A letter To Vietnam from veteran George Evans
I want to be reasonable, it is something I crave and wish I knew how to pray for but cannot pray, not having the faith of it, having seen.
We have friends, then we do not have them because we reach some border across which words cannot manage, across which silence will not bridge, and in the manner of children we stand without explanation or understanding, and there is no necessity that we question it. We learn to ignore those events which remove things in the way that we know of as “Before their time.” It’s another weapon we aim at our heads.
When we stood in the garden and looked at the stone bridges connecting islands on the gravel ocean, I felt the war lift from us in flames, inch by inch flowing into stone like a river on fire.
We ended something walking together, and started something.
I’ve read the war is over for you, but have never believed it. Victory is no balm for loss. Any of us may celebrate a moment, but we live a long time, and finality is not what we need, compassion is what we need. Let the future think about the war being over, because then it will be. We can’t afford to heal. If we do, we’ll forget, and if we forget, it will start again.
We’ve destroyed too much to be sentimental. We know that those above and those below the jungle canopy killed anything that got in the way, and we’re all guilty of something. Wars are always lost. Even if you win.
I returned to San Francisco sorry about some things I was unable to explain, especially the army of beggars in our streets, and how badly we treat the poor. The coldness of it, you see, is a symptom of killing nations at a distance, or even up against their breaths. It has also to do with how freedom can be like the end of a rope. It pollutes all notions of beauty, this living in the streets. My wife in those days pointed out that Americans do help one another during floods, earthquakes, and conflagrations. “That’s not compassion,” I said, “it’s convenience—only generosity when there is no disaster counts.” I’d become so wise, righteous anger made me happy. We sat in silence after that. Actually, one was washing dishes and one was peeling potatoes, we could hear the rattle of a bottle gleaner digging through the recycle bin on our sidewalk, a jet was passing over, John Lee Hooker was singing on the radio, the neighbors were having a horrible fight, there was a crash in the intersection, one of our cats spit at the other, and the phone rang but we ignored it, so it wasn’t really silent. Then she said, “We would all be wealthy if people were born honest.” So. Not all understanding comes from the barrel of a gun.
Stretched flat in deep grass resolute about the sickness of pursuits watching a moth on a beer can lip swing its curled tongue like an elephant trunk across the water dots. The only thing I know about fame and success is that they are stumbling blocks when they commandeer my attention. My real function is to think about things and listen, drunk and lazy, to the buzz in the grass, the millions of insects who do not care what I think. I’m tired of the world of people—they’re not to be trusted on the whole because they don’t understand death. It’s not that they’re unhappy, it’s just that they don’t understand death. I’m not above or beneath them, I’m just sometimes not one of them. I’ve seen too much to be fooled into thinking we know what we are doing. Maybe I’m getting too arrogant for my own good, but even that sounds stupid in the face of death. I understand the insects in the deep grass, even if I can’t repeat what they say.
I’ve come out to the cliffs above the Pacific Ocean before sunset. I told you my childhood friends were all killed in the war, and you told me similar things. It wasn’t difficult for me to also tell you I was never angry at your country. What was difficult was to tell you how angry I am at my own.
Pelicans overhead. The rose-colored hood of a finch in the bushes. I sit on a railroad tie post on a high cliff at the edge of North America.
Tourists drive up, take pictures, go home.
A cormorant. Sailboat. An Army gunship choppers over the beach.
Behind me, an Army base. In front of me, the sea.
I’m waiting for the sun to set, but it will not.
From Veterans of War, Veterans of Peace, copyright 2006 Maxine Hong Kingston, editor, from Koa Books. First published in The New World, copyright 2002 George Evans. Reprinted by arrangement with Curbstone Press, curbstone.org.
Image 1: The Sanjusangendo Temple in Kyoto, Japan, home of to 1,001 statues of the bodhisattva Kannon, ©Chris Lisle/Corbis
Image 2:©Chris Lisle/Corbis