Following the tradition of anti-war veterans, these Iraq War veterans, like the Vietnam Veterans Against the War before them, have staged demonstrations on the American homefront, dramatizing for civilians what it might look like to live under foreign military occupation. On this Veterans Day, I want to remember those who died serving our country, regardless of the political machinations that led to their service, and also those whose lives were never the same after their service.
Jonathan LaGuardia, a graduate student at John Carroll University who has been an invaluable assistant to some of my various projects, including *Behind the Lines* the book project, participated in our Stories of War and Peace project, which led to this reflection, part of a research project on narrative and violence:
I participated in a project this summer under the direction of Philip Metres, a professor of English at John Carroll University. This project, which Prof. Metres called the "War and Peace Story Project" gathered stories from people who attended the Cleveland Peace Show at the Free Stamp Park on September 3rd of this year. The show is an all-day event that provides an alternative to the Cleveland Air Show, with the idea that while we can celebrate the technological prowess and destructive might of the United States, we might also celebrate our peace-making abilities. The Free Stamp park is filled for the day with booths of political activists, organizers, food vendors, even sequin-clad performers on stilts.
Prof. Metres had the idea that we could use this event as an opportunity to collect narratives of war and peace experiences from a diverse group of people, preserving these narratives in an online archive. A slew of student volunteers worked their way through the crowd, recording the stories they heard on digital recorders.
Early in the day, I tagged along on an interview with a Vietnam Veteran, a clean-shaven man of about 60, dressed in a Vietnam-era army shirt and a pair of dull gray cotton shorts. He carried an American flag on a pole over his shoulder in which the separate little white stars—one for each country in the Union—was replaced by a peace sign.
When we started the recorder and asked him to introduce himself, he began factually—basic training at such and such a location, elevated in rank to such and such a position, eventually stationed just north of Saigon—though it quickly turned to personal loss: "Two days after [the January 31, 1968 offensive]," he said, "one of my lieutenants was killed. It was a huge shock to me, and it's still"—his voice began to break, and his eyes shifted from the tiny microphone he had been
watching to some remote, unidentifiable position in the distance—"and, ummm, it's going to be a shock to me for the rest of my life."
A little while into the interview, after more factual "I was here and then went there," the subject of death came up again, and again the speaker hesitated, staring off into the distance and letting his lip quiver before regaining control. His hesitations were so perfect that I could not help but view them as performances—staged, rehearsed performances of the same talk he had been giving for the last 40
About four or five hours later, an Iraq Vet came up to me, a black man of about my age with short, loose dreadlocks and no visible wounds. He came up to me not to give a story, but to give his name and contact information, in case we'd like to get in touch with him at some point in the future. "I'm sure you'll want to hear what I have to say," he said, "but my head just isn't straight enough to submit to an
So, here I have these two generations of veterans: the Vietnam Veteran whose grief seemed rehearsed, and the Iraq Veteran who, in his own words, couldn't get his head "straight enough" to submit to an interview. When the Iraq Vet left me, I turned to where we had interviewed the Vietnam Vet, and there he was still, parading up and down the grass with his American Peace Flag over his shoulder—this 60 year old man in a long sleeved army shirt in the sweltering sun had been walking back and forth for 4 solid hours for no other reason than to be there, to be seen.
With this sight, I saw new value to his performance, thinking that there was a truth to the performed grief that immediate grief could not have delivered. Perhaps it took those 40 years to put those moments into a coherent narrative, the truth of his performed grief identical to his somber but dedicated march: exhausting, but necessary.
My father, a Vietnam War veteran, once recounted to my students that the most important thing he did in Vietnam was to volunteer at a Catholic orphanage, teaching English to young Vietnamese women.