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A Shadow On Our Hearts
By Daniel C. Lavery (reviewer)
A Shadow On Our Hearts
by Adam Gilbert
(University of Massachusetts Press, 2018)
Our war in Vietnam was one of the most morally contentious events of the twentieth century, but it produced much poetry from the participants. Adam Gilbert's "A Shadow on Our Hearts" collects many poetic voices of those who fought that war contending only theirs is worthy of consideration for his thesis to thoroughly examine core moral issues arising therefrom. Gilbert, a writer and historian, earned his PhD from the University of Cambridge and was a Leverhulme Fellow at the University of Sussex.
Although many poets have written from their non-combat roles of the war and have offered their assessment in poetry, Gilbert's narrows the field for his thesis contending the other poets have been considered and do not fit his requirement of personal war experience. He even includes pilots who fought from such a distance to be hard pressed to derive poetic knowledge from the victims of their grotesque napalm bombings that paramedics and others on the ground write about filling in that gap while examining the war's core moral issues.
These poets provide important insights for Gilbert to explore their physical and psychological surroundings before, during, and after the war. Included are their profound perspectives on the relationships between American soldiers and the Vietnamese people. These firsthand experiences, reflect what it meant to be witnesses, victims, and perpetrators of the war's violence. Their vision of moral responsibility indicts many culprits for the harms caused by the conflict through the lens of morality and presents a personal, and ethically penetrating account of the American war in Vietnam. Gilbert uses a wide variety of authors of the war novel and other historical accounts to back up his thesis and provide context from them to shed light on this dark period of our history. I.F. Stone, Camus, Sartre, Hemingway, Wilfred Owen, Auden, and Frankl are early examples.
Some of his insights are strikingly unique such as the effect of climate on the endurance and lack thereof in a hot jungle environment and how it affects ones clarity of moral action with an elusive clever adversary in touch with their surroundings and used to the heat and rice paddies. David Hall points to his youth killing of ants with matches as conditioning for this and other violent episodes in Vietnam:
In another country
I watch them salvage straw
From the blazing homes
Whose tenants lie
in their yards
My summer of homework shows.
American football provided another conditioner "where the opponent is sort of dehumanized and you're taught basically, to fall in love with hurting people."
Peter P. Mahoney writes, "Military education doesn't teach how to think, it teaches how to obey—blindly and unquestioningly." He reflects on Lt. William Calley, the only American soldier convicted for the killing of unarmed civilians at My Lai: "The only guide that confused young men like Lt. Calley and me was morality, and the Army had done its best to eliminate such a defective idea."
Peter Berenbak indicates racial othering and the language of dehumanization were vital factors in the violence perpetrated by Americans in Vietnam and contends this "linguistic dehumanization was a central aspect of the war."
Wanting to cry out in anger!
At the racism so
Blatantly accepted as
Part of our daily existence (sic)
As well as
Skillfully play the game
Blacks just learning;
Whites practicing for home.
Colorful words for a
Less than human race.
The stage is now set
For the triumphant third act.
Kill them all.
Since they're not really people
It can't be murder
David Connolly writes; "I fought to keep a nation / and people divided"; "I saw very quickly / that we were the invader" ; "I was hated / by the people I fought for."
Kevin Bowen's poem "Temple at Quon Loi, 1969" carefully describes the enmity some Vietnamese people harbored for American soldiers:
Outside the gate
The old woman
Walks up the hill
From the temple.
Deliberate as a procession.
From the corner of an eye
She must wish our deaths.
Beneath the while silk band
Breasts ache for a husband.
She passes in mourning,
Counting each step.
Her prayers rain down like rockets.
The use of free-fire zones- "an American term to designate a geographical area in which all life is considered enemy"—stripped away innocence and identified "legitimate" targets solely based location reinforced American suspicions and hostility toward the Vietnamese population. Perry Oldham, adopting the voice of a gung-ho helicopter gunner, reveals:
The dumbfuckers in the sampan
Who wouldn't get off the canal after curfew-
You and me both know they're out there<
for one reason-
so we hovered overhead and sunk their ass.
The glorification of body counts and kill ratios created a climate in which killing was encouraged leading to this grim song followed one by Jan Barry:
We shoot the sick, the young, the lame,
We do our best to kill and maim,
Because the kills count all the same,
Napalm sticks to kids.
Ox cart rolling down the road,
easants with a heavy load,
They're all VC when bombs explode,
Napalm sticks to kids.
Once you were a strange, alien name
Far across the seas somewhere.
Then you were a small, damp, green
where for a lifetime lived in a year
I sweated, stank, drank, struggled
to survive, stumbled
and nearly died.
Now you are my foster, second home;
a place I've left forever
a part of me.
The best part: the part that cries
when your peoples cry,
that part that suffers when
Best, you have taught me to love
those whom I fought
and was once taught to hate
and question that love
which I used to blindly obey
and to serve no one or no thing
blindly ever again
to be not just a man
but a human being
Dan Lavery graduated Annapolis, navigated a Navy jet, and then a ship to Vietnam. His memoir, All the Difference, describes his change from a pawn in the military to a crusader for justice. www.danielclavery.com