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Spring Books

Our War: an act of 'reckoning' and healing


By David Harris
Times Books, Random House, 191 pages, $21


At the end of World War II, Gandhi believed the atomic bomb had bought the allies "an empty victory" and questioned where it would lead. He conceded the bomb had "resulted for the time being in destroying the soul of Japan," but he uttered some prophetic words: "What has happened to the soul of the destroying nation is yet too early to see."

What indeed is the spiritual harvest reaped by becoming "a destroying nation"? David Harris, one of the best known draft resisters in the 1960s, begins to grapple with this question in his retrospect on the Vietnam War, Our War: What We Did in Vietnam and What It Did to Us. What is the wound we as a nation are still carrying from the My Lai massacre or the Phoenix program of assassination or the devastation of saturation bombing? More important, how do we heal?

His answer is that we need what he calls a "reckoning," a period of national self-examination and atonement, one in which we really face the horror of what we did, apologize and undertake some kind of reparations.

"Coming to terms with ourselves is what we do when we reckon, and reckon with our war is what we must do," Harris writes; "[we must] stand outside our fears, revisit what we did so many years ago and clear our souls of this perpetual shadow." Catholics will recognize Harris' call as the need for conversion, for a Lenten journey before we can experience Easter and a national resurrection. By the end of Our War, Harris has turned the Vietnam War experience into a meditation on American identity and our need for a national metanoia.

How right he is. The Vietnam War seems most often treated as a historical mistake or something we should "put behind us" without anything required of us. Harris's book is especially gratifying as an antidote to Robert McNamara's In Retrospect, which treats Vietnam as a bureaucratic snafu, the honest mistake of goodhearted people who just didn't have enough time or information to make the hard choices early.

A mistake? A war lasting a decade involving three American administrations and claiming the lives of three million people by Harris' count? Harris points out that the very word "mistake" provides us with "an emotional anonymity and, as such, a refuge from feeling the pain of what we did."

It's only through feeling this pain during a reckoning that we will really begin to face the human truth and heal, Harris believes. And his writing intends to bring the feeling out of the facts: "These three million people died crushed in the mud, riddled with shrapnel, hurled out of helicopters, impaled on sharpened bamboo, obliterated in carpets of explosives dropped from bombers flying so high they could only be heard and never seen. ... All three million died in pain, often so intense that death was a relief. They all left someone behind."

When the war ended, Harris felt released from his task of opposition and took up work as a journalist for national magazines. But now, a quarter century later, he emerges with his old eloquence and moral power. He summarizes the well-known episodes of the war -- and you might think you've heard them all before, but then Harris brings to these facts a feeling that shines in passage after passage like a light.

Sure, I remember the My Lai massacre, but was it really 504 people who were murdered? Were Americans really that cold-blooded, not just "making mistakes" in a firefight? And yes, I remember the controversy about the plastic fragmentation bomb, but did we really and truly decide to manufacture it from plastic so that the shrapnel could not be detected by medical X-rays and "more resources" -- read, North Vietnamese medical personnel -- would be tied up tending to the wounded? Did Americans do this? I was shocked all over again -- and then shocked that I had forgotten.

Some of the secular press has treated Harris like an old Civil War veteran reminiscing with an "I-told-you-so" attitude, but this completely misses the significance of what Harris is saying. The problem is not just Vietnam, not just the war itself or the unconscionable way in which we fought it. The real problem that Harris so rightly pinpoints is the core of faith and belief informing our actions. The real problem is our national religion.

After wondering what made us do the things we did, wondering what rock we base our national security on, Harris realized it was simple: We believe in brute force. Not the power of democratic ideals to transform a country, not in freedom of choice of one's own destiny, not even all our anti-communist rhetoric.

"When push came to shove, we worshiped at the temple of the Quad 50: four M-2HB Browning .50 caliber machine guns fired simultaneously. ... We prayed to the BLU-1/B napalm canister: 90 gallons of jellied gasoline blended with plastic. ... We sought refuge in the M-108 self-propelled 105-mm howitzer. ... We called out in our need to the F-4 Phantom ... and we genuflected to the Bell AH-1 Cobra. ... We believed that there was no such thing as a surplus of force. ... We quite rightfully expected all that firepower would prove our salvation, but we were wrong about that too. Our faith was to no avail."

Harris doesn't fully explore the implications of these statements, but they're clear: Without changing our beliefs, without fully appreciating the emptiness and weakness of brute force, Americans will resort to it time and again. This means Vietnam was not some governmental "mistake" but an expression of our real national will. As such, other Vietnams are bound to recur.

This book is so imbued with a feeling I've come to identify as Catholic spirituality that I was startled to hear Harris say, "With my Buddhist aspirations, I like to think I believe in forgiveness and redemption." Here's a man who clearly lives his life as a journey of faith, a step-by-step "leap into the void" and yet identifies forgiveness and redemption with Buddhism, not Christianity. It made me wonder what's lacking in our public Christian churches when their message doesn't appeal to someone struggling so deeply with issues of moral choice.

Although much of Our War is determined to make Americans face their sins, Harris believes a reckoning will lead us outward. In his interviews about the book, he says he thinks the U.S. government should apologize for the war and undertake reparations, such as helping clear Vietnam and Cambodia of unexploded ordnance. These actions would signify a deeper, more important change: that we accept responsibility for what we did and reject the faith in brute force that guided our actions.

David Sylvester, an award-winning journalist, lives and works in the San Francisco Bay area.

National Catholic Reporter, February 7, 1997