Vietnam veterans like to say that there were as many Vietnams as there were soldiers who fought there, but what all soldiers in Vietnam had in common was the experience of war itself. For better or worse, the landscape of war appears to have, for all who come there, many of the same scarifying features. How else to explain some of the remarkable similarities in the otherwise remarkably dissimilar accounts of Lewis B. Puller Jr. and John Balaban?
Puller, author of "Fortunate Son," an autobiography, is a decorated combat veteran, a Marine whose tour ended when he detonated a land mine, losing both legs and part of both hands. Balaban, author of "Remembering Heaven's Face," a record of a life "threaded through the needle of Vietnam," was a conscientious objector who chose alternative service in Vietnam, and, after his initial wounding, returned to Vietnam not once, but three more times.
After the war, both men have essentially the same recurrent dream. Both dream that they are back in Vietnam, once again utterly helpless and impotent in the face of enormous, uncontrollable forces. Puller misses an essential but unnamed object, unable to protect himself or his men; Balaban misses the contents of his dossier, unable to help the wounded and burned Vietnamese children who are his charges.
In both dreams, the missing object seems to represent this loss of personal power, the shattering of the self's illusion that it is indestructible, that it can, in fact, matter at all. Both Balaban and Puller survive enormous traumas in Vietnam, but it is this trauma to their sense of self that they must overcome to find meaning in their lives again. This is, I think, clearest in Puller's lucid, brave, and understated view of himself.
When he came "into country," Puller, a green lieutenant, took in stride vicious and unpredictable enemy attacks. He was able to control the behavior of his edgy, armed teen-agers who played with heads of corpses and had to be restrained from mutilating enemy bodies. But when he realized that "our first two kills had absolutely no say in the manner and timing of their deaths," he felt "vaguely unclean in an unidentifiable way . . . . (He) wondered if it was a soldier's lot always to fall victim to circumstances beyond his control."
Back from the field, safe once more, Puller momentarily identified with the enemy he had helped to kill. His sudden, unwelcome knowledge of his own helplessness in the face of a universe randomly dealing out death temporarily unmanned him. He was not ready to believe that in war there is no personal choice, no control over one's destiny. The evidence, however, was there and would soon become incontrovertible.
It was there for Balaban, too, but he seems to have chosen another way of seeing, a way of rationalizing (or neutralizing) the terrifying randomness. He was wounded by a chance "snippet" from a cluster bomb exploding on the edge of town, yet remained intent on finding personal meaning, relevance and purpose in this random event:
This snippet "had nevertheless strayed my way, as if to remind me of the pure cheekiness of standing close to so much pain and death and expecting I would come out whole; it was as if Death had taken a step closer to whisper in my ear, to say: 'My young American friend, my little do-gooder, do you think you are less dear to me than the smallest child? This is what I have done to you. You know I could do more.' "
The way these two men react to sudden, irrevocable knowledge of their own powerlessness allows us to see into the nature and effect of war, to see that, for the combat soldier and the conscientious objector alike, war does not end with the cease-fire or the return of the troops. Grass may cover the scarred, bomb-cratered landscape of Vietnam, but for those who were caught up in war, the war still goes on. Participants and witnesses are only a dream or an impinging memory away from Vietnam.
Does how well someone survives depend on how well he accommodates to knowledge of his own powerlessness? Readers of "Remembering Heaven's Face" and "Fortunate Son" may well conclude that it does.
If Puller (whose father, "Chesty" Puller, was the most decorated man in the Marine Corps) felt dissatisfied with his performance as a military man in Vietnam, he need give ground to no one in his fight to regain a place on the home front. After two years in hospital rehabilitation wards, Puller, permanently confined to a wheelchair, resumed family life, graduated from law school, served on President Ford's clemency panel, and finally ran for Congress. When news of his candidacy reached the doctor who had treated him on the battlefield, the doctor wrote him the following astonishing letter: