In grad school, I decided I would write a nonfiction book entitled ‘Inheritance’ about the consequences—biological from Agent Orange, and psychological from PTSD—of the Vietnam War. I began the project with Debra Marquart, an Iowa State University professor and published poet, and continued through a workshop with New York Times bestselling author Benjamin Percy. Percy still taught in Ames—he had not yet begun writing about werewolves. I left open the possibility I would discuss depleted uranium and Gulf War syndrome.
There is more than one instance where I have been invited to travel to Asia and the Indian subcontinent. At the University of Northern Iowa, a student from Nepal suggested I consider a trip to his home country, whose main industry was once tourism. Nepal sits in the Himalayan Mountains. My friend’s name means ‘Heart of God.’ When I showed him an example of my work, a poem describing my father’s combat experience from Halloween of 1966, lines which appeared in the official literary magazine of the United States Air Force, with graphic images of violence and suffering complete with swear words, my friend told me I was an angry young man. Then he invited me to Nepal. Perhaps he thought the prayer wheels and monasteries near Katmandu would calm me down.
Just before I graduated from Cedar Falls, a Vietnamese student moved in to the apartment next door. When I told him my father fought in the War, he said his father fought too, but for the Viet Cong. His uncle was killed in action, and his father suffered a debilitating head injury. Since I question almost every veteran or child of a soldier I know who served in that conflict, I asked this student what Agent Orange had done to his family. He said it is difficult to grow crops now in his homeland. He also talked about how some American veterans travel back to the country they spent a year hacking through with a machete, and he asked if my father and I would be interested in returning to Vietnam. I once watched a network special about veterans flying across the sea to the site of the 1965 Battle of Ia Drang Valley. My father was through there the year afterward, where there were still bodies with flesh on bone. I knew my father was in no mood to revisit the past. The most stunning view he ever saw in his life was of the snow-covered Rocky Mountains in early spring on his first plane trip, which took him around the Pacific Ocean’s Ring of Fire to Pleiku.
It was Halloween Day when I moved out of UNI. The child of Vietnam said he was sad to lose a good neighbor. I introduced him to my father, who told the student that Vietnam was a beautiful country, but he was just there at the wrong time. Long ago, my father had helped his platoon secure an area in the jungle so an Army General could safely fish. “How about that?” he asked his parents after telling the story in one of his letters home. Twenty-years-old, he could die for his country but he could not vote. He was old enough to appreciate hypocrisy. Sometimes he saluted officers in the field just to make them mad—the enemy liked to target leaders, and an officer certainly did not need a soldier pointing out his rank.
Since my neighbor planted the idea in my head, it has experienced great trouble growing into a plan to visit the country of Vietnam. The soil is unclean. Something that is never born cannot rot, but as a human I am forced to imagine what could have been, even if it can never happen. As Baudelaire wrote in a poem about how boredom is the worst sin of all, “We spoonfeed our adorable remorse.”
Certain civilizations see spirits in every living thing. The idea itself of attempting to measure the contamination in Vietnam carries a weight. The idea of life being worse than this—whatever ‘this’ could be—is crippling. War is whitewashed by saying there are things worse than war. Birth defects among the citizens of Vietnam and the veterans who fought on both sides of the conflict whisper—or perhaps it is the murmur of the ghosts in our genes, the ones that cause the deformities—how there are so much better evils to worry about than cancer in Indochina. And what could we do about the problem anyway? The ones who caused this are too powerful now, and they feed us.
I considered entitling my book ‘The Last Soldier of the Republic,’ but that makes it sound as though the fight is over, or the journey has ended.