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In the Combat Zone: AN ORAL HISTORY OF AMERICAN WOMEN IN VIETNAM, 1966-1975; compiled and edited by Kathryn Marshall (Little, Brown: $17.95; 320 pp.)

March 08, 1987|Mary Pjerrou | Pjerrou is at work on a novel entitled "The Correspondence of Eleanor Rigby."

After reading Kathryn Marshall's "In the Combat Zone," which consists of 20 personal narratives of women who served in Vietnam, I had an inspiration for a solution to the current White House crisis: Why don't we staff the National Security Council with the combat nurses of Vietnam?

Surely there are no more competent, courageous and clear-headed people on Earth, nor any with a better understanding of modern warfare, than the women who faced the airloads of soldiers ripped to shreds, often by our own anti-personnel weapons, many with injuries so bad they called the surgeries "horriblectomies."

Shrapnel wounds all over the body, abdomens blown away, flesh burnt to the bone by white phosphorous and Agent Orange. Twenty-four-hour shifts, not enough hands, stifling heat, no running water, 15 minutes of sleep, and another load of injured coming in, with two, three, four limbs blasted off, and half a face; not to mention the extraordinary confusion of a guerrilla civil war, the constant threat of rocket attacks, and the prevalence of civilian injuries (shrapneled, napalmed babies) and unusual diseases (bubonic plague). No knowledge of Vietnamese culture, no preparation for the sort of injuries they would see, and, according to Marshall's reckoning, more than half of them dumped into Vietnam with less than six months' nursing experience.

These women have earned the right to make U.S. foreign policy.

Imagine a foreign policy devised by Army nurse Saralee McGoran, 12th Evacuation Hospital, Cu Chi: "Like this one guy . . . he was my breaking point. He was maybe 17 or 18. . . . The whole bottom half of his body was just blasted to hell. He's lost part of his penis and scrotum and his two legs. . . . Even the tops of his legs were gone. . . . I walked in and saw this blob on the stretcher . . . and it seemed real cold in there all of a sudden. I don't know why, but it seemed so cold. . . . I picked up the sheet and got a glimpse of his red hair and his blue eyes. And I couldn't look. I had lost it. I screamed and ran out the door. . . . Suddenly it dawned on me that the guy was alone. So I went back to him."

On the other hand, how could we have people conducting our covert wars, our arms deals, who get emotional over a blob on a stretcher? Strolling the corridors of power with bravely persistent memories; going up to Cap Weinberger and Elliott Abrams, and whispering, "Do you guys realize what anti-personnel bombs do to the human body?"

Well, forgive the strange fantasy of a poor book reviewer, up too late at night with the "horriblectomy" of Vietnam.

Some of these women are psychological basket cases today. Some couldn't stay with the program. Marshall, discussing the interviews she conducted for "In the Combat Zone": "I'm thinking of a former Army nurse, who, moment by moment, seemed to disintegrate. After half an hour all she could say was 'It was horrible'--over and over. . . . Afterward, I didn't even listen to the tape. Her history, I knew was both too jumbled and too sketchy; other pain-riddled stories I had been able to piece together, but she had simply disappeared from hers."

Between 33,000 and 55,000 American women served in Vietnam, in the military (11,000), in the Red Cross, or such relief organizations as the American Friends Service Committee. Quaker Marjorie Nelson's account of her two months as a POW with the Viet Cong is particularly interesting. We should've had her at Reykjavik, negotiating an arms treaty. Or maybe Red Cross worker, Cindy Randolph, who cared for traumatically wounded soldiers, at Chu Lai: "The only way we're ever going to have peace is if we recognize our shadow sides."

How can we have done what we did? How can we face it? Are we going to repeat it? In addition to providing invaluable historical information, the brave interviewees of "In the Combat Zone" struggle with these important questions, for us, as well as for themselves. It's time we listened.

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