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Another Tale of There And Back Again;
or, Personal Comments on War and Peace by an Ex-Warrior Using J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings as a Palantir, a Seeing-Stone, to Reality;
or, Confessions of an Orc
This is a tale of war and peace, of good and evil, of Orcs who became Vietnam Veterans Against the War, our war, all war.
We had set in for the night with our backs to the river, using, by the book, any natural barrier as a part of your perimeter which will not impede egress from your position. We had no sooner dug our holes than the whisper came down the line. The first man, the platoon sergeant, probably said Viet Cong, but the next and those who followed him used our name for them. We knew what the whisper said before it floated down to us. "Orcs, across the river." I could almost picture the page that line came from as I turned that way in my hole and found myself trying to read down the page in my mind when someone opened up and the RPGs, rocket-propelled-grenades, began to scream in, exploding within our lines. Burkett, in the next hole, was yelling to me above the explosions; "That's the way it happened to them... the RPGs are arrows... Boromir will die tomorrow."
Another part of their war became a part of mine.
The Tolkien trilogy will always be a part of my war experience and one of the things I have used to come to terms with that experience. It was in Vietnam that I first read The Lord of the Rings. I was a nineteen year old infantryman, the product of a close, urban, Irish Catholic, pro-IRA, working class family, already sick at heart over what my country and I were doing to a people whose lifestyle and struggle I had come to see as being closely related to that of my heritage. The idealistic heroism and heroic idealism of the majority of the members of The Company and indeed of many of the characters in this saga had forced me to begin to compare myself, as a warrior, to other warriors from my family and my people whose deeds and beliefs I would speak of in the same terms. I fear that my GranDa and his celebrated relation, James Michael, would have seen me wearing the black garb of those of the wrong tower. And I still, in my estimation, have not convinced my father, who returned from the "Last Good War" with a dead hand and a horribly scarred arm, that his America could have produced, and could be again producing in our hemisphere, a horror the like of Vietnam.
That horror made us as close as most brothers. If we were smart enough to forget the stupid words we had learned as children, our differences, whether racial, political, or sectional, were as easily overlooked or conquered as those of Gimli and Legolas. Like brothers, we shared everything. It took little time for the trilogy to make the rounds even though our reading time was limited to snatch as can. For my squad and others, the soldiers of the National Liberation Front, the Viet Cong, were at once the Orcs. We had admitted to ourselves even then that the association was superficial, owing solely to the fact that we still hoped, almost beyond hope, that we would turn out to be the good guys.
With the shared reading and the shared experience of the war, the parallels between our war and that of Middle Earth began to form quickly. Every new area we worked in was assigned, according to an event which transpired there or some topographical landmark, a name from the tale. Every basecamp or firebase we sought shelter from the night in became The Last Homely House. Each stretch of open savannah became the Gap of Rohan. But only the Michelin Rubber Plantation, out of the many areas of rubber, because of a great evil we had once faced within it, became Mirkwood.
We had our own Mithrandir, one of the oldest grunts I met in Vietnam (he was 25), who had survived, and was still haunted by, a hand to hand encounter with what became to us a Balrog, an NVA regular who, "no shit, had to be six fucking feet tall!"
Any and all of those men who had the misfortune to be short of stature and long on infantry training were automatically Hobbits, our tunnel rats, whom we lowered head first into the myriad entrances to Moria that virtually littered the landscape in some parts of that much warred upon land. Too often, these children of this children's crusade were pulled back from the depths dead, shot at close range by an Orc who then wormed his way to safety within these mazes. Khazad-Dum is a name that is known and feared beyond the confines of Middle Earth.
Those of us who were neither Hobbit nor Wizard, according to our build, stalking ability, fighting prowess, or merely ego, fancied ourselves as being Gimli, Legolas, Faramir, or even Strider. Sadly though, we came to realize that we were more the like of Boromir. Our motives for fighting, racism and revenge, like his, were impure. The heroes from my war rode home horizontally; the rest of us live and try to make amends, somehow, sometimes only with tears and confessions. Too many, far too many, in fact twice as many as fell there, have followed the Lord Denethor, opening the door to the next life with their own hand, in their grief, guilt, or madness. Through this nightmare which served for our youth, the game went on. We clung to almost anything that would slice through the seemingly endless boredom and sheer drudgery of war when there was no contact with the enemy, and the freezing, debilitating fear when there was. We would discuss, in whispers, in jungle clearings, the Hobbits and their trek from the Shire or their initial escape from Shelob at Cirith Ungol. No one would ever steer the conversations toward the Hobbits cringing in abject fear of the Black Rider or their escape flight into Shelob's waiting snare. We knew only too well that our own treks turned too often into the same. One by one, in the same way we went to and came from that war, we learned Sam's lesson from Ithilien. We were not killing that intricate facade which had been carefully formulated by those who trained us to elicit a desired response, then drilled into us like a bullet; we were killing other human beings, people too much like us. We grudgingly respected the Viet Cong. We saw them, with their ability to strike and vanish, seemingly at will and at ease, as possessors of some special magic and had to wonder, as Sam did, over a dead one, on his life, his beliefs, his cause. The only truthful reason I could give for trying to kill him, except for revenge, was to keep from being killed by him. There was no political problem between us. I had long ago questioned the fact that I was fighting for my country in his country, and the people of the countryside of Vietnam had made it quite clear that freedom for them meant freedom from me.
Such was the Viet Cong's quest, to expel that which was the cause of the blight on his land. He, like the Southrons and the Rangers, needed no political rhetoric to spur his hatred for his enemy. War builds hatred between its participants, a wall of hatred with the strongest of brick and mortar, the bodies and blood of family and friends. The Viet Cong saw his land and almost all of his culture which wasn't already ravaged by the outsiders again being given to foreigners. He saw the children of his land again being killed and maimed at an incredible rate and nothing engenders hatred like a dead child.
We hated him also, with the same intensity of passion with which we came to love one another, as children in great danger will. If the young men of America learned anything at all of value in Vietnam, we learned that our culture's idea of manhood, with its cold, distant, pseudo-affection toward other men, was worthless. Sam's display of deep feeling for Frodo did not embarrass me, nor would it embarrass any other man who has experienced the building of feelings for each other which occurs within those who undergo together the deprivation, danger, and ever-present threat of death which are a part of war. I learned the hard way to profess my feelings for my brothers face to face. I knew from experience that if I did not do it then, when they were whole, I would have to whisper or scream into their ear as I held their broken bodies, hoping there was enough life left in them to hear my goodbye.
There is much about war that is constant, but that Frodo-to-Sam, Merry-to-Pippin, Gimli-to-Legolas type of relationship was more apt in Tolkien's war, "the war to end all war," and in mine, than in my father's. We saw no end of the war but to die and no reason to fight but to live. In order to survive at all in war, there must be a bond between comrades. My comrades, the like of whom I have rarely found since, went like the days, a few dumped right back on the streets as if nothing had transpired since they left, many on stretchers, with their clinking bottles, wan, pain -wracked faces, seeping stumps, and bleak futures, and far, far too many in waterproof body bags. Our hatred grew. We hated America no less than Nam and the Viet Cong at this point, for what we were experiencing and what we were, but we were there. Too many of us, with our hearts now grown as cold as a Barrow Wight's and with eyes that appeared to be Orkishly slanted even after leaving the jungle's gloom, wholeheartedly embraced the gospel for ending the war, "Kill 'em all and let God sort 'em out." We truly became as Orcs, wantonly burning and hewing our way across the countryside toward too many a Helm's Deep.
Such was our unquest. What was to be our heroic "test of manhood," our generational "big one," turned out to be a vortex of voodoo and villainy from which at times I can still feel the pull. Our rallying cry was not "Elbereth Gilthoniel," but "Body Count." There were too few Pelennor Fields. Instead, there was the sneaking ambush and the blitzkrieg raid and the grossly uneven chases of the Asian rabbit and the Occidental hounds, of many Orcs in U.S. camouflage opposing a single Indochinese Isuldur. There was no Dunharrow for the young and the old to escape to. The retribution for losses on both sides was ruthless, ugly, and final.
From Tolkien's treatment of the losses of Merry and Pippin, I ken that the loss of a friend in his war was no less painful or traumatic than it was for me. Again, there is much about war that will never change. But unlike his tale and the war which closely followed his, he could not, in all likelihood, give a single definitive reason for enduring such. In my case, I also cannot. Tolkien's war, with its futile, wasteful, irresponsible trench warfare and its total destruction within the area of fighting, must have made him wonder about the end toward which he was fighting. Such feeling shows through clearly in the overall view of his tale with its theme of the subjugation, without the hope of a total defeat, of evil. The nature of my war, the guerrilla war, lends itself to instant, unexpected death or injury. I have experienced that type of loss and injury without the belief that such trauma was undergone for the sake of my people, as the Viet Cong could believe, or for the deliverance of the land I was told I was fighting for. We in Vietnam did not even have the benevolent ignorance of the populace the Rangers had in Middle Earth. In Vietnam, where the government did not truly own the hearts and minds of its people, we were hated and fought by a very substantial part of the population.
The war was not just waged against the people of Vietnam. Much of the journey of Frodo and Samwise through the foul reek of the dead lands of Mordor was familiar to me, as it surely must have been to Tolkien. His war was fought across stretches of "No Man's Land" where no living thing could survive. Much of my war was fought in areas which were a modern "No Man's Land" due to constant bombing and Agent Orange spraying. Tolkien's words describing the desolation of Mordor never fail to bring pictures of places in the Delta and the area around Tay Ninh to my mind, where still, I would imagine "not a single blade of grass will grow," places where we unknowingly wallowed in what would change our genes, mark our children with deformities, and kill many of us from Agent Orange associated maladies. Frodo's annual pain is not literary device, but a reminder that for the participants, wars do not end with the final shot or the signatures of non-participants on a mere piece of paper.
There was no personal conclusion to the war in Vietnam for the soldiers who fought there, no final cataclysmic battle; the calendar ended our individual involvement. We were lifted out of the jungle on our 366th day, made as visually presentable as possible, and dumped back on our doorstep. Unlike the Hobbits, Tolkien, and my father, we had no rambling return in the company of trusted comrades with the time for a collective coming to terms with what had just taken place; we were not even given a proper time to mourn or rejoice.
We were home, reeling from the changes which both we and the country had undergone. The government was at war here also. Like Sam's beloved trees, there were things as basic to us being torn up by the roots. The Black Panthers were being hunted down and executed for having the unmitigated gall to perpetrate a revolution that ultimately amounted to the feeding of hungry children. The college campuses had standing military forces which were as well armed and almost as quick to fire in some places as we had been in Vietnam. The cities were as volatile and as hard to control as those we had just subjugated during Tet and for some of the same reasons. The people were not getting enough of what they were producing in both countries and too much of what had gone to the aged and the needy was now going to a war which neither people supported. Both sets of cities were controlled with the same methods and with some of the same personnel. The 82nd Airborne was pulled from their riot control duty during the 1968 religious unrest in Saigon and flown back to Detroit to crush the rioting there. The clandestine police forces were very busy at both ends of the world and many were jailed for mere gossip. Many were jailed and many were beaten, in their homes or in the streets, for speaking out against the war, as was their right, or for "hatching plots," which were sometimes merely frank discussions, against the continuance of the war.
Those of us who had worked out our experience to some degree decided that a "scouring of the Shire" was in order. Thus began what we would like to believe was our true quest, though like Frodo and Sam, we were on an honorable unquest also. Like them, we were bringing an incredibly evil thing back to the place of its birth for its undoing. Like them, this evil thing had a hold over us for we had given part of ourselves, some as literally as Frodo, to augment its power. But like them again, our love for each other and for the things we had left behind when we took up what we thought to be righteous quest, won over the power of evil.
Where we went the "sheriffs" gathered but they were at first confused. We were not the "bounders" they had first thought us to be. Either by the way some of us were marked, or by our outlandish gear, or by the light of Galadriel which we now felt shining in us, they knew us to be different. At worst, they took us in hand, usually with gentleness, for some of us were maimed; at best, they listened and decided not to act at all. Our neighbors, who had been lucky enough not to feel "the Eye" close at hand but whose awareness of it had been growing, joined us and our part, our country's part, in that travesty was ended.
So again we turned homeward, but too soon it seems. Despite Tolkien's warning, given to us through Gandalf, we left the broken foundation of our "Dark Tower" and it has been rebuilt and the darkness is again spreading. It is not the wizened, bearded Lord of Darkness we were told started our war who has issued war forth from his gate this time but one more the like of Saruman. This time, he is known as "The Great Communicator," a mellifluous meliorist, who lulls us with inanities while people again die in an unjust war, just to our south, and the earth and water, leaf and stone of our children is covertly bartered or poisoned by his minions.
Many of us who survived the last war have turned to their work, like Frodo, be it public or private; many have turned to the land and our young trees, as Sam did, to try to nurture a better tomorrow. But many still stand guard, like Masters Meriadoc and Peregrine, to keep the darkness out and to remind us of the darkness outside which roams from country to country like a foul pestilence, snatching our sons from our midst.
Maybe in the Fourth Age, we can return to our "Rosies" with a final "Well, I'm home." Maybe in the Fourth Age, the rulers of this world will come to realize that their struggle for the world's resources can be settled without the death of children. Maybe in the Fourth Age, with the help and guidance of a kindly, old ex-warrior and his "fairy tales," we can make warriors, who never really want to be such once they are, and war, which ultimately serves only the darkness, as useless as sleep is to the Elves.