first posted on April 16, 2010
Someone gave my nine-year-old nephew an M1 helmet to play with. The M1 was the combat helmet used by the United States military from World War II to 1985. The M1 was also the helmet my father wore in Vietnam.
I text messaged an outraged protest to my sister. “You should throw that helmet in the garbage. Better yet, you and your son should destroy it together. You should burn it.”
My sister responded, “Is this about our father? I don’t have a father. He’s an asshole.”
My father was an asshole: that’s true. But it wasn’t his fault. He suffered–and still does–from shell shock and survivor’s guilt. Almost his entire platoon was wiped out in a firefight. Only he and two others made it home. He was shot in the leg. He was awarded a purple heart and a bronze star for bravery with valor.
When I was a little boy, he always thought he was still in the jungle. He often heard helicopters. He used to sit in the yard and watch the trees—probably scanning for snipers. His eyes were always startled. His wide pupils were fixed in paranoid attention.
And when it rained in the summer, say a late New Jersey August, and the environment became more jungle-like, my father would claw at his chest in panic. Summers were violent in my house.
“No!” I was typing furiously into my iPhone. “This is not just about our father. This is about the war I’ve been studying and speaking out against my entire life. This is about the war that destroyed our family. And I just think that.”
She cut me off with a brief text: “Are you ok? Do you need to talk?”
I suffer from clinical depression and generalized anxiety disorder because of the abusive parenting of my war-crazed father. As a result, my family thinks I’m made of porcelain. They check on me. They worry I’m “getting sick again.” When I call my mother to say hello, she always answers with, “What’s wrong?”
I know they do this out of love, but it isn’t very loving. It’s insulting and hurtful.
It hurts me because they have no idea who I am. It’s apparent they’re mostly ignorant of my values.
They don’t know that I’ve written for New Jersey Peace Action, or that I’ve marched on Washington. They especially don’t know that I’ve been a practicing Buddhist for over ten years. I took formal Tibetan Bodhisattva vows. I considered becoming a monk.
My family doesn’t know what Buddhism is, or what Bodhisattva vows are, or how significant these decisions were to me. They don’t know I have vowed to work for peace always. They don’t know I have made a deep philosophical commitment to education. I feel it’s my human responsibility to help dispel the suffering of ignorance. They don’t take me seriously. To them, I’m crazy Charlie. And until now, I’ve just tolerated it.
But that helmet is a line for me. That helmet offends me as a second survivor of the Vietnam War and as a war scholar. I’ve studied the state lies behind wars. I’ve studied the psychological aftermath, the creative catharsis, the poems of the wars I lived with—hot and cold. I’ve written against war.
As a child, I was physically beaten by war. I tried to grieve this with my disabled father when I was in my twenties. He took me to the VA hospital for lunch once. I listened to the few horror stories he was willing to tell. We cried together—a little. I told him I wanted to mourn with him, that I wanted to grieve the theft of both our childhoods. He didn’t understand. I moved to explain, but then—out of the corner of my eye—I saw a man whose face was bleached pure white and burned by chemical weapons. I just looked up from my coffee and saw him. He had no lips. He had no eyelids. He had no hair. His face—his entire head—was a giant white scar. He looked like a dying vampire. I was startled.
When he caught me staring—I couldn’t help but stare—he ran from the cafeteria in shame. I sobbed on my father’s shoulder. I was shocked and ashamed of myself. My father awkwardly soothed me. He told me to never support a war. I haven’t.
I wonder how that disfigured man would feel if he saw my nephew wearing that helmet—the same helmet he was wearing when he lost his face?
I know it makes me feel alone. Living with a psychologically shattered veteran taught my sister nothing about war, it seems. She will focus on denying the tragic American legacy of my family—the damage that a war did to all of us—while her son carries on the old lie of war glory.
I can’t play along. I learned from the war poets—Wilfred Owen, Randall Jarrell, Bruce Weigl—there is nothing fun or playful, sexy or glamorous, or glorifying about war.
I know that war is always the sacrifice of the poor, in the name of the self-aggrandized arguments of the rich. And I know viscerally that war sends shockwaves of trauma through a family—through several generations of a family. War trauma is cross-generational. I am living proof of this, as are my sister and my mom. Yet, they put an M1 helmet on that child’s head.
So many have forgotten the government deceit and the shredded minds. The capture of Saigon by the Vietnamese ended America’s war in April 1975. By that time, the Pentagon Papers had been leaked, and everyone was reading the volumes of officially documented lies behind the Vietnam War. Thirty-five years later, to the month, the peace movement struggles on, and so many have forgotten.
War is patriotic again. Military video games are cool. My nine-year-old nephew is forced into a public school uniform. And my country is bogged down in two new wars. The drum beats on. The horror.
My parents divorced when I was ten. My father disappeared soon after. Twenty-seven years later, war is still a cancer in my family. The horror.
I feel like an exile and an orphan.
The Mourning After: for my father
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