Step One: You sign up in the fall of 1961 for a college course called Introduction to ROTC, because, though you have no urgent desire to shoot anyone, you are a child of World War II.
Step Two: Four semesters later, you face a decision. Recovered from your first clinical depression after spending too much time acting in plays and writing features for the campus daily while neglecting to go to classes, you are given a choice: enroll in the advanced curriculum of the art of war, or play military roulette. If you stick with it, you must report for active duty after graduation, something distasteful. If you don’t, you’ll probably be drafted, something distasteful. But you are far from alone in this conundrum. This is because this is the fate of most young men who in the Cold War era have the misfortune to experience excellent health. And, as the son of veteran who didn’t rise above staff sergeant in the Pacific, you’d rather begin your own military stint as a commissioned officer. Besides, there seems to be no Hot War at the moment. So you opt to stay, in part because the Pentagon bribes you with payments of twenty-seven dollars per month, enough to cover your laundry bill and Sunday editions of the New York Times, which your international relations professor requires you to read, as he expects you to grasp why the world is a perpetual powder keg, and why politicians don’t understand anything, although that doesn’t stop them from expressing their ignorance and sending young people to their deaths before going off on their golf outings at the Congressional Country Club.
Step Three: You receive, along with your bachelors of science in journalism sheepskin, a commission in the United States Army in the Quartermaster Corps, which relieves you, as it is a “noncombat” branch. You drive your Dodge Dart, the one you bought new for
$1,976 because it was heavily dented in a hailstorm, to the American South for training and your permanent duty station, which turns out to be permanent for six months. During that time, you serve as commissary store officer, explaining to customers why the price of a half a gallon of whole milk has jumped from thirty-one cents to thirty-three cents though you don’t really have a clue. And you are also given the additional duty of assistant mortuary officer, which turns out to be something of an omen.
Step Four: Because you have no say in the matter, you embark on an all-expenses paid voyage to a gorgeous landscape of the southern part of Vietnam that, unfortunately, is home at the moment and for years afterward to vile circumstance. There, in a country fatally divided by politics, religion, colonialism, revenge, hard economic realities, and land mines, many of your fellow soldiers, fighting a war that will be torn asunder by historians, are sent home in body bags, and many others will face years or decades of mental consequence. Your “noncombat branch” is suddenly the target of ambushes. As the convoy commander, you barely escape one of them because the AK-47 round aimed at your brain rips instead through the jeep’s canvas top. (Had the sniper’s aim been slightly better, he would have obviously rendered you ineligible to write this account.) Yet, against expectations, you survive your own eleven-month, thirteen-day, six-hour, twenty-three-minute tour with no serious physical traumas.
Step Five: You return to civilian pursuits, a member of a disgraced society of veterans of the most controversial war since that calamity started at Fort Sumter, and follow your nose for news as a newspaper writer and Sunday magazine editor. The war is officially over, but unofficially it becomes the source of nightmares so prevalent that you can’t ever leave it in the past. In these nighttime skirmishes, you are ordered to return to Vietnam to do it right this time. But your boots are missing. Your insignia, too. And your fatigue pants. You reply to the commanding officer, “I’d like to go back to war, but I have nothing to wear.” In real life, from your editor’s desk, you publish stories of the war that conflict with other stories of the same cataclysm, because no one, not even the sharpest writers and academics (most of whom escaped military service) understand what happened or why, or what the true legacy may be. One story is written by a veteran who ordered an artillery bombardment that, because of his own error in calculating the strike, went astray and killed his best friend. He writes that he sees that friend again every time he goes to sleep, and pleads for forgiveness. In your final decade in the magazine world, you drive a car from your upgraded fleet (a Saab or a top-of-the-line Honda) on the thirty-five-mile commute from your small Connecticut town to the city where you work. One day, your publisher calls and asks you to take on a high school student as an intern. You balk because all of your interns have been college students. But, as the publisher signs your paycheck, you take on the girl, only sixteen. She is a native of the country that hosted your war, and after it, her father was sent to a reeducation camp for many years. Against expectation, the young intern is an instant hit with staff, not only because she brings her mother’s pork dumplings to the weekly staff meeting but because she’s a human dynamo. She organizes a writers’ conference and persuades the likes of Arthur Miller and William Styron to speak. She brims with ideas for profiles and investigations. You become interested in her college plans. She says she dreams of going to Harvard. You ask her what kind of high school grades she gets even though you already suspect they are spectacular, which they are. And how she did on the SATs—a perfect score. You opine that with her academic record, and because she is a member of a segment of the population that such institutions seek to promote campus diversity with, she is a shoo-in. She looks at you as if you are the mayor of Pluto. If you knew, she says, how many Vietnamese students score perfectly on the SATs, you wouldn’t say that. In fact, she doesn’t get into Harvard, and goes to Brown instead, and studies art, her passion. And years later, goes to law school, and then takes a job in a prestigious firm.
Step Six: In 2010, you buy a used Subaru sedan that has only thirteen thousand miles on it and drive it for seven years. Because your commute is long and your house is isolated in the woods, you and your wife need two cars. She drives a Saab wagon.
Step Seven: Having finished your tour of corporate duty and been granted a buyout in a failing business, you go out on your own as a writer and editor, though a friend advises you not to if you want to be able to pay for car repairs, and, perhaps, groceries. During this time you write some books, and a play about the Vietnam War, though it is not about you but about a childhood friend, a navigator/bombardier on a fighter jet, whose body was not found for forty years. After the play is staged, friends who see it suggest going back to Vietnam, a step most veterans of the war have avoided.
Step Eight: Because Vietnam has never left you, you decide you will never leave it. And you and your wife, not the wife you were married to in your officer days, because she didn’t survive to the end of the war, but your final wife, plan an independent adventure in the place you once feared going to, in order to make sense of things. You savor, in addition to the street food in Ho Chi Minh City, fish stew in Nha Trang, the local beer in Hue, watermelon in Dalat, and innovative cuisine in the magical village of Hoi An, that the people everywhere are glad to see you. Among your souvenirs: a T-shirt that says “Good Morning, Vietnam.”
Step Nine: Because you live an urban life now (you have moved from the little town to a Connecticut city), you and your wife no longer need two cars. So you put the Subaru sedan up for sale, though you don’t look forward to the process. Your former intern, the native of Vietnam, whom you’ve kept in touch with, sees your Facebook pitch and says her brother needs a car in Washington, DC, and that her mother wants to buy it for him. Her mother comes to your house a day later, bringing a box of not very Asian homemade doughnuts and a mechanic who is also a native of her home country. He checks the car and says it looks worth the asking price. You take the woman to the DMV and wait your six hours until you can transfer the title. The clerk at the window looks at the two of you and might think, well, there’s a nice couple. She processes the papers, and all’s well.
Step Ten: You sit at the desk in your home office and consider what you thought was once a fine moral to the story of the collective Vietnam experience: that as a country the United States finally would learn from its mistakes and understand the limits of its authority, power, and right to bombard to smithereens other countries so that they can be free. You ask yourself if you are the writer you think you are. Though you’ve published books before, you never took on in book form the best story of your life. You ask, What did that war do to your mind? But by now, of course, having put down these words, you are on your way to figuring it out.