Tyler Tichelaar, PhD reviews MTAM

March 24, 2009

More Than a Memory: Reflections of Viet Nam
Edited by Victor R. Volkman
Modern History Press (2009)
ISBN: 9781932690651 (hardcover) $34.95
9781932690644 (paperback) $21.95

“More Than a Memory: Reflections of Viet Nam” is a stunning anthology of writings by veterans that includes first-person non-fiction narratives of serving in Vietnam, fictional stories about the war, poetry, tales of adjusting to civilian life after the war, and many memories of the war and how it continues to affect veterans’ lives today. The diversity of “More Than a Memory” provides a more thorough understanding of the war experience than any one soldier’s story could provide. Twelve authors have contributed forty-five different pieces of Vietnam war literature that leave a reader both shocked, grieving for the veterans’ experiences, and better educated about what war does to an individual and a nation.

It is impossible to discuss the merits of all the works included in this anthology. Many of the stories are what the reader might expect—depictions of veterans experiencing Post Traumatic Stress Disorder upon their return home, veterans trying to understand what it meant to have to kill other people, soldiers coping with the loss of comrades in battle, and soldiers returning home to a nation that failed to treat them with respect. In addition are many unexpected themes that add to a fuller understanding of the Vietnam War and how war haunts a person for the rest of his life. If the book is lacking in any way, it is the absence of women explaining how the war also haunted “her” life as a soldier or soldier’s wife, but that is a small complaint compared to the multiple voices in this volume.

The various poems and stories, both fiction and non-fiction, can be divided up between those that take place during the war itself, and those that are reflections back upon the war. Many dramatic scenes depict the experiences of the war and trying to cope with immediate and dangerous events as they happen. Tom Skiens’ story “Boat People” stands out for explaining how the war psychologically affected soldiers while they were in the midst of combat. Frightened constantly of being killed themselves, and never knowing who might be the enemy, soldiers often found themselves killing innocent people:

Killing because we are tired of others killing those around us. This was a revenge killing. Not that these two people in the boat had done anything to us personally, but simply because we needed to kill someone to help us feel like we could even the score. Killing to gain a sense of control over our lives. (p. 192)

Other stories describe the heartache of daily life in the war. In an excerpt from his book, “My Tour in Hell,” David Powell tells how he did not want to make friends with his fellow soldiers because he feared if he became attached to someone, he would become weak and risk his own life for another, or become distracted by his own grief and thus get himself killed. Nevertheless, he becomes friends with a soldier, who consequently gets killed, and David finds himself writing home to console his friend’s mother.

Other soldiers struggle with moral issues and how war forces them to act against their better natures. In “Witness to Rape” Tom Skiens writes about a soldier struggling to accept his fellow soldiers raping a Vietnamese woman; he wishes he could turn his gun on the soldiers to stop them, but he knows he will be court-martialed if he does. Years later, he still tries to justify his decision to stand by while the rape occurred.

The majority of the stories and poems reflect the book’s title theme of memories. Many of the stories depict soldiers trying to function in civilian life while still haunted by the war. In “My Blue Block of Wood,” Richard Boes depicts a soldier’s first day home and how he immediately makes his family afraid of him, making him realize, “I’d brought the trauma home. I’m the fuckin’ enemy here” (p. 21). Sadly, Boes died of throat cancer just after “More Than a Memory” was released.

After years and decades of being home, the memories and trauma do not lessen for veterans. The return to the scenes of the war is another constant theme as Vietnam veterans try to make peace with their experiences. In Marc Levy’s “Torque in Angkor Wat,” a veteran returns to Cambodia with a friend who had not been in the war. The veteran becomes delusional, seeing Cambodian troops aiming at him when they are actually Cambodians playing Frisbee with him and his friend.

Other stories and essays explain how veterans struggle to deal with people who cannot understand their experiences. One of the more humorous yet pointed of these pieces is Alan Farrell’s “Nothing So Bad It’s Not Poetry” where the author talks about how poetry is a form of release for Vietnam veterans, but also how academics fail to understand war poetry despite their literary theories. During a poetry reading, one professor tries to pronounce the city “Quang Ngai.” A veteran helps him, and then when the professor cannot pronounce other cities’ names, the veteran repeatedly tells him the same pronunciation as for the first city without the professor catching on to how he is revealing his own ignorance.

In “Kangaroo Court Martial,” Shirley Jolls and Walter Aponte reveal racism in the military by telling the story of two soldiers who went to prison for six and ten years simply for protesting the treatment of blacks in the United States during the race riots in Detroit.

Don Bodey’s stunning first chapter to his award-winning novel “F.N.G.” is included, in which a Vietnam veteran considers shooting his grandson to disable him so he cannot leave to serve in Iraq.

Numerous more works are included in “More Than a Memory: Reflections of Viet Nam.” Most importantly, these stories and poems all work together to express the diversity and similarities of veteran experiences and how the Vietnam War remains with these veterans. Readers will come to understand why Vietnam veterans cannot simply “get over it.” The final work in the anthology is titled “Whatever You Did in War Will Always be With You.” It begins with a telling dialogue from an anonymous author.

VA Shrink: Were you in Vietnam?
Vietnam Vet: Yes.
VA Shrink: When were you there?
Vietnam Vet: Last night.

Vietnam Veterans cannot forget the war. Their experiences are not just memories, but events they live with everyday and every night. We honor them by reading their stories and never forgetting the sacrifices they made; many of them sacrificed their lives by dying, many more sacrificed their lives by surviving only to find it difficult to live again.

For more information about “More Than a Memory” as well as to read additional writings by its contributors, visit www.ReflectionsOfVietnam.com.

— Tyler R. Tichelaar, Ph.D., author of The Marquette Trilogy

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