In my experience, related people and topics tend to show up which at first seem random, but after a time, the connections and meanings emerge. A couple of years ago, a student appeared in the nonfiction continuing education class I teach at Rutgers University -- a retired physician writing about his experience as an Army medic in the 1950s Korean Conflict. Having never before worked with a writer on this kind of memoir material, I think it is safe to say we learned from one another – and continue to, as he develops more meaningful narratives and I get the pleasure of seeing his work bloom.
Last year, I was asked to help edit a memoir by a severely injured Iraq war veteran, a project that is ongoing; with each new chapter, I learn more about parsing the multi-layered nuances of trauma. Thus my education in first person writing about war and its aftermath continues. Along the way, I've added key books to my memoir reading list.
Which brings us to how quickly I headed straight for John Merson's spot, when I saw his book, published by an imprint of Random House, propped up on the Local Authors table a couple of weeks ago at the Nantucket Book Festival.
Please welcome John Merson.
Teaching a writing class for second graders means expecting the unexpected question. The session was in Brooklyn at the Explore Charter School in February, just after students had finished writing their own stories and publishing them in a class book. One curious eight-year-old asked, “Have you considered writing realistic fiction?”
“No,” I answered, “because my memory is better than my imagination.”
But her question wouldn’t go away. I began to think maybe I might have more freedom with a novelistic treatment of my subject, the Vietnam war.
My last book, War Lessons: How I Fought to be a Hero and Learned that War is Terror, was a memoir of what I experienced as a foot soldier in Vietnam, and later as a frequent visitor to the country over eighteen years afterward. The book was the surprise result of another unexpected question, this time at my 40th college reunion.
One classmate, recalling our freshman-year study of the Crusades, asked, “Why is it that the West is once again at war with Islam?”
The year was 2006, US forces had invaded and occupied both Iraq and Afghanistan, and I had just returned from my tenth trip to Vietnam. The first was in 1966, when I began a tour of duty as a marine infantry “grunt.” For the next thirteen months, I had a worm’s-eye view of the ground war in Vietnam, living with villagers whose lives were not so different from the farmers and ranchers for whom I had worked while growing up in Pennsylvania and Wyoming. We brought the war into their homes, schools, and rice paddies, gradually forcing them to side with our enemy.
Forty years later, I confronted the damage I had done. My classmate’s question became, for me, a question about the results of war. Having personally endured the years-long process of recovery from war, beginning when I was still in Vietnam, and following my return from duty, I could see that war hadn’t solved any problems, but only made them worse.
Motivated by wanting to explain this to my reunion classmates, I wrote a short story about an actual 1967 incident in which my platoon killed nearly twenty unarmed villagers during a night ambush in Dai Loc. The aftermath of the massacre reverberated throughout my life: during the end of my tour, while returning home, and over the years and decades spent finishing college and graduate school, getting married, going to work, becoming a parent, divorcing and re-marrying, and finally coming back to Vietnam.
On my first return trip to Vietnam in 1995, Dai Loc was the only place where I had once fought, that I visited. The site had been made into a war memorial, listing all the names of Dai Loc villagers killed between 1945 and 1975, the years of the struggle for independence.
This experience of revisiting the scene of the original incident became the fulcrum on which I constructed my memoir. I had first tried a thematic approach in which each chapter of the book was devoted to a lesson I had learned, but comments from readers of a draft indicated that this structure was confusing. As a result, I switched to a more chronological story line in the next draft, starting with my arrival in Vietnam in 1966 as a very green and scared infantry scout, moving through my tour in Vietnam, my return to the US, and finally my trips back in Vietnam between 1995 and 2006. The chronological approach worked much better for readers of later drafts, since they understood how and why I had learned the lessons I was describing. The entire writing process took less than a year.
Still, the climax of the story was the massacre, where I was forced to confront the central truth of my experience as a foot soldier: that I was the instrument of destruction for the villagers of Dai Loc. What had led me to that night? Why had I volunteered to fight in Vietnam? I had gone to war with dreams of becoming the hero I thought my father and uncle had been, so why had fighting in Vietnam not made me any stronger or more able to confront the challenges in my life? Understanding the mistakes I had made, how could I make amends?
On subsequent trips to Vietnam between 1995 to 2006, I worked with government officials, tech industry leaders, young Vietnamese who had grown up after the fighting had ended, and with American veterans who had returned to Vietnam to remedy the damage done by the massive American bombing of civilian targets. On one trip, I learned about a project in Quang Tri that clears unexploded bombs, providing new land for farmers. I had spent my boyhood working on farms not endangered by bombs, and so I had found the right project to support with my modest book royalties and speaking fees.
The memoir I wrote weaves two distinct threads -- learning to be a soldier, and finding a way to recover from war. The second graders in my writing class taught me that writing a memoir might be a first step but not the last word.
Note: You can read excerpts from John's book here. Some resources and links to information about teaching and writing initiatives, organizations, conferences and classes for veterans: Warrior Writers, Writers Guild Foundation Military Writers Workshop, Veterans Writing Project (featured in this New York Times article, and Veterans Voices). Other programs are underway at many colleges, including at Syracuse University.