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Viet Nam Generation Journal & Newsletter

V3, N4 (January 1992)

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Balaban, John. Remembering Heaven's Face: A Moral Witness in Vietnam.

Poseidon Press, New York, 1991.

In 1967 John Balaban went to Viet Nam as a conscientious objector. First as a member of the International Volunteer Services (IVS) and later as a representative of the Committee of Responsibility to Save War-Burned and War-Injured Children (COR), he served as a witness to the Viet Nam War. This memoir offers a first-hand look at the turmoil the war wrought, both on Balaban and those around him, Americans and Vietnamese alike.

Balaban's first service in Viet Nam, teaching English at a university in Can Tho, was brought to an abrupt halt by the Tet Offensive. At a hospital so crowded with injured that the worst cases are sent home to die, Balaban confronts his moral stance to war. "I had never felt more morally bewildered," he tells us. (p. 101) He finds himself wearing a Red Cross arm band, carrying an M-3 .45-caliber machine gun (that he can't recall picking up), with a leather shaving kit containing two grenades dangling from his belt. This he does so the Air Force surgeons at the hospital will stay to operate, rather than retreat from the danger of a Viet Cong attack. To save the lives of some of the civilians dying around him, Balaban stands guard, though he doesn't believe in killing. The book is rich in such moments of contradiction and self-confrontation.

One scene at the hospital I will never forget--nor will Balaban, I'm sure. Once the Special Forces arrive and relieve Balaban of his armed sentry duty, he assists the doctors with the "Civil War surgery." (p. 102) Among the napalm cases, he sees, on the floor, a mother and her daughter, "beautiful, chubby, naked...with gold earrings who was perfectly whole except for one arm burned black." (p. 103) Beneath that arm, he observes a copy of Stars and Stripes, with an ad proclaiming, "'Expand your ego. Visit the exotic East.'" ( p. 103)

Once back in the States, recovering from a shrapnel wound in his shoulder, and with more time to serve to complete his C.O., Balaban decides to return to Viet Nam, this time as a member of COR, helping to send war-injured children to the United States for surgery they could not receive in their own country. Even this response to the war brings doubts. Was he merely involved in a show of false concern, as some critics charged, allowing

politicians and the military to demonstrate how much they "cared" for the Vietnamese? And would the Vietnamese children be able to fit back into their own families and culture after long stays in the U.S.?

Despite his own concerns with these questions, Balaban decides that he can do more good than harm by assisting these children. After reading about some of the children's injuries, Balaban's position is a convincing one. To give only one example among many, there's Dao Thi Thai, a fifteen-year-old girl, who was scalped by the propellor of a boat. To send children with injuries such as this to the U.S., Balaban must do battle with the Vietnamese bureaucracy, indifferent officials, and hostile American doctors, some of whom see Balaban as a "communist." (p. 162)

After completing his C.O. duty, and exhausted from his work with COR, Balaban returns to the U.S. and makes a discovery that's both obvious and profound. Those who were involved in the war as civilians can experience and suffer from the same type of stress that soldiers face after the war. Living in a cabin in Pennsylvania, he feels estranged from the war in Asia and those he knew there, the cabin, his fellow Americans, and even himself. And so he returns to Viet Nam once again, this time to collect ca da o, Vietnamese folk poetry, with the hope of preserving something of Vietnamese culture from the destruction of the still on-going war.

It's at this point that Balaban presents us with further examples of his inner conflict between pacifism and violence. The first occurs in Hawaii when Balaban comes to the rescue of a young woman being attacked by her boyfriend. Not content to free the woman and subdue the man with repeated punches, Balaban, his arm unable to throw another punch, proceeds to pull at the man's mouth until it begins to tear. His wife and the man's girlfriend have to pull Balaban off the fallen man. On the plane after this incident, Balaban tells us that "I wasn't the least bit sorry." (p. 224) Was it the war causing another John Balaban to emerge?

Another such incident occurs in Viet Nam. Knocked down from behind by a young Saigon tough in the market, Balaban successfully wards off the teenager and a second assailant. But Balaban is not content with that. Perhaps feeling protective of his young pregnant wife, sitting nearby on their Honda scooter, Balaban chases the two youths with a chair. When the two youths collide into a soup vendor, where three of there friends lurk, the situation only worsens. Bringing the chair down on the youths, Balaban begins to realize the seriousness of his mistake. By chasing the two assailants Balaban now has five youths wishing to do him harm.

Balaban's wife rescues him by dragging a reluctant policeman into the fray. The incident ends in sorrow. A week and a half after the fight, she has a miscarriage. Balaban recalls how his wife complained of a pain in her stomach during the street fight, and he wonders if the fight didn't cause the miscarriage. Though he doesn't come out and say it, it's clear he feels that unleashing his anger at the teenagers hurt his wife and her child.

Remembering Heaven's Face has much to offer, not only documenting Balaban's own struggles as a "moral witness" to a violence that seems to have infected him as well, but as a reminder of the true toll of war. Coming after the Gulf War with its smart bombs and "surgical bombing," though only 7% of all the bombs dropped during that war were "smart," Balaban shows us the human devastation of war, what civilians, in particular, must bear. His last trip back to Viet Nam lets us see some of those children, now adults, whom he helped send to the U.S. for surgery. The poet offers a picture of a healing landscape and people, but of deep wounds and reminders that, for those who lived the war, won't go away. At a remote village in the Mekong Delta, he finds himself washing his hands in a U.S. helmet, the household basin.

His book also offers a picture of U.S. deceit. Balaban tells of David Gitelson, a saintly IVS civilian worker, known as "the Poor American." Gittleson won the trust of Vietnamese farmers by living, dressing, eating and travelling in their manner. Gitelson, assisting the farmers with ways to improve their crop production, is mysteriously killed in Viet Nam after meeting with Senator Edward Kennedy to tell him of U.S. atrocities. While Balaban finds no "smoking gun," circumstances and the style of execution implicate a U.S. group known to be operating the area. Balaban's book carries a dedication to "the Poor American" and the entire memoir amounts to a eulogy.

Those familiar with John Balaban's poetry (anthologized in Carrying the Darkness and Unaccustomed Mercy, (both edited by W. D. Ehrhart) will have the pleasure of placing into context faces and events from his poems by reading Remembering Heaven's Face. But this moving memoir offers for all interested in the Viet Nam War a fresh perspective, that of a civilian witness, a man filled with compassion and contradiction, risking his own life to preserve what he can of a threatened culture and its people.

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