This is not going to be a diatribe for or against the war in Iraq. The impetus for this post is the Vietnam novel, Fields of Fire, by James Webb, that I just finished reading. In an earlier post blogaway: Jim Webb's Books--Literalness vs. Literacy, I described feeling surprised that the fictional efforts of Mr. Webb, now Senator-elect from Virginia, were used against him in the recent political campaign. I reported feeling the need to have read at least one of the books in question before writing any further on the matter.
I just read the last chapter and was pondering the message of the book which I take to be that war is rife with moral ambiguity. And somehow that led to thoughts of the meaning of a nemesis.
War is not my personal nemesis. In fact, it has scarcely touched me or my family. My siblings and I, my parents and grandparents have all missed any direct contact with wars or the military. I somehow spent my childhood blissfully unaware of the Vietnam War. I am not sure if this is because my parents protected me or if I was just unimpressed due to my youth. Being a woman, I have never feared being drafted which at times angered the feminist in me. Now I am probably too old to be required to go to war.
But our country is again at war, and in a war whose justification will be debated for many years to come. Perhaps the most important lesson of Vietnam is that all wars should henceforward be questioned closely.
The Vietnam War touched me personally only second hand. I spoke briefly of it with my second cousin who was a combat veteran. He is much older than I and was reticent to go into details but I had a sense that he carried his burdens with difficulty and always would. Then, some years later, while training in Psychiatry, I worked at a Veteran’s Hospital.
Many of the vets I treated were from the Vietnam era. I learned there to honor them for their service and was privileged to hear their stories from time to time. Both my cousin and the vets I met at the hospital had their ugly side. They could be cynical, cruel and contemptuous of women. Many were drug and alcohol abusers. Some of the vets were homeless. A few lied about combat experience to get more benefits or to share in some glory they felt they lacked. It was sad that at times we had to check records to prove that some alleged war hero had never left U.S. soil.
In Field of Fire, as in the Vietnam War itself, nothing is as is should be. A hero dies unrecognized saving one who betrayed him. Good and evil walk so closely together that they are inseparable. Little about the war is noble except perhaps the loyalty of one soldier to his fellows. Men who dream of returning home, find they cannot. The people they are fighting for revile them.
Webb’s book is lyrical and frightening. It is not easy to read and haunted my dreams. It is perhaps no more violent than a Stephen King novel but its violence is more real. One of Webb’s characters, a Vietnamese soldier, muses: “War is as natural as the rains. There are years when there is no war and there are seasons without rain. But always war and rain return. There is no difference. It is the nature of things.”
I hope war is not as inevitable as the rains and that some day it will cease to be the nemesis of humankind. We have conquered smallpox and someday, maybe, malaria and AIDS. We seem all the more helpless against ourselves and our own nature.
If an author’s character can be predicted from a novel, then I found nothing to warrant a vote against Mr. Webb and much to admire. Read his books and look through the latest crop of stories coming from the war in Iraq. We owe it to ourselves, our veterans, and our children.