Last month, I visited the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington for the first time. Nothing that I had read or seen quite prepared me for the subtle power of its stark architecture, or the poignant experience of joining my fellow Americans in an impromptu communion with our war dead. And so I picked up my review copy of Facing the Wall: Americans at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial (Collier/MacMillan: $9.95; also available in hardcover, $19.95) with special interest: I wondered if the book would capture the sensation of being there in a way that my own snapshots failed to do. But, like the monument itself, "Facing the Wall" is not what I expected--the book is less about the memorial, or the fallen soldiers whom it honors, than the lingering wound that the Vietnam War has inflicted on our nation.
Indeed, the somber black marble slab of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, with its fretwork of deeply incised names, is only an incidental backdrop--"Facing the Wall" is actually the firsthand testimony of the survivors of the Vietnam War. For more than a year, Duncan Spencer and photographer Lloyd Wolf stationed themselves at the memorial, recording and photographing a tiny but intriguing fraction of the millions who are drawn to the site. "The stories of 'Facing the Wall' were taped or taken down by hand," the authors explain. "The place, with its almost hysterical focus on death, seems to elicit memories long held back." And the witnesses are survivors in the very broadest sense: We are introduced to combat veterans who managed to make it back alive, but also the parents and wives and children and lovers of those who didn't.
We even encounter those whose claim to honor is that they fought against the Vietnam War rather than in it. For instance, I was shocked to come across one of my former college classmates, John Sumida, in "Facing the Wall"--when I last heard of him, he was serving a prison sentence for refusing induction in 1971; now he teaches military history at the University of Maryland. "I didn't believe in conscientious-objector status--it seemed like that was cutting a deal with the government," he explains. "I had already foreseen that there were times that the only correct place to be was in prison."
Each witness in "Facing the Wall" gives voice to what Spencer and Wolf characterize as the "inarticulate phenomenon" of the memorial. "You know, my parents never, to this day, asked me about Vietnam," admits John Shaughnessy, a former helicopter door gunner. "They never asked, I never told." Now, because of our nation's new willingness to confront its own recent history, the veterans are telling. Some of their testimony is angry and full of despair ("I cried when they died, and I laughed when I survived--I never experienced more insanity in my entire life"), and some is exquisitely tender. One veteran, who survived combat only to accidentally blind and disfigure himself while "fooling around with my shotgun," is reunited with his lost brothers in arms: "I asked someone to put my hand on their names," says Gerald Fulkerson. "I got a gut feeling--John and I were kind of close--when I put my hand there I said, 'John, I am touching you again.' "
The Long Darkness: Psychological and Moral Perspectives on Nuclear Winter, edited by Lester Grinspoon (Yale University: ($7.95; hardcover, $25), contemplates a very different kind of war. Based on a symposium presented in Los Angeles as part of the 1983 American Psychiatric Assn.'s annual meeting, the contributors to "The Long Darkness" include Carl Sagan, Erik Erikson, Stephen Jay Gould and Jack E. Mack, all of whom agree that the machinery of nuclear holocaust is the result of a kind of mass psychosis of catastrophic proportions. "Even if there should be some survivors from nuclear fire and nuclear winter, their familiar world--including all the objectives for which we now contend--would be gone forever," observes Henry Steele Commager. "Why, then, do we persist in a military solution (the very term is an oxymoron) instead of seeking in good faith a diplomatic, political, economic, and moral solution?" The answers, according to "The Long Darkness," may be found in the study of the human mind and its workings. But these nine scholars are activists as well as academicians: "We need the courage to be afraid and to make our friends, neighbors, and colleagues afraid," writes Grinspoon, "with a fear that is not neurotic and panicky but thoughtful, a fear not so much for ourselves as for our children, for civilization, and for this precious world."