Everyone has their Vietnam.
At Hell's Gate: A Soldier's Journey From War To Peace
Claude Anshin Thomas
Boston: Shambhala Publications
156 pp.; $19.95 (cloth)
At the age of seventeen I enlisted in the U.S. Army and volunteered for service in Vietnam. By taking up arms, I was directly responsible for killing several hundred people, and the killing didn’t stop until I was honorably discharged and sent home with numerous medals, including a Purple Heart. But as I pieced together the shrapnel of my life and discovered the heart that had been shattered by combat, I discovered that there is no justification for killing, no clear separation between good and bad violence, and no rectitude in war. War is just the acting out of suffering.
So begins the gripping memoir of Claude Anshin Thomas’s twenty-two-year emotional nightmare and painstaking recovery. Physically and mentally broken in combat, he endured homelessness, hopelessness, and addiction before becoming a Zen Buddhist monk and walking in pilgrimage across three continents. With the United States again at war, the lessons he has learned about violence and mindfulness have a startling relevance that makes this slender book hard to put down.
For Thomas, serving as a helicopter gunner in Vietnam was the continuation of a violent childhood. On his first combat mission, his helicopter was shot down, trapping him in a fierce, nightlong firefight. As soldiers around him cried out in fear, Thomas perfected the ability to smother his feelings and function as a killing machine: "That vulnerable boy, eighteen years old, scared to death . . . Gone! Gone! Gone!" he recalls.
Thomas survived his tour and returned home a decorated soldier, but like many Vietnam vets, he suffered mightily: "There was no 'after the war’ for me," he writes. "My life, as a survivor of Vietnam, was an ongoing war." Over the next two decades, Thomas spiraled downward: jobs, relationships, marriage, and parenthood ended in failure. Uncomfortable in society and his own skin, he turned to sex, drugs, and alcohol.
Then, in 1983, he entered a drug rehabilitation program. Over the next seven years, he stayed clean but grew increasingly miserable. In 1990 a social worker persuaded him to attend a retreat for veterans led by the Vietnamese Zen monk Thich Nhat Hanh. It was a pivotal moment: In confronting someone who resembled his former enemy, Thomas began confronting the enemy within. In 1995 he was ordained by Roshi Bernie Glassman, going on to become a senior dharma teacher and a member of the Zen Peacemaker Order.
Today this onetime warrior and martial artist is a wandering mendicant monk and peacemaker working with prisoners, soldiers, refugees, and civilians in war zones —people whose lives are marked by violence. In 1994 he made his first pilgrimage, a five thousand-mile walk from the death camps of Auschwitz, Poland, to Vietnam. Buddhism taught him that pilgrimage is "the journey to know oneself completely." During a walk across America in which he and five companions depended on the generosity of strangers for food and lodging, a Bible Belt minister served them dinner while condemning Thomas as the Antichrist.
Thomas’s struggle back to sanity required digging up long-buried feelings and devastating memories, such as seeing fellow soldiers blown to bits by a booby-trapped baby and Vietcong dressed as monks. He credits mindfulness with helping him "move out of cycles of destructiveness and suffering."
At Hell’s Gate could have used a closer edit; certain ideas recur again and again. But some themes unquestionably bear repeating, not least that "everyone has their Vietnam . . . everyone has their wounds." We all act with anger or aggression at times—in the checkout line, perhaps, or while driving, or in an argument. Unsparing in self-examination, Thomas looks closely at the violence underlying the actions of others. With great poignancy he recalls an encounter shortly after coming home from Vietnam. Walking through the airport in his dress uniform with its ribbons and decorations, he locked eyes with a beautiful young woman with long auburn hair and wearing a peasant dress. Expecting a hero’s welcome—perhaps a kiss or hug—he was stunned when she spat on him instead.
To Thomas, the anger that causes someone to despise war’s proponents and soldiers is the same emotion that feeds war itself, and he bestows no mantle of moral superiority on war protesters. Reading between the lines, one can sense his continuing disappointment that he had to turn to a foreigner—indeed, a Vietnamese—for help in healing the wounds of war.
Dave Platter is a writer and independent publicist in New York City.