Veterans Write About War and Peace

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Veterans
of War, Veterans of Peace
,
edited by Maxine Hong Kingston, is not the kind of book to pick
up casually and try to read through in a single sitting. I would
read a little, pause, stop, put it down — feel and think, come back
later.

Essays, poems,
and fiction from the Veterans' Writing Group comprise this book,
published by Koa Books. (Information at www.vowvop.org.)
The group began forming in the early 1990s, during Gulf War 1. About
30 people (never the same) usually attend the community's sessions.
During its dozen years there have been over 500 participants. I
appreciate having my essay "Sound Shy," about sound trauma,
included in the book.

I have heard
some of these stories before. But like a good song, they are worth
hearing again. For example, though I heard the punch line to Clare
Morris' humorous poem "Regulations" when she read it at
the Hawai'i Book Festival in April, I still laughed, even louder
this time. I could even see a satisfied smile on the Chinese woman's
face in the poem. I caught the title, this time, and made the connection
to the military, which is so full or regulations.

What a treasure
— writings by 80 veterans. Many served in the Vietnam War, at least
two in Gulf War 1 and some in the peace movement. What diversity
— various combat vets, a window washer, Red Cross worker, a judge,
physicians, deserters, survivors, a retired West Pointer, filmmakers,
people with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder — all between the same
covers. Don't expect agreement, but rather variety of thought, feeling,
and form. In addition to those from the United States, some of these
veterans were born in Vietnam, Cambodia, and Israel. Participants,
in one way or the other, in five foreign wars are included.

There are many
ways to read a book. I began reading this one through the biographies
of its authors. I wanted to know more about the people before reading
what they wrote. Who are these people? Rather than the usual sketchy
few-line bios trying to impress the reader, many of these bios are
a few paragraphs long and full of various feelings, including humility
and deep personal reflections.

Then I read
Kingston's brief, compelling introduction "Tell the Truth,
and So Make Peace." This book advocates peace by looking at
the realities of war as seen through the eyes of those who experienced
it directly. "All my life, I have wanted to keep soldiers safe
from war," she begins the book. Kingston describes what has
happened during the group's ongoing life, "The veterans needed
to write. They would write the unspeakable. Processing chaos through
story and poem, the writer shapes and forms experience, and thereby,
I believe, changes the past and remakes the existing world. The
writer becomes a new person after every story, every poem; and if
the art is very good, perhaps the reader is changed, too."

Kingston also
describes how the group's understanding of veteran evolved, "As
the writers became skilled in knowing others' points of view, they
enlarged the definition of veteran. A veteran could be a woman;
a veteran could be a deserter; a veteran could be a civilian who
had served in war; a veteran could have been a member of a street
gang; a veteran could be a survivor of domestic violence; a veteran
could be a peace activist. All manner of persons identified themselves
as veterans and came to join the regulars, who argued for a while,
then let every one belong. Wars affect all of our lives." Our
group has evolved in various ways over the years. A growing number
of women have joined us, including wives of veterans, widows, medical
practitioners, and some military veterans.

Then I skipped
some 600 pages to the book's last entry, "The Veteran Writers
Group," by Michael Wong, whose story of desertion from the
Army during Vietnam appears earlier in the book. Wong also appears
in the documentary "Sir! No Sir," about GI resistance
to the Vietnam War, as does the book's Keith Mather. Wong's description
of the process of the group provides a helpful context to understand
the intervening pages that are so full of painful and loving words:
"Much healing has occurred. Healing is a never-ending process,
and together we continue to find new insights and deeper levels
of healing." Wong provides the
online contact
for the group.

Michael Parmeley
writes about memory. He is in a hospital on crutches after being
shot in the leg and sees a Vietnamese man, "The face I am remembering
now, the face looking at me from behind the strands of barbed-wire,
I probably never really saw. Memory is like that. It adds things,
takes things away. It has its own reality, its own standards, and
its own truth." After the war Parmeley returns to Vietnam,
as do many vets in the book.

Veterans, and
other Americans, have a lot to grieve about these days. Doing such
grief work can be instrumental to the creation of a lasting peace,
which I believe is still possible. Grief and its expressions can
be pathways to healing and joy. Studies reveal that those who experience
trauma and then join groups to talk about it have better recovery
rates and are more likely to transform their wounds into gifts.

September
4, 2006

Shepherd
Bliss [send him mail] is a retired
college teacher who has owned a farm in Northern California for
the last 15 years. He has contributed essays and poems to 18 books.

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