THE PROMISED LAND?
told him:i told
him;we told him
(he didn't believe it,no
a nipponized bit of
the old sixth
el;in the top of his head:to tell
— e.e. cummings
THEY FOUGHT THE ENEMY through the jungles of Vietnam, ducking gunfire, spending sleepless nights and avoiding death, only to be caught in the tripwires and booby traps set by society here at home. And every day, I see the faces of America’s war heroes — who were proud to serve —proud to fight for a way of life here in the Promised Land — living on the streets of every major city I travel to.
That this fate has been dealt to them is ironic — because these men and women — like so many before them who served in a foreign land — dreamed of the day they would come home to America. Home — home of the plenty, home of the brave — and now, home of the homeless.
“The way I live now is like I lived back in the jungle,” one vet told me. “Thirty years later look at me. . .this is where I live at,” he said while motioning to his plastic-encased barracks. I sat with James for nearly an hour as the wind ripped through his 6X10 shack. James was as articulate a man as I had ever met. As I looked around I saw a few books stacked neatly in the corner; one by Albert Camus, the French author and playwright, and another by James Baldwin.
Can you imagine that, if but for a moment? A homeless man, a soldier who’d dug a new foxhole, reading books by a Nobel prizewinner — and another by a man who was arguably one of the most powerful voices in the debate on race in America?
How could it be, I asked James, that patriots have been relegated to this subterranean existence in a nation which claims to revere its’ warriors? He looked at me and smiled. “Son,” he said with sad eyes and a half-smile, “have you ever killed a man? Do you know what that can do to you in your darkest hours?”
When I produced THE PROMISED LAND in 1991, America had just won the first Gulf War a year earlier. There was talk from President George H.W. Bush that we had finally “kicked the Vietnam syndrome, once and for all.” I thought it apropos to raise the question what it meant to be a soldier in war, and whether these men and women in the streets — drunk with dark images and in need of help — were casualties of a society disconnected from the realities of the horror they encountered in war.
It is a question I have never been able to escape. . .and it is a question we should be asking ourselves today as the killing and dying continues in Iraq.
Cleveland State professor John P. Wilson was the first to call Vietnam vets “Forgotten Warriors,” and to bring attention to the deeply held trauma they felt upon returning from that war. Wilson and his own “band of brothers,’ including former Army Captain Shad Meshad and others, helped define what we now know as PTSD, or Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. It was the modern version of “shellshock,” a term known to just about any WWII veteran.
The question is, will we really “support our troops” when they come home? The answer is anything but certain, considering our recent history.
Back in 2004, for example, while in the midst of the presidential campaign, ABC’s Nightline program read the names and showed the faces of every American killed in action in Iraq. As you may recall, the outrage was palatable. Some ABC affiliates (owned by backers of President Bush) refused to air the Nightline program, instead opting to broadcast a scurrilous, slanted and cowardly “mockumentary” about John Kerry’s service in Vietnam.
I remember thinking how nearly every car in America sported those silly magnetic yellow ribbons proclaiming “We Support Our Troops,” but when push-came-to-shove, these wealthy broadcast entities chose politics instead of honoring the men and women who died in combat. They re-opened the wounds of Vietnam for cold, calculated, and cynical reasons that in no way served to honor the veterans of war — ANY war.
TODAY, with over 130,000 Americans serving in Iraq and Afghanistan, the soldiers we claim to support are living a hellish existence: again, they are ducking gunfire, spending sleepless nights and doing their best to avoid death in another faraway land. The nation is divided again, and the world is a tempest-in-a-teapot.
Will we remember that we owe them a far greater debt than to merely pat them on the back? Will we repay their service —as the Pentagon budget becomes more bloated with weaponry and big corporate payoffs — with counseling and healthcare services and job support? Or will we fail them again — as we have done so many times in the past?
These men and women have sacrificed the best years of their lives in service to our nation. They will be stained by the sights, sounds and smell of war — and trapped by the hyper aberrations of combat.
It is up to us — to our leaders — to choose whether they return with the full support of our people, or whether they become — like so many before them — unknown soldiers left to die without dignity. . .in the Promised Land.