Hard truth: Rufus and the Vietnam War Memorial

This essay was written in 1982 for Westward magazine.


I was standing in the wind before the black marble wall of the Vietnam War Memorial the day before the dedication ceremony. Surrounded by the crowd but completely alone as I found your name – Rufus Hood – the first of so many best friends I’ve had to bury along the trek that brought me here. I was weeping softly, politely, staring at the wall and trying to hold myself together.

The picture that got me was of us sitting out on the fire escape back of the barracks at Fort Polk. High Louisiana summer at Polk. Let’s see, we came in on the 4th of July 1967. You were killed 8 January ’68. That means you only had about six months left on Earth when I knew you. I thought about that, and I remembered how you had this thing about my handwriting, and how you used to dictate all these randy letters to your ladies, and how I’d copy them out longhand and sign your name with a flourish, like on the Declaration of Independence you used to say.

I told all this to a guy from the Big Red One, who had seen me having trouble and come up to help. He coaxed me through it, even closed in to give me cover in case I needed to hide my face. I didn’t.

I mean, that day at the wall there were all kinds of people overcome, each in his own private ritual, with emotions that for years they’d had no time and place to feel. There was a guy from some outfit that had taken heavy abuse, lighting candles before a dozen names on the wall, and a group of Sioux from South Dakota danced by for their dead. And a lot, I don’t know how many but a lot, of people like me, just standing and weeping. And when the guy from the Big Red One saw I was going to be able to do this alone, he took my hand in a thumb-to-thumb Sixties Soul Shake and said, “Welcome home, brother.”

Now, Rufus, ordinarily that scene would be way too honest for Washington, D.C., but there were 100,000 of us in town that week, all hard-looking middle-aged men in cammies and field jackets, a presence that demanded watching just by being there. We could make up our own rules, you see, because there wasn’t anyone around to tell us it was unseemly to cry, unmanly to comfort each other. If we were doing it, then it was proper and right, by definition.

We had all come to mourn men we’d known for a few weeks, months at most, more than a decade ago. Between us we’d buried 57,939 best friends, and now we’d gathered in their names. That may have puzzled outsiders, and that day anyone who hadn’t been to ‘Nam or fed a brother, son, or husband into the war was an outsider. But no one felt the need to explain it: In a generation known for its commitment to causes, we were the only ones who’d staked lives, fortunes, sacred honor on ours. So the attitude was, if you didn’t understand what was happening here in your guts, bones, very soul, then explanations were useless. That felt really good, Rufus, not to have to explain.

I got to tell you about that. See, there was more to the war than just fighting it. I mean, that was just practice. After the war, or after we’d DEROSed, we were scattered like dandelion seeds, and this great freeze settled in on us. We carried our ghosts in silence, for there was no one to tell it to. They – not the enemy, but not exactly friends, either – they still treated us like children, for one thing. Hell, we were children, practically. Teen-agers with old men’s eyes. And, if you talked about it at all, people kept wanting you to explain things that were obvious to anyone with one eye open, or they sat there like stones while you tried to make some sense out of the things that counted. Like naming the dead. And we were alone, with no one there to back us up, to say, “That’s right, listen to the man.”

I got out of the Army and enrolled in college the same day. Straight shot from Fort Polk, where I did my terminal tour, and where I learned you’d been killed. Anyway, I was in school, maybe three weeks after mustering out, this one morning in January when I was walking to the Student Union for breakfast. It was so cold it hurt your lungs. There was this kid out front, shivering in a flannel shirt and no jacket, passing out leaflets denouncing the war. I was going inside where it was warm, so I pulled off my field jacket – which at the time still carried all my colors – and gave it to him to wear while I was inside. I mean, that’s what you’re supposed to do when you see a kid in the cold. Right, Rufus?

Anyway, I came back and he was still there, and we chatted while I got back into my jacket. Then this friend of his came over, pimply kid in a Navy pea coat with a Chairman Mao button. He looks at the patches on my field jacket like he’s just found a clue at the scene of the crime.

“Hey, were you in ‘Nam, man?”

“Yes, in ’68.” Like he’s going to know what that means.

“Did you ever kill anyone, man?” He asks this like a deputy associate district attorney. They all asked that, sometimes as an indictment, sometimes just for titillation.

“Uh, no, I was a combat philatelist. I collected enemy stamps.”

“Now this is what I call a real pig, man,” he says, turning to the kid I’d loaned my jacket to. “I mean this guy doesn’t even care.”

That was bad flashback, Rufus. I still get them, thinking about all the crap I had to take off these kids with their Mao buttons. But what else can you do, you know? Punch out one of the little buggers and you’re just making their point. And besides, you don’t go around hurting people for what they think. It’s not that important. It’s just important enough that when you choke it down, it stays there in a hard knot and never goes away.

There were lots of knots like that untied in Washington during veterans week. We didn’t talk much about the combat, which was different for everyone: some were grunts who’d lived on the edge the whole time, some like me who had just seen institutional craziness. We talked mostly about the homecoming, which was the same for us all. Don’t get me wrong, Rufus, I’m not complaining, certainly not to you. I would have come smiling home to drought, famine and a plague of locusts just to get out of ‘Nam with my hide and my honor intact. My hide was preserved, but if you weren’t careful you lost the honor as soon as you got back to the World. We had to take the rap for losing the war and for all the sins and excesses pursuant thereto. Either that or start turning on each other, blaming our buddies. I still have people telling me to my face, people who are old enough to know better, that the whole thing was a farce and I was an idiot to have gotten into it.

You can take that if you’ve had practice, if you know how to skate the old Zen razor, to control the scene an instant at a time. I mean, I didn’t have that much invested in the war: I only saw my death coming close a couple of times. Mostly for me it was just arrogant brass, babbling staff officers, vile weather, vermin, rodents and a Dear John. I can blow that off … okay, maybe it was all for nothing.

But if I accept that, I also have to accept your death as waste, Rufus. I can’t do that. And even if I could, I’m not going to. And that explains the Wall. This was something we did ourselves. The first thing we all did together. Maybe the first step toward setting things right, toward getting the outsiders straightened out and squared away.

The government, older and wiser as they were, had given us a monument across the Potomac in Arlington Cemetery. A GI standard Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, one each, like the ones for the wars they’d been in. But it’s an empty monument, Rufus, because we have no unknown soldiers. Somehow the older and wiser missed that point. We may be the first American army to lose a war, but we’re one of the few armies since Homer’s time to name all our dead. So we started finding each other a couple of years ago, led by former Spec. 4 Jan Scruggs, and built our own monument, to all our dead individually and severally. And we put it in the most hallowed ground we could find, between the Washington and Lincoln memorials, so no one’s going to forget your name Rufus. Not while Washington, D.C. is standing. By God.

Which brings us to the gathering. That gathering itself was history, Rufus. You could feel it. I don’t know where it fits, but it’s going in there somewhere. People’s history, not politics, a sort of Vietvet’s Woodstock. It frightened people. It even frightened me, at first. Scruggs, who’d come home from a tour as a grunt in the 199th Light Infantry Brigade to do graduate research in psychological trauma among Vietvets, said it even frightened him.

It needn’t have. Oh, it’s true a lot us had trouble handling the freeze, and skated off the razor into self-destructive meltdowns. A lot of the heavy combat victims, guys who’d taken the fry bigtime, had to do it in little pieces, skimming over for the time being and going back later to act the whole ordeal through. Like happens with nightmares: you tamp the terror down for the moment, then bring it back up again when you’re asleep, undistracted, and can face it full on. It’s a hard drill. They say there were as many deaths from suicide as from combat, and I believe it. And a lot of trouble handling jobs, keeping families together, all the problems that arise from having your energy directed inward, which is what you do when you’re carrying a heavy load of rage and you’re public spirited enough to keep it choked down.
Of course, practically nobody noticed us doing that. It was another unacknowledged achievement of our Army, maintaining solitary silence all those years, avoiding the pimply kids who clustered around like flies every time we spoke up. So instead of talking to us, the press mostly reported the same things it had reported on while the war was going. So what you got was this stream of studies that showed conclusively, based on a sampling of 35 or 50 or 116 or however many it was, a sampling of ‘typical’ Vietnam veterans, that all 2.8 million of us were sick and violent and ready to explode into gross violence at any moment. You know, “Vietnam veteran holed up in local apartment. Film at six.” They’re still doing it. And all this time, we’re scattered, and I imagine a fair number of us figured well, I’m harmless, but maybe everyone else who was over there is really a ticking bomb. I mean, it wouldn’t be the weirdest thing to come out of ‘Nam.

Rufus, we blew that stereotype to hell in Washington. The emotion was running high-volt, high-amp from the moment you got on the plane to go. If anyone was going to freak out, it would have been there and then. And no one did. We wept and marched and partied. We talked through pain we’d been carrying our whole adult lives. We abused substances, damn near drank Washington dry, got real loud and real sweet, but we were never dangerous.

I was sitting there in the hallway of the Sheraton Washington, at the reunion of my old outfit, the 9th Division. Down the hall was the Americal. The two outfits had taken over the second floor. There was this guy from the 173rd Airborne – I had his name but someone borrowed my notebook and never found me again – and we were sipping brew and passing smokes, just being brothers, talking this kind-of-Vietnam shorthand, compressed speech that really isn’t speech at all, but a reel-to-reel arching across circuits we’d all found fused into our crania.

He’d been to Dak To. I told him all I knew about Dak To was that coming home, a one-year tour nearly to the day after the battle, that two-thirds of the people on the plane were 173rd, obviously replacements for casualties a year earlier, and that you could read in that that Dak To must have been a real meat-grinder. “Yeah, you got it right,” he says. “That’s all there was.”

That was all we said about the war. We talked mostly about feelings, discovering on every turn of phrase how much we had in common.

“I told my old lady, ‘Honey, I got to go to Washington’,” he says. “And she says, ‘What you want to go up there for and bring all that up again?’ and I says, ‘Honey, you don’t understand. I got to go’.”

“There it is, brother. Same thing at my house. She didn’t understand why, but she could see I had to go.”

This was the second night, Saturday, the day of the parade. We’d marched ten blocks, about 15,000 of us, with people lining the streets six, eight, ten deep, cheering for us, Rufus. I mean, none of us ever in our lives expected to hear that sound. It was sweet; sweeter still was being among the brothers. I’ll probably hurt some feelings by saying this, but since Washington, their esteem is all that counts. They are, after all, the only ones who have proved themselves.

And by that night, outsiders started flashing to this, too, after seeing how fine we were, how we took care of each other. The first night, Friday, the outsiders kind of kept their distance, slipping down the halls, eyes darting around for trouble that just wasn’t there. By Saturday, the party had changed from a wake to a reunion. Sammie Davis, a 9th Division Medal of Honor winner, was there playing his guitar while his wife sang for us. And the outsiders started getting sucked into it: there were children wandering around, listening to our stories while their parents drank our beer; a Japanese businessman came out to listen to Sammie play; there were even a couple of school teachers in their 50s, in town for a convention.

“I’m sure glad we found you boys,” one of them told me. “Your party’s sure a lot more fun than ours. This is the nicest place in Washington to be.”

And it was, by God. Being around people who not only wanted to help but who knew what to do. I mean, here we’d been told, at best, that we were forgiven for being the lowest humanity could sink, and we discover that an inordinately high number of us have showed up in nurturing professions – nursing, teaching, counseling – and all performing on demand, carrying each other through sorrow and anger like we’d carried each other through malaria and trauma wounds.

I’ve been thinking about that a lot, Rufus, trying to pin down what makes us different. I think I’ve about got it figured out. What happened to us in ‘Nam was that we saw the truth. We’d gone over there with a head full of Children’s Crusade ideas, and we’d all gotten them blown away, totally and utterly. Remember John Wayne’s version of the war, the Green Berets? Remember where he walks off into the sunset, holding the Vietnamese kid’s hand, telling him, “You’re what this war’s all about.” Well, what would he have done if the kid had thrown a grenade at him? What would the war have been about then?

I had to ask those kinds of questions, as I sat there in the briefings, listening to the staff planning the evacuation of Khe Sanh around how it would look on television. Talking for hours, while we lost one Rufus Hood a minute. It popped all the illusions like so many soap bubbles: they preached duty, honor, country, and they practiced greed, fear, ignorance. They tried to sell us manhood after the General Patton/Vince Lombardi model, which meant winning, and making someone else lose. And they spent flesh and blood like subway tokens for something as vague as National Honor.

Some guys were blinded by the light, and they came home burnt out and wasted. I saw it with your eyes and that’s what saved me. You probably wouldn’t even remember the day we were coming back from the rifle range. It was the day after we’d pulled off the bandages on our feet and those silver-dollar-sized chunks of hide came off with them. The day they let us ride in the Jeep to give them time to heal.

I still recall the moment, maybe a dozen times a day: dust from the boots, heat from the sun and sand and asphalt, a real convection-oven of a day. The Jeep was trailing the company to police up sunstroke victims, with about five of us stuffed in the back, and little Jimmy Crotts up ahead of us, falling farther and farther behind the column. Remember Crotts, 80 pounds wringing wet, no one could figure out what he was doing  in the Army? And that big fat lieutenant – what was his name? – bullying Crotts along, kicking him to his feet every time he fell.

I thought I was going to have to restrain you from running up to that lieutenant and ramming your M-14 into the first orifice you came to. I mean, Rufus, I saw rage, first time I’d ever seen you mad, about 20-years-at-hard-labor’s worth. I tried to explain the basic-training concept, and the chain of command, and all that other airy intellectual crap, and you looked at me like I was crazy and said, “No, listen carefully white boy, there’s nothing happening here but a big old dude bullying a poor little fellow.”

So when I got to ‘Nam and had my childhood burned clean away I had something to fill the vacuum, that fragment of truth you left me like a legacy that day on the road: that you have to watch the people. Nothing else is real. What’s good for people is good, what’s bad for people is bad. And you never, repeat never, let yourself sacrifice people in the worship of concepts. It’s so obvious that reverence for people becomes a definition for sanity.

But if you bring that definition back to the world, you’re really screwed. People here babble about principles and precedents. Like the kid in college: He’d try to make sure your ideology was correct, but it’d never enter his mind to give you his coat. I mean, the twisted, greedy, vicious lunacy runs so far and so deep you find yourself shrinking from it, you want to just dig in, barricade yourself somewhere and hide.

Well, we don’t have to do that anymore. Since Washington, the impulse to cherish and protect that was the high point of ‘Nam is back in vogue. We got a chance to reverse the trend that runs through this whole century, where the warriors have won the wars and the politicians have lost the peace. This time the politicians lost the war, and it’s up to us to win the peace.

That old obsession with macho – the eyeball-to-eyeball ethic that got us into Vietnam and made it such a horror – just has to go. We’re the ones wearing all the medals, and when the country was in a jam, we’re the best they find to pull it out. We don’t have to be men of steel. Steel is strictly 19th Century: we’re some weird new space-age alloy that doesn’t melt in the heat, doesn’t shatter in the cold, doesn’t lose flexibility no matter how many different ways you screw it around. Just the sort you need to get everyone else into the 21st Century.

I think we’re going to pull it off, Rufus, as soon as we get used to the idea of setting the standard. It took ‘Nam and the long freeze to get us in shape for it. That gathering in Washington was the first sign that we’d won. It was a terribly expensive way to rehabilitate the American man, but if it gets us out of the trap we’re in, it may be worth it. So you didn’t die for nothing, Rufus. You saved me, man, Rest easy, now.

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