More Than a Memory,
Reflections of Viet Nam
Victor R. Volkman, Editor
Modern History Press, 2009; 224 pages; $21.95
ISBN 978-1-932690-64-4; paper
by Susan Moger
The writers who contributed to More Than a Memory, Reflections of Viet Nam, edited by Victor R. Volkman (Modern History Press, 2009) grab us by the lapels, lean in close, and compel our attention. And "attention must be paid" (in Arthur Miller's words) to these stories, not only by those of us who lived through the Vietnam era, but also by those who know it only as history.
The pieces in More Than a Memory are not easy stories and poems to digest; it took courage to write them and requires a measure of courage to read them. But the rewards are many—an understanding of what war meant to these particular men; an appreciation of the abiding power of memory and of storytelling, and satisfaction in paying due attention to ordinary men who "lived to tell the tale."
The power of recall is a thread running through More Than a Memory. Prose or poetry, polished or raw, these pieces were written by men who know the truth of Marc Levy's words, "…whatever you did in war will always be with you. Always." (p. 206) Memories of homecomings, of killings, of betrayals, of flashbacks, and nightmares are told in rushed, awkward sentences, or short, stuttered phrases, in imagery-packed paragraphs or tight, heartfelt expletives.
The stories and poems are mirrors, in which readers are repeatedly challenged to see themselves. The most discomfiting piece, for this reader, was Tom Skiens' "Witness to Rape." The piece demands not only, "what would you have done?" but "what would you have had me do?" Skiens' powerful account of a rape spares the reader nothing. He describes the second-by-second reactions of the onlooker—including the hope that "God would fill these three grunts [the rapists] with a lifetime of guilt and shame and remorse."
But Skiens doesn't let us think that this was an isolated event. He includes the chilling statement, "As a result of this one experience I learned to recognize the sounds of rape at a great distance…Over the next two months I would hear this sound on the average of once every third day." Nor did the event described end in the distant past. "This event occurred in 1968 and it still has an impact on my…relationships with women."
But "Witness to Rape" goes further. Skiens includes descriptions of subsequent encounters with rapists…on film and in real life, among Vietnam veterans he met after the war. His piece ends with this challenge to readers: "…you had to be there to make a call."
I single out "Witness to Rape" because it represents both the undeniable power of these pieces and editing that occasionally lets writers off the hook with careless language. In Skiens' piece, for example, he writes, "I wonder about the gook chick" (referencing, years later, the girl in the first rape he describes) and "I wonder if the three grunts give a shit" (talking about the rapists now). This is first-draft phrasing that doesn't serve the story and that an editor should have questioned.
I single out three other pieces all very powerful that could have been even more effective with additional editing. I felt these authors, and all the authors in the book, were speaking directly to me, confronting me, challenging my assumptions and my complacency.
Tony Swindell says "Call It Sleep" (pp. 86-87) was "written in 1991 for Dr. Jonathan Shay…to document symptoms of post-traumatic stress." The piece, appropriately included in the section "Poems IV, describes nightmares experienced by the author and incorporates stunning sensory details—"blinding silent flashes"; "hot sand whipping against my face"; "buzzing sounds of shrapnel." The piece describes Swindell's experiences as of 1991. It would be useful to have a postscript in which Swindell or the editor addresses these questions: How did writing about these nightmares, this "literal hell…right in front of me" help the author at the time? Does he still have nightmares in 2009 and if so are they the same?
Richard Boes' "My Blue Block of Wood" (p.7) is another example of fine writing that would have benefited from copy edits and proofreading. A sentence like this one on p. 11 is confusing without correct punctuation: "Yeah, I was feeling anxious, afraid, guilty I think about coming home." And a capital "F" in "After" (last paragraph on p.11) gives an impression that the book was incompletely proofread pre-publication.
None of this detracts from the actual homecoming Boes describes. It is heart-stoppingly intense, a tribute to his powerful writing. "I felt this knot in my stomach like the whole fucking war was twisting up inside me…" Once home, Boes' narrator's memories of the war ambush him unexpectedly. For example, "…downstairs, Bugs Bunny [is] askin' "What's up, Doc?" Doc took one tiny piece of shrapnel in the temple sitting on his cot reading letters from home…" His comment, "This wasn't the place I thought home would be" is reinforced in the final paragraph after he threatens his young sister, seeing her as the enemy. He writes, "This fear [in the family's eyes], it's mine, I thought, from the depths of the dead and the missing….I'd brought the trauma home. I'm the fuckin' enemy here."
"My Blue Block of Wood" is a terrific choice for the first piece in the book. The reader believes him when he says "I'm the enemy here" and is ready to explore the reasons behind that feeling, in the pieces that follow.
If Boes' piece is a fitting opening to More Than a Memory, then Marc Levy's magnificent "Whatever You Did in the War Will Always Be with You" is a fitting conclusion—summing up and putting in a context the stories that precede it and allowing readers closure, a chance to move on and deal with wars of the present and future. It's a powerful combination of personal reflection and factual information about PTSD. From the opening paragraphs: "I'm kneeling. Tears streak my face, drip down, fall to earth. It's only my second time in combat…That was thirty-seven years ago. Or was it last night?" to the final chilling run-down of wars, past and present, Levy's "Whatever You Did in the War Will Always Be with You" is gripping, sobering, and as practical as a tourniquet on a spurting wound.
Levy's comprehensive list of "the symptoms of PTSD, in plain bloody English…" is an invaluable, plain-spoken summary that includes the following illustration of Denial: "Problems? What problem? I don't have a fuckin' problem." The summary concludes with a moving definition of PTSD: "These symptoms are normal responses to extraordinary events outside the range of normal human experience…" This piece should be required reading in every high school in the U.S.
All of Marc Levy's work in this collection is outstanding. In the case of "How Stevie Nearly Lost the War" and "Torque in Angkor Wat," his voice and his artistry reach the highest literary achievement. Both short stories address war and its aftermath in the author's masterfully controlled-yet-seemingly-out-of-control style. In "Stevie" Levy depicts a combat vet struggling through a typical post-war day that includes his approach-avoidance attempts to relate to a woman he seems to genuinely like. The various threads of the story—some hopeful, some sad, some crazy—marry past and present in a virtuosic linguistic brew that boils over in sentences like this: "Stevie's words jet from his mouth like thunderous out-going shells, like sleek napalm canisters spinning through air, like the pure pop pop pop of forty mike mike grenades fired by Cobras going in for the kill."
"Torque in Angkor Wat" is a disquieting travel tale, where the protagonist, a Nam vet, tours the ruins of Angkor Wat. The eternal beauties of the setting contrast with the turmoils of his inner world, which come to a head during a surreal scene where war memories and a Frisbee game intersect: "Howling with laughter, Jack picks up the Frisbee and tosses it to me. But I don't want to see it. Where are the foxholes? Where are the Claymore mines?…The war is everywhere and Jack is blind to it." Writing like Levy's lifts readers out of their comfort zones and into the scary heights it is impossible to be "blind to war."
"Kangaroo Court Martial" is in a category all its own (the authors are not listed in the alphabetical list of authors in the Acknowledgments) and needs editorial notations to be truly useful to 2009 readers. Notes to explain the context are essential for polemic like this. For example, what is the date of the account of the case starting on page 109? Why are an address and phone number for the ASU and a promo/price for The BOND included in this 2009 book? The account says the accused are "presently" serving time. An Editor's note or introduction would help readers who might think this refers to 2009. I'm sure other readers will wonder: What is the date of "An Appeal from the Brig," p. 119? What was the ultimate fate of Daniels and Harvey? Is the ASU still "the foremost organization of soldiers in the US Armed Forces"?
Regarding the arrangement of the book's contents, I found that the alternate prose and poetry sections (and the grouping of poems within sections) was useful and flowed well. The photographs that are included were welcome, but more, and more descriptive captions, would have been even better. Present-day comments on images of the past would have been ideal. For example, there are two pictures of Marc Levy (pages 50 and 71). I would be interested in his comments on the evolution of the man from age 19 in 1970 (p. 50 ) to the man who posed with an ex-NVA sapper and writer in 1998 (p. 71). (A note on layout: the photo of Marc Levy on p. 50 would ideally have appeared in a spread with his poem, "At Nineteen," on page 49, rather than on the page following.)
Another editing opportunity related to photographs: the photo caption on p. 87 focuses on the man in the center ("one of my buddies"), perhaps because he is the only one whose face is visible. But readers will wonder about the Vietnamese people in the foreground—why they are there, what they are doing.
I understand that several formatting issues have been addressed in the hardback edition of More Than a Memory.
Cavils aside, a rousing "bravo" to all the writers and to Victor R. Volkman for paying attention to their stories and collecting, editing, and sharing them with us.
Susan Moger is an award-winning author and freelance editor and writing instructor. Her novel Grace at War, about the impact a returning Vietnam veteran has on his younger sister, won first place in the 2008 Maryland Writer's Association Novel Contest (Mainstream/Literary category). It is based on extensive interviews and correspondence with Vietnam veterans, including women veterans. Susan is currently querying agents for representation.
Two of her short stories about the Vietnam War were published on the OpEd page of The New York Times in 1973 and 1974. More recently she has published a short story in the Bellevue Literary Review. In 2006 her book, A Poem for Every Day!, a poetry anthology, was published by Scholastic Teaching Resources. She has published four other books with Scholastic, including Teaching the Diary of Anne Frank (EdPress Award 1999), which will be reprinted in September 2009.