Winning Hearts and Minds 50 Years On
Fifty years ago, I turned 20 in Saigon, a very drunk and slap happy soldier in the service of the US Military Assistance Command Vietnam. We were making war, when we weren’t doing Happy Hours in every bar from Soc Trang to Da Nang, under slick counter-insurgency slogans like “Winning Hearts and Minds,” “Operation Ranch Hand” and “Only You Can Prevent a Forest” (motto of the US Air Force missions that were spraying the countryside with herbicides).
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/