Jim McGarrah teaches teaches creative writing at the University of Southern Indiana, where he is an assistant professor in the English department. Here he answers questions about his new book A Temporary Sort of Peace: A Memoir of Vietnam, recently released by the Indiana Historical Society Press.
For many, the Vietnam War is still too fresh and too painful to read about or see in movies or on TV. What’s your experience with this?
I think a testament to these memories remaining fresh and painful for everyone concerned is the time lapse between when I returned from Vietnam in 1968 and when I actually began my career as a writer trying to come to terms with some of my ghosts in 1998. It took three decades and considerable therapy for PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) before I was willing to take on the frightening and often retraumatizing challenge of reflecting on what had happened to all of us in that generation.
How well do you think that movies, books, TV programs, etc. have done thus far in portraying the realities of that war?
There have been some brilliant books written on the subject, including poetry collections, but almost exclusively by people who have had firsthand experience with the Vietnam War. These are books that adhere to Tim O’Brien's famous adage: “you can tell a true war story by its uncompromising and absolute allegiance to obscenity and evil.”
Movies tend to drift away from that because we Americans like to see positive resolution in our Hollywood dramas. The good guy needs to win before we feel like we got our money’s worth and Hollywood caters to that shallowness; TV caters to it even more. Consequently, with those mediums the concern is often more economic success than honesty. There are exceptions. Born on the Fourth of July and Full Metal Jacket were both overwhelmingly real and honest. Apocalypse Now, which was also a great movie, may have been the most real because of its surreality--that vague shadow of existential malaise and then the blatant insanity that ran through every scene.
How have they misrepresented things?
One has only to watch Rambo or any of Chuck Norris’ Vietnam movies to understand the answer to that question. One Vietnam veteran is not equal to 50 other men. Rifles do run out of ammunition. American grenades don’t blow up bad guys and leave innocent people alone.
The Vietnam War was part of a political agenda and, as an exercise in “flexible” warfare, had nothing to do with patriotism or justice, as the movies and some books might lead you to believe. As a matter of fact, that may be the most tragic misrepresentation because it makes it easier for politicians to manipulate the public into new wars, like Iraq.
You say that “the jungles of Vietnam, the one place where life was at its best and worst simultaneously every minute of every day.” Briefly explain that sentiment.
There really is no brief answer to that question. It’s a complex and guilt-ridden psychological fact. We are taught that killing is wrong and every fiber of our consciousness rebels against that act. On the other hand, a firefight that a soldier lives through often brings a high, an adrenalin rush that creates a subconscious, sometimes addictive, feeling of euphoria. It’s hard to lie to yourself and not admit it’s one of the greatest physical sensations you’ve ever had. So, when you live through a firefight in which others die, you’re psyche is horribly conflicted with both guilt and joy-–the best and worst of life at the same time.
Has writing this book and going back to Vietnam been healing for you? Has it given you peace?
As the title indicates, there is nothing for combat veterans other than a temporary peace, an island of respite that lets your mind rest from time to time from itself. In that regard, the book and the trip both allowed me some rest at the completion of each.
What is your greatest hope for what people will take away from reading this book?
I hope that people will take away from this book how easy it is in our society to manipulate support for dubious causes and that we all, as free citizens, need to demand more accountability from our leaders when they sacrifice our only treasure, the young. But, that we also need to demand more from ourselves in terms of critical thinking about issues before we allow politicians to send our children to war. War has always got to be the very last option on the table when countries have differences. Too often, it’s been the first.