I met an older gentleman at church last Sunday who served in Vietnam. The conversation actually started with the current opiate epidemic in America. I said unfortunately thousands of young men came back from Southeast Asia hooked on heroin. He saw many soldiers smoking weed in order to cope with the horrors of what they were being asked to do, but did not personally see any servicemen using heroin. He was aware that it was going on. He related how he was able to avoid the hell of alcoholism and drug addiction that took hold of countless young men.
I became great friends with a minister who lived across the street from my parents for several years before he and his wife, also a minister, returned to Santa Barbara, California. He related to me the horrors of serving in the Vietnam war. He was a sergeant, and said several of his men died in his arms. In the interest of his traumatic experience and his privacy, I will not give any further details here. I will simply say I was shocked to see that he made it out alive, and is living a life of love and service, in full commitment to the Lord. My uncle also served in Vietnam. I know from family conversations that it was very hard on him. I never felt comfortable asking him to divulge the details. He died several years ago after fighting non-cancerous lumps in the back of his lungs, immune deficiency, and kidney failure. He’d been on dialysis for years. My aunt was told his death was due to exposure to Agent Orange. She receives an additional widow’s benefit specific to his exposure.
My conversation with the fellow churchgoer regarding heroin use among the troops in Vietnam made me think of Air America. Air America was an American passenger and cargo airline covertly owned by the United States government as a dummy corporation for the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). The National Security Agency farmed out the airline to various government agencies. Air America was used by the U.S. government covertly to conduct military operations, posing as a civilian air carrier, in areas the U.S. armed forces could not go due to treaty restraints contained in the Geneva Accords. Air America’s slogan was, “Anything, Anywhere, Anytime.” The airline flew many types of cargo to countries such as the Republic of Vietnam, the Kingdom of Laos, and Cambodia. It operated from bases in those countries, and also from bases in Thailand, and as far afield as Taiwan and Japan. It also on occasion flew top secret missions into Burma and the People’s Republic of China.
Air America flew civilians, diplomats, spies, refugees, commandos, sabotage teams, doctors, war casualties, DEA officers, and even visiting VIPs like Richard Nixon. Air America moved tons of food, water and livestock into villages devastated by Agent Orange, as well as ammunition and other materials for troop support. During the CIA’s secret war in Laos (you might remember Nixon’s secret bombings), the CIA used the Hmong population to fight local rebels. The Hmong happened to depend on poppy cultivation for hard currency. Amazingly, poppy has been used for trade in commerce for centuries. When rebels captured the Plain of Jars in 1964, the Laotian air force was unable to land their transport aircraft for opium transport. They had no light planes that could land near poppy fields to load opium. Consequently, the Hmong were facing economic ruin. Air America was the only airline available in northern Laos. Air America began flying opium from mountain villages. How can we not think some of that opium smuggled out of Laos by the CIA ended up as heroin on the streets of America?
THE REASON I BROUGHT THIS UP
I have become captivated by the history of America’s war on drugs. Sometimes, during research, we get led down paths we never expected. This is what happened when I started looking into heroin and Southeast Asia. I found a wonderfully written, haunting, vitally important piece of literature written by Tim O’Brien called The Things They Carried. I began reading, and I was there, in the jungle, with my uncle. With the gentleman from my church. With the men in the story. This was no Full Metal Jacket experience. It was not like I was watching Platoon or Hamburger Hill. Please understand me: Those movies do a great job, as does Saving Private Ryan relative to World War II. This book, however, is literature. It’s like a living, breathing journal. I could not stop reading. It’s been several months since I’ve done a book review, and this is sort of like that, but it’s more like a peek inside a piece of literature that captures the daily life of soldiering in Vietnam. The scene where I pick up the action is graphic, so please be prepared. I don’t make political statements on this blog, and I will not do that in this post. This is more about heroism, service, dedication, obedience, fear, and the raw experience of hell on earth. It’s about literature. Robert Louis Stevenson said, “The difficulty of literature is not to write, but to write what you mean; not to affect your reader, but to affect him precisely as you wish.”
I know what I want you to think, to consider, to feel, about this issue. I would love to hear your feedback. Maybe you know someone who served in Southeast Asia. Perhaps you have a family member or loved one fighting ISIS in the Middle East or the Philippines. Don’t stay silent. If this post sparks an emotion, post your reply. Literature at its best provides us with a blueprint of human civilization. It should remind us of what we’re feeling inside. It should provoke us. Literature plays the vital role of preserving knowledge and experience and passing it on to our successors. Literature might even make us ask the big questions: Why are we here? Who are we? What are our responsibilities? In the instant case, The Things They Carried causes us to think about the idea of war. Is war ever just? What does it mean to be noble? When should we help another nation? When is it proper to back away?
I thought you should know that this book is as much memoir as it is literature. O’Brien served in the 23rd Infantry Division.
From The Things They Carried.
The things they carried were determined to some extent by superstition. Lieutenant Cross carried his good luck pebble. Dave Jensen carried a rabbit’s foot. Norman Bowker, otherwise a very gentle person, carried a thumb that had been presented to him as a gift by Mitchell Sanders. The thumb was dark brown, rubbery to the touch, and weighed 4 ounces at most. It had been cut from a VC corpse, a boy of fifteen or sixteen. They’d found him at the bottom of an irrigation ditch, badly burned, flies in his mouth and eyes. The boy wore black shorts and sandals. At the time of his death he had been carrying a pouch of rice, a rifle, and three magazines of ammunition. “You want my opinion,” Mitchell Sanders said, “There’s a definite moral here.” He put his hand on the dead boy’s wrist. He was quiet for a time, as if counting a pulse, then he patted the stomach, almost affectionately, and used Kiowa’s hunting hatchet to remove the thumb.
Henry Dobbins asked what the moral was.
Sanders wrapped the thumb in toilet paper and handed it across to Norman Bowker. There was no blood. Smiling, he kicked the boy’s head, watched the flies scatter, and said, “It’s like with that old TV show, Paladin. ‘Have gun, will travel.'”
Henry Dobbins thought about it.
“Yeah, well,” he finally said. “I don’t see no moral.”
“There it is, man.”
They carried USO stationery and pencils and pens. They carried Sterno, safety pins, trip flares, signal flares, spools of wire, razor blades, chewing tobacco, liberated joss sticks and statuettes of the smiling Buddha, candles, grease pencils, The Stars and Stripes , fingernail clippers, Psy Ops leaflets, bush hats, bolos, and much more. Twice a week, when the resupply choppers came in, they carried hot chow in green mermite cans and large canvas bags filled with iced beer and soda pop. They carried plastic water containers, each with a 2-gallon capacity. Mitchell Sanders carried a set of starched tiger fatigues for special occasions. Henry Dobbins carried Black Flag insecticide. Dave Jensen carried empty sandbags that could be filled at night for added protection. Lee Strunk carried tanning lotion. Some things they carried in common. Taking turns, they carried the big PRC-77 scrambler radio, which weighed 30 pounds with its battery. They shared the weight of memory. They took up what others could no longer bear. Often, they carried each other, the wounded or weak. They carried infections. They carried chess sets, basketballs, Vietnamese-English dictionaries, insignia of rank, Bronze Stars and Purple Hearts, plastic cards imprinted with the Code of Conduct.
They carried diseases, among them malaria and dysentery. They carried lice and ringworm and leeches and paddy algae and various rots and molds. They carried the land itself — Vietnam, the place, the soil — a powdery orange-red dust that covered their boots and fatigues and faces. They carried the sky. The whole atmosphere, they carried it, the humidity, the monsoons, the stink of fungus and decay, all of it, they carried gravity. They moved like mules. By daylight they took sniper fire, at night they were mortared, but it was not battle, it was just the endless march, village to village, without purpose, nothing won or lost. They marched for the sake of the march. They plodded along slowly, dumbly, leaning forward against the heat, unthinking, all blood and bone, simple grunts, soldiering with their legs, toiling up the hills and down into the paddies and across the rivers and up again and down, just humping, one step and then the next and then another, but no volition, no will, because it was automatic, it was anatomy, and the war was entirely a matter of posture and carriage, the hump was everything, a kind of inertia, a kind of emptiness, a dullness of desire and intellect and conscience and hope and human sensibility. Their principles were in their feet. Their calculations were biological. They had no sense of strategy or mission. They searched the villages without knowing what to look for, not caring, kicking over jars of rice, frisking children and old men, blowing tunnels, sometimes setting fires and sometimes not, then forming up and moving on to the next village, then other villages, where it would always be the same. They carried their own lives.
The pressures were enormous. In the heat of early afternoon, they would remove their helmets and flak jackets, walking bare, which was dangerous but which helped ease the strain. They would often discard things along the route of march. Purely for comfort, they would throw away rations, blow their Claymores and grenades, no matter, because by nightfall the resupply choppers would arrive with more of the same, then a day or two later still more, fresh watermelons and crates of ammunition and sunglasses and woolen sweaters — the resources were stunning — sparklers for the Fourth of July, colored eggs for Easter — it was the great American war chest — the fruits of science, the smoke stacks, the canneries, the arsenals at Hartford, the Minnesota forests, the machine shops, the vast fields of corn and wheat— they carried it like freight trains; they carried it on their backs and shoulders — and for all the ambiguities of Vietnam, all the mysteries and unknowns, there was at least the single abiding certainty that they would never be at a loss for things to carry.
O’Brien, Tim. (1990). The Things They Carried. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin.