Saturday, November 2, 2019

Talking Vietnam

Like many Vietnam vets, John Ketwig has made a public service campaign of speaking forthrightly to high school and college students. Responding in a rush before the bell rang to students’ questions and concerns was often the hardest part. 

Consider this hesitant query from a nervous young woman: “I have two sisters,” she said softly, “and both have serious birth defects. I know my father blames his service in Vietnam and something called Agent Orange, but when anyone mentions Vietnam he goes into his room and closes the door, and sometimes he won’t come out for days. My question is, what is Agent Orange?”

To address such deeply emotional inquiries more fully, Ketwig wrote Vietnam Reconsidered: The War, the Times, and Why They Matter (Trine Day, 348 pp, $24.95).  This is a long-considered sequel to Ketwig’s mind-blowing war memoir: …and a hard rain fell, published in 1985. Challenged by students’ questions, he dug deeper into the era in which he had found himself struggling to stay alive during the height of the fighting in Vietnam. Amid his professional career as an automobile service manager, side trips as an author doing speaking engagements, and activism with Vietnam Veterans Against the War protesting US military interventions that kept popping up around the world, Ketwig read piles of books about Vietnam and the wider events of that era.

“I have been obsessed, trying to put it all together,” he writes. “Trying to understand.” And to share what he’s learned.

“Back in the 1980s, I often found I was speaking to young people who were living in a home where the damage, emotions, or loss of Vietnam were a traumatic everyday presence, but the parents couldn’t or wouldn’t talk about the war,” he notes. “Gradually, my audiences became more removed from the emotions, but always curious…. They seem to sense that the history of that time is critical to understanding today’s America, and the current wars in the Middle East.”

In recent years, students have been directly concerned about current wars. “Far too many describe funeral services for veterans of Iraq or Afghanistan, former classmates or relatives,” he writes. “Sometimes, the veteran took his own life, leaving the student bewildered.”  

How does a grandpop Vietnam vet respond to such anguish? Ketwig’s response is woven throughout this book. He writes about friends who died in Vietnam and since, about the silent epidemic of suicide by Iraq vets from one small town in New Jersey, about the times he tried to talk vets out of ending it all.

He provides a brief overview of how the United States got involved in continuing France’s colonial war in Indochina and the deliberate misrepresentations later exposed in the Pentagon Papers. He weighs in with startling anecdotes that challenge historians’ claims.

“In all the history books I’ve seen, the emphasis has been on the impact the Tet Offensive had upon ‘the best and the brightest’ in Washington, and upon Walter Cronkite and the American public,” he writes. “There has been scant recognition of the impact of that enemy action upon us, the American troops in foxholes in Vietnam. … Our best hope of getting home in one piece was the skill and understanding of our officers, and we suddenly had to face the sobering fact that they had ‘no freaking idea’ what was going on… The morale of the American troops in Vietnam was the greatest casualty of the Tet offensive.”

He discovered from obscure books and rare news reports that the black market he witnessed in Vietnam and Thailand was a tiny part of a vast network of corruption run by American military officers, high ranking sergeants, Vietnamese military and shady businessmen and women that sold everything from rifles to explosives to trucks stolen from US military supply shipments. That rip-off campaign, he notes, mushroomed into reports of billions of dollars lost or unaccounted for in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Ketwig offers savvy commentary on the swirling demons of profiteering, PTSD and suicide, patriots vs. peaceniks, sex and soldiers, the draft and the Wall, among other topics. He presents lists of questions for students to consider and FAQs on key things such as Agent Orange. He weaves song lyrics and poetry throughout, from Bob Dylan and Joan Baez to Steve Mason, the late poet laureate of Vietnam Veterans of America, providing succinct ways of sparking talk about Vietnam and the world of hurt that mushroomed from that military madness. I’m honored to be included in the poetry pullouts and passages about VVAW.

What makes this book memorable, a gift to share with others, is Ketwig’s unrelenting quest to dig deeper into what the war in Southeast Asia did to so many people, civilians and soldiers, Asians and Americans, and what to do about it.

“Please don’t thank me for my service,” he writes. “I was playing in a rock ‘n roll band when they came for me, reciting songs about understanding and brotherhood and love. They took me against my will, stripped me naked and beat me bloody, and they sent me to the other side of the world where death fell out of the sky and exploded, and its shards tore up anything and anybody they hit. … Please oh please don’t thank me. If you want to express something, promise me you will get involved in the struggle to abolish wars. ... Then, I will thank you.”