint a realistic picture of the horror of the war with Paco's Story?

The short answer is yes. The writing of both novels came out of a deep sense of being betrayed by my own government, also a deep bitterness and furious anger; the bitterness and anger, which linger to this day, are qualities I also share with many another veterans, regardless of the war; it seems to be part of the aftermath. My editor at Farrar, Straus&Giroux once asked me about the bitterness that bubbles up in the novel, and I told her that I wanted to take the war and shove it up somebody's ass. The cliche among us soldiers was that we were the unwilling doing the unnecessary for the ungrateful. And I felt, especially with Paco, that there was absolutely no reason to leave anything out. It is true that the battle scenes and instances have been heightened (for clarity's sake), but that's true of any novel.

The aftermath of a firefight or a battle is always ugly; there are no exceptions. There is an undeniable ugliness that can only be described as appalling; it is those moments in a soldier's life that are most remembered and lingered over – and, sadly, internalised. I wrote the rape chapter in Paco's Story because I wanted to write a body count story that no one would ever be able to top, and whether the rape and murder actually happened is beside the point. Actually, every once in a while someone accuses me of being a rapist, or at least committing a war crime – murdering the girl; I take such accusations as a compliment to my writing. The rape, of course, is appalling, and I am told that such things did occur, but I also know that they were exceedingly rare.

Inner Sanctum: You have said that Bao Ninh, a northern Vietnamese soldier, is the brother you were supposed to have. What do you think about his novel, The Sorrow of War?

His novel was a revelation to me, as it was to many Americans. The Sorrow of War is one of those rare books about the war that readily brought tears to my eyes. It was, as the saying goes, close to the bone, heartfelt, and complicated – like any good story. That special sorrow of soldiers, ‘impacted grief' some have called it, is the one thing that all the veterans of that war share, and in abundance. It is the special feeling that all soldiers have shared from every epoch of war. His novel seems especially touching for its expression of humanity.

Inner Sanctum: Recently, in 2012, you returned to Quang Tri and visited the Truong Son Cemetery. It must have been a powerful experience.

There are those places in the world that are irrevocably transformed because of what happened there. Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, comes to mind – the site of the most horrific battle of our Civil War. The massacre at Wounded Knee on the Pine Ridge Sioux Indian Reservation in South Dakota in 1890. The Somme Valley in France, where during WWI, the British Army suffered 50,000 casualties in one day (it is the record). Hiroshima and Nagasaki, cities in Japan which suffered complete destruction when the only atomic bombs ever used in war were dropped. There are many such places in human history.

I repeat, there are those places in the world that have been transformed because of what happened there, and Quang Tri is one of those. During the Second Battle of Quang Tri the Americans and southern Vietnamese used 80,000 tonnes of artillery and bombs, killing 10,000 men, women, and children. The town of Quang Tri was obliterated. The Citadel has been transformed into a memorial park, complete with a tall and elegant shrine.

The day we were there was chilly and damp, and it rained on and off. Walking around the park I swear that I could feel the screams and the pain coming out of the very soil, the grass. And while everyone else toured the museum there, I paced around outside, as good as absorbing all that. It is an unutterably sad place.

And then came the visit to Truong Son Cemetery where buried are northern Vietnamese soldiers who were killed on the DMZ and the Ho Chi Minh Trail. I had visited it before on my first trip in 1990. On that first trip I brought my medals and ribbons, intending to leave them somewhere, and the Truong Son Cemetery seemed right. In what I thought was a private moment I found the grave of a guy who was born the same year as I and killed in 1968. I took a long pause there, thinking about his life and mine, and then put my medals on his stone.

I can only speak of these places in this way. In 1853, Chief Seattle of the Suquamish Indians of the Pacific Northwest spoke eloquently of the sympathetic touch that he and his brothers and sisters feel when they walk the land, literally able to sense the spirit of their ancestors.

As I walked around the memorial ground at Quang Tri and, again, among the thousands of graves at Truong Son, there was that sympathetic touch, and sensitivity to the spirit of thousands of murdered human beings. (It is the same at the Viet Nam memorial in Washington.) It provokes an undeniable up-welling of grief and an unutterable sadness. — VNS 

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