Edited by Maxine Hong Kingston
(Koa Books; 2006; 612pps; $20)
This is not the kind of book to pick up casually and try to read through in a single sitting. I would read a little, pause, put it down – feel and think, come back later. Essays, poems, and fiction from the Veterans’ Writing Group comprise Maxine Hong Kingston’s book Veterans of War, Veterans of Peace.
The group began forming in the early 1990s, during Gulf War 1. About 30 people (never the same) usually attend the community’s sessions. During its dozen years, there have been over 500 participants. I appreciate having my essay “Sound Shy,” about sound trauma, included in the book.
I have heard some of these stories before. But like a good song, they are worth hearing again. What a treasure – writings by 80 veterans. Many served in the Vietnam War, at least two in Gulf War 1 and some in the peace movement. What diversity—various combat vets, a window washer, Red Cross worker, judge, physicians, deserters, survivors, a retired West Pointer, filmmakers, people with post traumatic stress disorder. In addition to those from the United States, some of these veterans were born in Vietnam, Cambodia, and Israel; they are participants, in one way or another, in five foreign wars.
There are many ways to read a book. I began reading this one through the biographies of its authors. I wanted to know more about the people before reading what they wrote. Rather than the usual sketchy bios trying to impress the reader, many of these are long and full of feelings, including humility and deep personal reflections.
Then I read Kingston’s brief, compelling introduction “Tell the Truth, and So Make Peace.” Her book advocates peace by looking at the realities of war as seen through the eyes of those who experienced it directly. “All my life, I have wanted to keep soldiers safe from war,” she begins. “The veterans needed to write. They would write the unspeakable. Processing chaos through story and poem, the writer shapes and forms experience, and thereby, I believe, changes the past and remakes the existing world. The writer becomes a new person after every story, every poem; and if the art is very good, perhaps the reader is changed, too.”
Kingston also describes how the group’s understanding of veteran evolved, “As the writers became skilled in knowing others’ points of view, they enlarged the definition of veteran. A veteran could be a woman; a veteran could be a deserter; a veteran could be a civilian who had served in war; a veteran could have been a member of a street gang; a veteran could be a survivor of domestic violence; a veteran could be a peace activist…. Wars affect all of our lives.” A growing number of women have joined the group, including wives of veterans, widows, medical practitioners, and some military veterans.
The book’s last entry is “The Veteran Writers Group,” by Michael Wong, who appeared, with his story of desertion from the Army during Vietnam, in the documentary “Sir! No Sir,” about GI resistance to the Vietnam War, as does the book’s Keith Mather. The book’s pages that are full of painful and loving words: “Healing is a never-ending process, and together we continue to find new insights and deeper levels of healing.” Wong provides the online contact for the group: www.vowvop.org.
Michael Parmeley writes about memory. He is in a hospital on crutches after being shot in the leg and sees a Vietnamese man, “The face I am remembering now, the face looking at me from behind the strands of barbed-wire, I probably never really saw. Memory is like that. It adds things, takes things away. It has its own reality, its own standards, and its own truth.” After the war, Parmeley returns to Vietnam, as do many vets in the book.
Veterans, and other Americans, have a lot to grieve about these days. Doing such grief work can be instrumental to the creation of a lasting peace, which I believe is still possible. Grief and its expressions can be pathways to healing and joy. Studies reveal that those who experience trauma and then join groups to talk about it have better recovery rates and are more likely to transform their wounds into gifts. m
Shepherd Bliss, [email protected] , is a retired college teacher who now runs Kokopelli Farm in Northern California. He has contributed essays and poems to 18 books. [He has contributed to this anthology,a piece entitled “Sound Shy.”]