Writing of his return to Vietnam almost three decades after he went to war and came home “pissed off and ground down by a bottomless grief I could not right then begin to express,” novelist Heinemann still vents rage and melancholia.
He’s not some old soldier trying to recapture the good old days, insists the National Book Award winner (Paco’s Story, 1986, etc.). Images of torn, shattered, and crisp-burnt corpses resurface along with the constant prod of the eternal question: for what? For roughly the first half, Heinemann can muster only tortured placeholders for an answer: generally, variations on the theme of war as the ultimate obscenity. (A close reading of his text should, incidentally, dissuade anyone who professed to believe that John Kerry single-handedly cobbled up stories of American atrocities in Vietnam.) Heinemann’s memories are vivid, almost brutally etched, particularly with respect to ordinary soldiers’ behavior as the wrong-headedness of the whole deal starts to sink in. Troops discovered, for example, that they had commonly arrived at the conclusion that the best way to expose anyone who gave a stupid order, from President Johnson or General Westmoreland on down to the “lifers” (career officers) on the front lines, was to follow it to the letter. Heinemann’s trip back in 1990 with a company of writers immediately began to prompt purgative effects—along with the horrific memories. He began a kind of “brothers in arms” reconstruction of what the Viet Cong were all about, how they moved in the night and through the dreaded Cu Chi tunnels. On a subsequent trip he was impelled to ascend Black Virgin Mountain (Nui Ba Den), which gave him a view of nearly the entire area in which his war year was spent. On the summit, he realized that he felt oddly but undeniably at home.
An angry yet ultimately moving journal of the quest for closure many Vietnam vets may never find.