"The trumpet shall sound and the dead shall be raised and we shall be changed...Oh, death, where is thy sting, where thy victory? If God be for us, who can be against us?"Not too long ago I finished reading the utterly excellent "Dear America: Letters Home From Vietnam", as part of my continuing education into that particular war and the lives of the soldiers in it.
It is a collection of letters from a US military personnel that documents the war from the inside-out and it is a harrowing, powerful read that can't help but make the reader transfer his or her thoughts to those that currently serve in Iraq and Afghanistan...never mind the other brewing conflicts around the globe.
After each letter, which may be of the most mundane sort, or uplifting, or terrifyingly gripping, or just plain heartbreaking; you then discover the outcome for the author: whether KIA, WIA, MIA or currently working as a deckhand on a tugboat, or a financial manager for Pacific Bell. This acts as the punctuation and I found myself, as the end of each letter approached, rushing to discover what happened to the writer, hoping that, against all the odds they made it. Often they didn't.
The worst are perhaps those written by new fathers to their new children, not yet met, opening up their hearts with love for their not yet seen children, only to discover a piece of shrapnel ended any chance of father meeting son, or daughter meeting father.
The book goes on to be riddled with passages that level you, whether it be the words of Johnny Boy...
"I want to hold my head between my hands and run screaming away from here. I cry too, not much, just when I touch the sore spots. I'm hollow, Mrs Perko. I'm a shell and when I'm scared I rattle. I', no one to tell you about your son. I can't. I'm sorry."Or the hard-edged rhyming funnies of PFC Thomas F. Smith...
I love my flag, I do, I do
Which floats upon the breeze
I also love my arms and legs
And neck and nose and knees
One little shell might spoil them all
Or give them such a twist
They would be of no use to me
I guess I won't enlist
I love my country, yes, I do
I hope her folks do well
Without our arms and legs and things
I think we'd look like hell
Young men with faces half shot off
Are unfit to be kissed
I've read in books it spoils their looks
I guess I won't enlistOr the POW that survived some 6 years in captivity, writing fevered letters to his wife and family and making lists of what he would do if he was ever released, to only kill himself 4 months after being set free.
Amongst all the stillborn children, breastless women, old men stumbling in the dust, soldiers looting bodies, cookies from home, burning houses to the ground, pigeon-breasted fantasies, disowned veterans and dead best friends, there is this truth:
We are your sons, America
And you cannot change that
When you awake
We will still be hereThe last word both here and in the book is given to Eleanor Wimbish, in a letter to her son, as she visits that deep, black gash into the earth that is the Vietnam Veteran's Memorial...
"Dear Bill: Today is February 13, 1984. I came to this black wall again to see and touch your name and as I do I wonder if anyone ever stops to realize that next to your name, on this black wall, is your mother's heart."