Our Own Apocalypse Now
Travel Stories: From a football stadium in Seattle to a sweaty nightclub in Saigon, Haley Sweetland Edwards wrestles with the f*cked up magic of war
03.07.11 | 1:08 PM ET
The Dalai Lama’s face looked distorted on the Jumbotron. His eyes peered from behind a pair of 12-foot-tall glasses into a crowd of 10,000 people in a football stadium in Seattle. I sat among the masses, my thighs pinned to a blue plastic seat, waiting for him to speak, straining to see the real thing: a tiny orange figure like a blown leaf on the gridded green field.
I was working as a reporter in Seattle, covering a conference about the neuroscience of compassion. The Dalai Lama was the keynote speaker. As part of the hour-long presentation, a video was shown about an experiment on toddlers, where a researcher pretended to smash his own finger with a hammer, and then cried out in pain. A 2-year-old test subject rushed over and, his eyes rimmed with tears, offered the researcher his teddy bear. The Dalai Lama said experiments like that prove that compassion is innate. That it’s something we feel before we learn its name, and that as we get older, we must be careful not to let it seep out. The crowd applauded wildly.
I snuck out of the stadium before the presentation was over to catch people on their way out and ask what they thought of the conference, but I was too early. The parking lot was almost empty, except for a handful of security guys and a man passing out pamphlets entitled, “Are you going to Hell?” Toward the exit, two Vietnam vets sat on a patch of grass beside a black portable sound system. They were taking turns reading aloud from a binder, thick as a city phonebook, the names of troops who’d died so far in Iraq and Afghanistan. Cpl. Luke S. Runyan, 21, Spring Grove, Pennsylvania. Lance Cpl. Curtis A. Christensen Jr., 29, Collingswood, New Jersey. The dull cadence of a macabre graduation.
A few feet away, another vet stood in the shade, swaying to the rhythm of the names. He wore a bandana, dog tags, a wife beater and wraparound sunglasses too small for his head. He introduced himself as David and, since it was 2008, we started talking about the election, Obama, the success of the surge in Iraq. After a while, both of us leaning against a cool cement wall, we started talking about his war. Ron Kovic’s war. ‘Nam. That thick stretch of jungle between his generation and mine.
“Over there, everything’s clearer in a way, you know?” he said. “You’re killing or you’ll be killed. It’s you or me. It’s live or die. It’s simplicity. I’m not saying everything that happens in a war is OK, I’m just saying it is what it is.”
I asked him if there are things people do in a war, during times of simplicity, that don’t seem so simple once they’re back home. I didn’t have the guts to say “you.” Didn’t have the guts to ask, “Are there things you did that don’t seem so simple now? Are there things that haunt you?” But he understood. He looked me straight in the eye and then laughed a frayed, humorless laugh.
“Listen, in a war, you do what you have to do to live. You kill people,” he said, shrugging. “Do you kill women? Sure. Do you kill children? If a kid is shooting at you with an AK, do you think you’re going to care if his balls haven’t dropped? You light him up or he lights you up.”
David licked his lips and barked that frayed laugh again. “That sound f*cked up to you, girl?”
He looked into my face, like he was waiting for me to say something. To agree with him, or judge him, or exonerate him, or start crying—something. But I just stood there, watching him. Feeling stupid, or naïve or angry or, worse, like I both hated him and understood him completely.
“It’s f*cked-up, but it’s magical, too,” he said finally, quietly. “Remember that, girlie: F*cked-up magical. That’s war.”
I said goodbye and walked back into the stadium, back into the dark, echoing hallways where I could hear the inflection of earnest psychologists’ speeches still going on inside. I hadn’t told David I’d gone to Vietnam a few months earlier. I just couldn’t do it. Hey! I took a little holiday to that nightmare place where not long enough ago, you no doubt watched your friends die. Where maybe you killed children.
To make it worse, when I’d gone to Vietnam, I’d gone with one of those discount student tour groups that give you photocopies of your itinerary with animated, smiling globes on each page. All 12 of us on the tour had fashionable sunglasses and iPods and the same Lonely Planet guidebook, and we all knew the same things every 20-something American knows about Vietnam: Rambo, peace signs, “Platoon.” The drunk vet on the corner by the pharmacy. Me love you long time. Our collective memory of the place had been rolled over and over in Hollywood’s great, gummy maw so many times its once-sharp edges had been spit out soft as beach glass. We were hipsters on vacation.
That’s not to say that most of us weren’t old enough to know someone—an uncle, a friend, a 6th grade teacher—who’d been in the war. The girl sitting next to me, Jenny, said her dad had been a G.I. there in the late ‘60s. He hadn’t wanted her to visit. Jenny thought it was stupid, but I understood. The last time he’d been, it was to kill or be killed.
A few days into the trip, a bunch of us rented motorcycles and drove into the hills near Hue to see the cement-topped bunkers where American soldiers used to sleep. We put our palms against the dirt worn smooth by their bodies and, since then, by hordes of visitors like us, and then we took a break to drink Diet Cokes in the shade. “Intermission for wartime nostalgia,” I’d written in my notebook. “Vacationing in someone else’s hell. Or, worse: wallowing in a stale grief, when kids my age were dying everyday—today—in my own generation’s wars.” Nearby, a little old lady in a conical hat hawked buttons and T-shirts decorated in fatigue and the North Vietnamese star.
That afternoon, I left the group and wandered into a gallery showing photographs of booby traps dug by Viet Cong: deep holes full of sharpened bamboo sticks, covered over with brush. A gallery employee explained that when the Americans ran over the top of them they’d fall in and get skewered. I looked at him. He shifted his weight and smiled the way people smile at a casket. Most of the Vietnamese who sided with the Americans were made social pariahs and forced into poverty after 1975, so this wealthy-looking, 50-something guy in this air-conditioned gallery had probably fought my country. Had he been there? Had he tried to skewer Jenny’s dad? Had he killed Americans? Had we killed his family? Who do I apologize to? Did it matter anymore?
A few days later, a friend on the tour and I went walking and within a few minutes a dozen children had gathered around us, begging for money, hanging on our hands and pulling at our pants, until eventually I yelled, “Enough! Enough!” Most of them scattered, and we could see that behind where they’d been, a grown man, deformed by what was probably Agent Orange, was resting on his forearms in the street, his spine turned backwards like a scorpion tail, his baby-sized feet dangling above the nape of his neck. I closed my eyes. Enough, I thought. Enough.
In the football stadium in Seattle, I’d made my way back to my seat. A scientist’s face was on the Jumbotron. He spoke about instances of justice and charity in primate communities. I let my mind wander, trying to remember my last night in Saigon when five of us from the tour group found a war-themed nightclub called Apocalypse Now, which our Lonely Planets recommended without irony. Sandbags and barbed wire lined the bar and windows, and the elbow-height cocktail tables were painted to look like chemical weapons barrels. A sign reading “Charlie don’t serve” hung over the dance floor, where 300 kids slid against each other in the near-dark, the smell of sweat and alcohol and perfume so thick and the music so loud that we couldn’t hear or feel anything but the bass thumping in our stomachs, in our thighs, on the napes of our necks.
The five of us stood to the side of the dance floor, yelling over the music, over a sea of black-haired 20-somethings, until a Vietnamese kid came over and held out a drink. I took it, and we yelled Tarzan introductions in broken English, pointing at each other’s chests. You, Bo. Me, Haley. Three more drinks and I felt his arm slip around my back and pull me into him, onto the dance floor, our stomachs touching, and the room began to spin with music and vodka and the red lights from the bar. The DJ, who looked about 15, played a techno remix of Bryan Adams’ “Summer of ‘69,” and the surge of kids ebbed and slipped against us, thick and warm with sweat, everyone screaming the lyrics.
Back in the summer of ‘69. Sixty-nine. Those were the best days of my life.
In Seattle, when the presentation ended the crowd stood and applauded. Ushers in aprons walked the aisles, handing out braided string bracelets that we were supposed to tie onto our neighbors’ wrists, to remind each other to have compassion for one another. The Dalai Lama waved on the Jumbotron, his smile as big as a wall, his palms white, unwrinkled.
I thought about David outside, maybe taking his turn now to read the names of the dead, and about Bo in Saigon. I wondered if David had tried to kill Bo’s parents, or if Bo’s parents had taken a shot at Jenny’s dad, and I wondered which of the hot surge of bodies dancing next to me that night had lost siblings, aunts, uncles, cousins to American bombs? Whose big brother was dead because of us? And how long will it be before my daughter goes dancing in Baghdad? How long before she feels an enemy’s son wrap his arms around her, stronger than she thought, pulling her into him, the skin of his forearms slipping down her back with sweat? How long before she experiences the howl and surge of music in some red-lit Baghdad basement? Before she walks the thin line between the heat of sex and terror, between laughter and screaming? How long before she gets a taste of the f*cked up magic of war?
The woman in the row behind me in the stadium touched my arm and I startled, my mind lost in Vietnam. She smiled and apologized, embarrassed by the look on my face, and asked if she could tie her string bracelet on me. I offered her my hand.