The Vietnam War was always in the background it seemed--a fact, like my youth, and cannot be separated from it. I came of age during that period, participated in Vietnam War protests, spent hours with draft resister friends, searching for a way out. The slogan, "Hell, no, we won't go!" still reverberates in my brain.
The background became the foreground when I fell in love with a Vietnam War veteran, lived with him in a war I thought I knew everything about. "The college kids' war," he mocked. Something in his eyes, the way his words groped when he spoke of then--of trying to keep his men alive by sending them in the opposite direction ordered--and the one time, only time it failed. His fingers sliding over the name Knutsun, engraved on a bracelet he wore, as he spoke. A man he never knew. Scary. I remember when we went to the wall in Washington--my first time--and I saw those thousands of names--all those bodies--it was very scary.
It is more than twenty years since the last helicopter took off from the roof of the American embassy in Saigon (4/39/75); nearly thirty years since the My Lai massacre and the strongest anti war protests ever witnessed in this country. Some of the men who fought and risked their lives in that war, like the poets W.D. Ehrhart and Steve Mason, active in Vietnam Veterans Against the War, eventually fought against it. The work collected in this anthology is their story. And yes, it is very scary.
When I first saw the phrase "It don't mean nothin" in one of Robert Schlosser's poems, it startled me. But in a sense beyond logical felt right. I was puzzled by its continued reappearance as I read through the submissions. Then I learned from Larry Winters' essay that the 101st chanted, "mantra like," the words "It don't mean nothin" whenever someone felt overwhelmed.
Well, the work of all these Nam vet poets does mean something. It means a hell of a lot.
On Veterans day, 11/11/96, the awful rightness of a comment made by a Nam vet on TV struck me: "You're fighting for you," he said, "and nothing else. If you don't know that you don't know nothing." I thought of these poems by Shields, Mason and the others I've included here: thirty years later--they're still fighting for their survival.
Listen to their voices. Listen very hard.