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