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Winning Hearts and Minds 50 Years On
O, we were so damn clever and full of ourselves. Nowadays, Vietnam veterans feel lucky to live to retirement age and not be stricken by cancer, heart disease or some other damn malady from exposure to Agent Orange and other military follies.
Some of us tried to tell America when we came home that things in sunny Southeast Asia were not so rosy as portrayed in official pronouncements and the news media. It took years to find fellow Americans willing to hear what any of us had to say. So bewildering war experiences stewed in our brains and bodies’ startled responses to life events and night sweats—until a barrage of rage burst out, in drunken curses, flying fists, squealing tires, or—if we were lucky—published stories and poems.
That is the genesis of a collection of writings that I helped to edit and publish as the war was officially winding down in 1972, called Winning Hearts & Minds: War Poems by Vietnam Veterans. One of the outbursts in that book was a poem I’d jotted down that tried to convey an unwanted, unheralded war souvenir.
The Longest War
The longest war is over
Or so they say
But I can still hear the gunfire
The longest nightmare
Never seems to
That poem and others in WHAM, as we called that anthology, were reprinted in The New York Times, Chicago Sun-Times and many other publications across the country, including the Friday Review of Defense Literature, circulated at the Pentagon. That book, published by ourselves with the help of fellow vets and friends, launched the writing careers of a number of contributors who forged distinguished careers in journalism, education, medicine, law, government service, business and other enterprises. A novel by WHAM contributor Gustav Hasford, for instance, sparked the war film Full-Metal Jacket.
“Winning Hearts and Minds touched the lives of thousands of people and made them better for it. It touched my life, leaving me with a permanent fascination in the power of words. It made me want to be a poet – not just a doodler or a hobbyist, but a writer. It opened the way to the life I have lived ever since,” writes W.D. Ehrhart, who’s the author of 20 books including, most recently, Dead on a High Hill: Essays on War, Literature and Living, 2002-2012.
“The success of WHAM was so undeniably wonderful. It found readers and purchasers and believers. It was timely. The splendid review in the Sunday NY Times Book Review was only a small portion of it; excerpts appeared on the op ed page of daily NY Times as well. Does poetry ever appear in any major newspaper now?” notes Michael Casey, author of Obscenities, Check Points and other poetry collections.
“I was de-cluttering my basement and found my copy of Winning Hearts and Minds. I bought it in a small bookstore in Rochester, Mn in 1973 a few months after getting out of the Army. It cost $3.95. I love this book and the poems. It was very helpful in the post-war years trying to figure out what was going on with me and has been a tool in my own attempts at writing,” notes Tim Connelly, author of The Agent Orange Book of the Dead and other works.
Winning Hearts & Minds was born out of intense discussions in 1971 initiated by Larry Rottmann, who wanted to publish a collection of writings by Vietnam veterans, and included Basil Paquet, myself and others involved in Vietnam Veterans Against the War. In another room at the VVAW offices in New York City, an intense “rap group” of vets huddled to create an action plan for something that was hard to name, but was later officially called post-traumatic stress disorder.
Unable to find a publisher, we decided to do it ourselves and start with a poetry anthology, followed by other books. We named our publishing collective 1st Casualty Press, after an old saying: “the first casualty of war is the truth.” Our publishing house was my apartment in Brooklyn, NY. Our funders were fellow vets, family members and friends. Our literary contribution was to describe the war we’d waged, and still raged in us, in our own words. When the war ended, we still had plenty to say, which led to compiling a sequel, Demilitarized Zones.
Due to the hurricane that upended the New York metro region, a 40th anniversary celebration of publication of Winning Hearts & Minds was postponed last fall. The new date is February 9. Besides commemorating a book of poetry that tackled nightmares of the Vietnam war, the event is a fund-raiser for Warrior Writers, a writing workshop program for veterans of Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere in the Global War on Terror.
Readers at the WHAM event include Bill Ehrhart, myself, Gerald McCarthy and Peter Mahoney, contributors to Demilitarized Zones, the 1976 sequel; Warrior Writers Nicole Goodman, Justin Jacobs, Jennifer Pacanowski and Eli Wright; and veteran poets Allen Hinman, Jim Murphy, Walt Nygard, Dayl Wise and Walter Zimmerman. Tamra Hayden, an extraordinary Celtic singer and musician, will join us.
Many of the veterans of our latest wars are women, who have their own take on the often unspeakable experiences in war and its aftermath that civilians at home have a hard time acknowledging. Here’s one of the poems by an Iraq war combat medic who will be participating in the WHAM happening:
The funeral procession from Syracuse airport to Ithaca NY was over
50 miles long,
Dragging his dead body through town after town of people, families and
children waving flags.
The fallen HERO had finally come home.
I wonder how many children who saw this will someday want to be dead
I did not wave a flag that day or any day since my return.
I still can't help but think that could have been me, but it wasn’t.
The hero was hit by a suicide bomber on a motorcycle, struggled to live
but didn’t make it.
That was not me.
I was missed by IEDs, bullets, mortars, RPGs.
Is it luck?
Was it training?
Was it GOD?
Was it the Devil?
Why did I survive only to come home to a war with an invisible enemy
in my own skin?
I live in a dream called my life. Where the good things don't seem real
I live in the nightmares of the past called Iraq and PTSD that never run
out of fuel.
Is it better to be a dead hero?
Or a living fucked up, addicted, crazy veteran?
Suicide rates soar, but no one calls them heroes.
So, on this day, I'm going to have my own parade for those brave young
men and women that killed themselves.
I was not brave enough to follow through and I admire them.
These dead decided they couldn't live with who they became, who they
are, accept what happened or find healing.
The barriers and obstacles that they weave through, while carrying the
burden of war, consumes them with despair and failure.
And their actions are branded on the soul as reminders of what they did
These failures are punishable by death.
To those who were able to escape death in a combat zone like true
But could not thrive in a society that does not understand them or
help them understand themselves,
I wave my motherfucking flag.
The parades run every 80 minutes, blood drips from the small towns to
the big cities, the grief consuming millions of miles.
Than I wonder,
WOULD those flag wavers ask....
Why are we there?
Why are we at war?
Why are the soldiers and marines killing themselves at home?
What have we done?
How can we stop this?
Or would they just duck their heads and wave their flags?
For the dead heroes.
The 40th anniversary celebration of Winning Hearts & Minds: War Poems by Vietnam Veterans is Saturday, February 9, at 7 p.m. at Puffin Cultural Forum, 20 Puffin Way, Teaneck, NJ. For directions, see the Facebook events page: https://www.facebook.com/events/446231955425079/
Writing the Way Home
What makes this book decidedly different from so many other gifts this holiday season is three-fold: its handcrafted artistry by young men and women who turned sleepless nights and troubled days into making art with hands that for too long held war weapons; its funding by dozens of supporters who collectively chipped in thousands of dollars to pay for the printing and postage; and its timing—published just as the war in Iraq was officially declared over and the last US military units departed that war-savaged land.
Here at home, a great many veterans of deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan are trying to turn off unrelenting war memories. Some try chasing off nightmares with hard drinking, drugs, death-defying lifestyles. Some find nothing seems to work. As Zach LaPorte, a former Army Ranger who served twice in Iraq, writes in a poem titled “Spliced”:
My life is like a slide show, spliced with images of the desert.
Mom asks me if I like the potatoes,
A woman shrieks from a bloodied mouth.
My Professor hands me an exam paper,
I’m riding in the door of a Blackhawk.
I walk alone at night past neon signs,
Crimson tracers snap so close you could touch.
I sit in my air-conditioned cubicle,
The blood in my brain boils.
The scars run deeper than they appear.
LaPorte’s poem is a troubling, yet heartening example of what the Warriors Writers project and this anthology are about: writing war images and injuries out, releasing them to the light of day, shared with those who care, aired to help heal hidden torments that long ago were called “soldier’s heart.”
"It's hard to overestimate how writing can heal long scarred over wounds that every veteran inevitably has,” Josiah White, a former Marine who was wounded by a suicide bomber, writes in a quote displayed on the back cover. “These stories and poems also have the power of communicating a near impossible message to non-veterans, those hurt by war, those hurt by tragedy, anyone who has ever suffered and asked the question ‘why?’ No one will read this book and come away unchanged."
With the 10-year war in Afghanistan still raging and flailing dangerously into Pakistan, this book raises veterans’ concerns that extend far beyond the mission in Iraq that just ended. In the Foreword, Brian Turner—author of one of the first poetry books to come out of the war in Iraq, Here, Bullet—writes that the works in this anthology “seem to suggest that we would be wise to take stock of where we are now, as a country.”
Many of the pieces in this collection by more than 60 contributors focus on an incident that triggered disconcerting change in perspective in the midst of military life. In a poem titled “Happy Birthday,” Zachariah Dean writes about suddenly realizing he just turned 26 as death whizzes by in the middle of a firefight in Afghanistan in which his rifle is jammed by a defective bullet. Scrambling to fix the rifle, it hits him how carelessly he’s led his life to end up in such a desperate jam. "I wrote this in a hurry in a machine gun turret several nights later,” he notes in the poem, stunned by the surreal experience. “Try to burn it out of memory by putting it on paper…"
Others focus on trying to find a thread that may bring deeply sought change for the better in a veteran’s life. In a sardonic welcome home for himself and other veterans, Garett Reppenhagen wrote in a poem titled “Black Out Drive”:
“Heeeey, welcome home brother.”
Just grip that wheel hero.
Stay alert, stay alive.
The real war has just started,
Your fight to survive.
Jacob George, who served three tours in Afghanistan with the Army, reaches out to fellow Americans in a poem titled “Support the Troops”:
don’t thank me for what I’ve done
give me a big hug
and let me know
we’re not going to let this happen again
because we support the troops
and we’re gonna bring these wars to an end
Unlike collections of writings by warriors of previous wars, women veterans take a prominent role in this anthology. Air Force veteran Kristina Vogt captures the bizarre military bureaucratic mumbo-jumbo that she describes as, from a female perspective, creating “the womb of the WoMD” (weapons of mass destruction)—the official reason for invading Iraq, which became as illusive as a desert mirage.
“I am the savage,” writes Emily Yates, who served two combat tours in Iraq, describing bursting into “proud homes” looking for elusive enemies, where women and children “stand in the doorway with fearful faces,” while she the armed American soldier wields “the weapon of ignorance … the shield of arrogance,” speaking with “the voice of entitlement….”
Former Army sergeant Robynn Murray, in a poem titled “Eviscerated,” throws the disillusionment of serving in terrorizing raids on Iraqi civilians directly at war supporters back home:
I am your walking wounded broken toy soldier,
and your flag is burning and all your yellow ribbons have fallen down.
I cut open these festers to force your eyes to see the truth so damn it, LOOK!
Look at what has become of me, of us.
I will gladly reopen these wounds if there is change that will come of it.
So that no one else receives these scars. …
Woven throughout the poetry and essays in this collection is an arresting gallery of often startling artwork. These include an American flag made of bullet casings (“Bullet Flag” by Lars Ekstrom); a toy soldier inside a prescription bottle (“Trapped” by Malachi Muncy); and a drawing of a walking skeleton with flaming oil derricks crowning the skull (“Greed Walks” by Eric Estenzo).
Many of the works in this book address post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Chantelle Bateman, a Marine veteran of Iraq, writes about “anger is the color I sometimes paint the town with … louder than incoming and the sirens they play when I hit the deck … I’m just a pile of tears needing to punch you”. Another former Marine, Jon Turner, punches at everything in sight in Iraq and back home in a string of explosive, insightful, drunken, cold sober images of human encounters, rejections, attempts at reaching out that ends with these lines:
In the unwritten letters and poems—
are the hidden faces of war
Several pieces reach breathtakingly out of inner turmoil to find an uplifting path. “I desire to trust life,” writes former Marine Liam Madden, “to cultivate my unique and needed gifts/Loving with abandon/ I intend to weave a web of gratitude into my community.” His poem “Intention” is the first in the book, followed by a wide array of perspectives drawn from a decade of war. The last poem is called “Brio,” in which Army veteran Maggie Martin, who served twice in Iraq, joins others in various civic actions:
I sow community in re-acquisitioned places,
Crowded city street, marching orders, protest song,
Our hands and mouths’ unsinkable strength.
Old constructs crumble and blow away,
new consciousness takes root.
The concluding section showcases photos of veterans at Warrior Writers workshops in cities around the country, accompanied by a quote by Eli Wright, a former Army combat medic: "I used to write before I went to Iraq, but when I got over there, I wasn't able to write. So through Warrior Writers I have been able to slowly begin to find my words again and share my experiences and what happened over there. It's been a healing experience."
The nearly 200-page anthology was compiled and edited by Lovella Calica, the director of Warrior Writers, which is based in Philadelphia, PA, with the assistance of a number of contributors and supporters. I aided the project as an advisor and copy editor. The book was artfully designed by Rachel McNeill, an Army veteran who included thought-provoking photos shot on patrols in Iraq by herself and others. A series of drawings and paintings titled “Dust Works” by Army National Guard veteran Aaron Hughes provides a visual theme of roads through war on the cover and throughout the book.
After Action Review (paperback, $20) is the third in a series of anthologies of writing and art by Iraq and Afghanistan veterans published by Warrior Writers, and is available at www.warriorwriters.org.
"Shot and directed by first-time filmmaker Sara Nesson, POSTER GIRL is an emotionally raw documentary that follows Robynn over the course of two years as she embarks on a journey of self-discovery and redemption, using art and poetry to redefine her life," notes the publicity material on the filmmaker's web site: www.portrayalfilms.com.
I first met Robynn at a Warrior Writers workshop in New York City in March 2009, where she was working hard to write a better chapter in her life. That event was my first encounter with the excellent creative and healing work of Warrior Writers. Check out their web site (www.warriorwriters.org) for more information about their programs and Robynn Murray's writing. My introduction to both is described in my newsletter article "Writers at Work."
Writers at Work
Writing is an essential nourishment for writers. “I felt so much better doing that,” an Iraq war vet turned poet and playwright said, exhaling as though he’d just pumped oxygen into his muscles by jogging around the block, after jotting down some thoughts during a writers’ workshop the other day. Earlier, one of the participants blurted out, in an agitated tone, that he felt out of sorts because he hadn’t written anything lately.
I’ve been jotting down random thoughts and observations on scraps of paper and in pocket notebooks since I was a soldier in Vietnam. But my writing was undisciplined and often frustrating until I became a working journalist. So I was delighted to be invited to an unusual workshop that’s been traveling around the United States to assist veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to tell pent-up stories.
The Warrior Writers workshop and evening reading at the City University of New York Graduate Center revived memories of the early 1970s, when I worked with a small group of Vietnam vets and supporters to put together a poetry collection titled "Winning Hearts & Minds: War Poems by Vietnam Veterans." We published the book ourselves out of my apartment in Brooklyn and then hawked it at readings at colleges in New York and around the country. Asked for my comments during the workshop on Monday, I said that collaboration with other vets to convey our experiences and views through our writing was the best education of my life.
This workshop was equally informative. “People don’t know what women do in war,” said Robynn Murray, a slim young woman wearing an array of nose rings and an Iraq Veterans Against the War T-shirt. “I was a machine gunner for 10 months in Baghdad.” Then she read a journal entry about getting home and suddenly crying while driving with her mother. “I couldn’t tell my mother [why], because I was scared she’d see what a monster I’ve become and not love me any more.”
Whistling outbursts of breath and supportive gestures and comments shot around the conference table at CUNY’s graduate school on 5th Avenue, where about a dozen veterans were huddled with Lovella Calica, director of the Warrior Writers Project. Also at the table was a set of volunteer writing coaches that included Emily Mann, artistic director of the McCarter Theater in Princeton, NJ, and David Gothard, a director at the Abbey Theatre Dublin, who also works with a writers’ workshop in Derry, Northern Ireland, the Kasser Theatre at Montclair State University in NJ and the Theatre Writers’ Workshop at the University of Iowa.
Mann, who wrote a play about a Vietnam veteran’s home front problems ("Still Life"), said she was fascinated by the way Calica uses idea “prompts” to set a mood for the veterans to do productive writing on the spot. The first prompt—“Where are you today?”—set off a flurry of writing in journals, notebooks, or on pieces of handmade paper crafted from sliced up military uniforms. The Warrior Writers Project sparked the Combat Paper Project, which has been a thought-provoking, uniform-shredding sensation at colleges across the US in the past year. The writing workshops have produced a chapbook and an anthology of poetry and artwork ("Warrior Writers: Re-Making Sense").
The Combat Paper Project was started in 2007 in Vermont by a small group of artists and veterans who have conducted workshops from Cape Cod to California, creating art works that have been purchased by major museums and libraries, bringing both a source of funding and social affirmation. “These workshops serve as a catalyst for insight and discussion, as well as psychological release,” stated the program note for a recent exhibit at the Firehouse Gallery in Burlington, Vermont.
“This has saved my life,” said Jennifer Pacanowski, an Army veteran who has participated in a number of the writing and papermaking workshops in various locations. She said she feels isolated in her hometown in Pennsylvania, where there are few other Iraq war veterans to get together with. Some of the other veterans traveled from Vermont, upstate New York and even more distant places to participate in the CUNY workshop in Manhattan. The day of events included an evening reading in the Martin E. Segal Theatre of some of their work and a new play, "Returns: A Meditation in Post-Trauma," by a former Abu Ghraib interrogator turned conscientious objector, Joshua Casteel.
Gothard talked about working with Casteel, a theater student at the University of Iowa, to develop what began as email messages into a play. Both he and Mann encouraged the veterans to develop a regular habit of writing, to jot down memories, experiences and ideas in raw form and then work on refinements. “This is his first play,” Gothard said of Casteel’s drama about an Iraq veteran beset by brutal memories of fellow soldiers and an Iraqi man they tortured during interrogation sessions, an experience that drove one of the GIs to suicide. “It’s incredibly courageous. It also is what we look for in theater,” he said of the play’s moral dilemmas. The play was read by student actors from Montclair State and Florida State, with stage directions narrated by a recent Princeton grad with the New Jersey Repertory Company.
“You don’t really come back. Things come back with you,” one of the characters says. “My family didn’t understand,” he says later on, after a scene that recreates sadistically berating a prisoner whom the GIs pinned a medal on while mockingly calling him the President. “We had to be proud,” the speaker continues in a bitter outburst about coming home to a nation that patriotically sent its soldiers to wage relentless war on Iraqis, “so they could feel proud of their yellow ribbons.” Vets from the workshop told the audience of about 70 people that the play conveyed their sentiments “pretty dead-on,” as Jon Michael Turner, a marine veteran, said. “It really hit home.”
“I think my PTSD comes from growing up gay in Alabama,” quipped Jeff Key, a strapping tall ex-marine who looked like a New York magazine model wearing a blazer, crisp white shirt, blue jeans and cowboy boots. “The war really starts when you come home.” Key, author of a play ("The Eyes of Babylon") based on his war journals, read a stream-of-consciousness poem about visiting a “dog tag memorial” to soldiers who died in Iraq, created by an artist in an out-of-the-way place that seldom had visitors. To a question from the audience—“how did you learn to find your voices?”—he said “We’ve learned by doing. We go to workshops with each other.”
Displaying a portfolio of his papermaking art work, Turner said this creative collaboration has been “a tool for veterans to find ourselves, to find our voice.” He noted that he put together a hand-made “journal book with paper from four generations in my family’s uniforms.” A key part of the collaboration, he added, is that the vets support each other in dealing with “mental issues.”
A key part of the workshop and reading was airing troublesome thoughts. “I’m not very good at reading,” said Jennifer Pacanowski, who was visibly nervous as she addressed the close-packed audience surrounding the intimate theater space. “I can barely breathe.” Noting that she was a medic in Iraq, she rose from her stage seat. “I have to stand for this.” Rising to the rigid military stance of “Attention,” she proclaimed:
We are not your heroes,
Heroes come back in body bags and caskets…
We are not your heroes.
We are your burden
Smacking you in the face with our honesty of this needless war.
So you have the freedom to judge us.
Audience members responded with a round of applause and encouraging comments during a question and answer session: “It is such an act of courage to read on stage something that you wrote yourself,” said a woman. “We need you—we need this kind of work,” said another. A man suggested that the vets’ poems and art work be recorded in a documentary. The reply was that there is a film being made, called "Iraq Paper Scissors."
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