By Gianluca Cinelli
Lieutenant Sandy Scull and Corporal Brent MacKinnon are two Marines who served in Vietnam from 1966 to 1968. They endured and survive the war, they made it back to their homes, and then began to struggle – like many other veterans – with their demons and the ghosts from the past. They pursued with perseverance the goal of healing from the wounds of war and succeeded in their task. Therapy, poetry, storytelling, and active engagement with other veterans were the ingredients of a long story of positive reassessment of past, traumatic experience, until that unfortunate day in which they fell sick and sought medical aid, only to find out that the war had caught up with them once again in the most treacherous way. The diagnosed cancer that affected Sandy and Brent was quite beyond any doubt connected with their exposure to the infamous Agent Orange, the highly toxic dioxin-based defoliant manufactured by big corporations such as Dow and Monsanto that was largely spread all over Vietnam during the war up to 1971.
“One foot in two worlds” is just a hint of what these men really went through. The world of war, which engulfed their youth, became a time of barren memories to exorcise through therapy and poetry as soon as they went back home. This was the other world, where they built new lives and turned the traumatic experience of Vietnam upside-down to make some sense out of it, to help others. Sandy Scull writes: “Many veterans experienced soul loss in Vietnam. The good news is that soul is recoverable by living fully into the days we have left.” Healing the wounds of the soul was their task, until a new challenge turned up, one that was much more difficult to deal with and that also reawakened some ghosts from the past. As Sandy writes in “Now”: “It took 52 years for the bullet to find me.”
The book that Sandy and Brent wrote brings together several forms of writing in a creative and critical way, as its purpose is not to entertain but to inform and to urge the readers to think about the things that happened in Vietnam and about their appalling legacy fifty years later. With different voices and tunes Sandy and Brent tell their ordeal and voyage: down to hell and up towards the light, as archetypes play a distinctive role in the poems of this book. Archetypes date back to the eve of human civilisation and still work for us as powerful means to make sense out of the mystery of life, death, and regeneration as in Brent’s prose “Monsoon”, in which he recalls his convalescence period spent in a Vietnamese village, tended by local peasants:
Something strange and wonderful was happening to me. The tough combat vet, now a helpless patient ten thousand miles from home, won over by the hearts and minds of peasants in a remote Vietnamese village. As a Marine, I was no good after that. The thought of shooting someone, anyone, belonged to a Self who no longer existed. I had been recruited and initiated into the human race. I now knew the real mission: To do as much good for the village in what time I may have left.
Brent also likes playing with the epic tone (of Biblical inspiration) in the poem “Horsemen of the Orange Apocalypse”, while in Sandy’s compositions there is more rarefaction, intimacy, and meditation.
Trauma is the undergrowth and last horizon of this book. PTSD, or post-traumatic stress disorder is the technical definition of the syndrome that affects people like Sandy and Brent. Edward Tick, who authors the foreword to the book, calls PTSD “post-traumatic soul distress” and highlights that the authors of this book call themselves “Dead Men Walking”. Thus, he wonders: “What is it like to be killed in a war but live while that death takes decades to catch you? What is it like knowing your own government and its weapons killed you as you watch inevitable death slowly approach?” Such lack of social acknowledgment that sounds like a betrayal is the very fabric of trauma. The feeling that all the suffering and sacrifice was in vain triggers resentment and frustration in veterans. Tick adds that “healing for our veterans means restoring the social contract by which they protected us and in turn we tend and serve them. This is difficult and demanding and necessitates uninformed civilians willingly looking, seeing, feeling, admitting horrors and pains done in our names but out of our knowing.”
What strikes the most is the inner strength of these two men, who learned that the most appalling hardship may not be the worst, as Brent writes in “Cancer Stage 6”: “I am grateful for combat, / for the decades of lost years, / Self-imposed exile / Combat teaches just how bad / life can get and this / always calms me.” And Sandy, recalling the deeds of George Pollard (who was the unfortunate commander of the whaleship Essex that shipwrecked in 1830), writes in his poem “In the Wake” of 1970: “A comfort to me that Melville wrote: / Pollard had found a way to live on.”
To find a new way is the task of all veterans returning home. Sandy writes that poetry can help to reach this goal, for “poetry is the language of the imagination and that can be the first casualty of war. Writing can redeem a more figurative sensibility and help us to forgive and face loss.” Brent too mentions the “healing power of writing”:
Here in America combat vets are invited to share the intimate details during individual and group therapy sessions. We tell part of our story in a circle of survivors with similar psychic injuries and they listen empathetically. Time is up, patients return to communities, families, jobs and friends who know only fragments and hear very little what happened to their citizen soldiers who have returned so deeply changed. They may never know. Is it any wonder that many veterans return and are destined to remain strangers and outsiders?
He adds that “while the majority of our warriors return without physical injury, the catastrophic nature of war often results in soul destruction: psychological and emotional collateral damage.” Telling, listening, understanding, and sharing. This is the way out of war and violence when it comes to re-integrate the returning veterans, no matter whether their ideas may sound awkward if not even wrong. A just society allows its members to share and discuss all opinions, which is the reason why Brent writes:
We and others are not the same person who left for WWII, Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, or Afghanistan. When ready, the sharing of a memoir, a poem or a short story with family and friends brings new understanding of the returning warrior. His or her reintroduction into community will begin with those who have been waiting to hear what happened and who we are now.
Reading their poems and listening to their stories paves the way toward understanding and actual reconciliation between the warriors who return carrying the ugly burden of violence and dehumanisation, and their communities that must listen very hard and make any effort to understand what it means to be involved in a war.
However, in a complicated world such as ours, things are never that plain as we would like them to be: war is the dark side of economy and of “world politics”, which implies that companies that provide goods for our daily, wealthy lives, should continue to profit also from war and the destruction it causes. Chemical industries involved in the production of toxic gas used for chemical warfare are the very same that in peace produce effective drugs to protect our health and chemical products that make crops more abundant and resilient to parasites. Where is the limit, over which their statutory role becomes dangerous and perhaps criminal? If we imagine the statement “the train was on time”, we can attempt a Gedankenexperiment: if the train is bringing stocks of vaccine and food to a plague-ridden city, the statement conveys a morally just meaning. If the train, though, is deporting hundreds of people to an extermination camp, we would not call that a good story. So, the train’s punctuality is – as a merely technical state of affairs – neither good nor bad. It is the destiny of the humankind involved in its “being on time” that matters.
The authors of this book just ask their readers and society not to turn away their faces. They know that death has caught up with them, although fifty years later, and in fact they have inserted their own “pre-mortem obituaries” in the book. They denounce the fact that Bayer bought Monsanto, agreeing to pay millions of Euros to settle the claim of thousands of veterans and families who called for Monsanto’s liability for the damage done with Agent Orange. Brent, whose poetic voice sounds sometimes sarcastic and angry due to indignation, says in the poem “Vietnam Hangover”: “I got the news today. / My V.A. claim denied. / Fuck you / I don’t want money. / Just say you did It / Say you killed me with Agent Orange / Say you did It.”
This fine book reaches beyond the autobiographical and intimate sphere to touch upon such issues as chemical warfare and practices (like the “burn-pits” in Afghanistan and Iraq, or the use of OGMs) that put health and environmental equilibrium at risk. The two authors also know that their history is way more collective than it may seem, because the veterans affected by Agent Orange are hundreds of thousands, American and Vietnamese as well. Thus, the book also provides practical information for veterans and their families seeking after help, justice, and acknowledgement.