As a piece of writing, what you are about to read is disjointed. Maybe a better word is ragged. This is because the memories are ragged. They refuse to be condensed and organized into neat, traditional forms. Partly this is because I am writing about two things at once, Ken Burns’ documentary about Vietnam and my own blighted experiences. Partly it is because memories of war do not like to be awakened. They prefer to sleep.
I arrived in Vietnam as an infantry First Lieutenant in early November of 1967. A few weeks after I arrived I celebrated my 22nd birthday. The year ahead for me, for my loved ones, and for the entire country was momentous and horrible. When it was over, nothing was ever the same again. But at the start, I need to say something that you may consider very strange. As terrible as that year was, I view it as one of God’s great gifts to my life. How that could be true I’ll explain at the end.
No film about Vietnam can ever be made that will tell the full story of that tragedy, because there are as many stories as there are American soldiers who served in that war. No film about Vietnam will ever be truly objective. Even after all these years, so much raw emotion remains on every side. Certainly, Mr. Burns has his biases. He spends a lot more time focused on the rightness of the anti-war movement and the supposed brutality of American soldiers than he does on the murderous brutality of the communist government in North Vietnam, the NVA and the Viet Cong. He touches on it, but not deeply enough and that is a major shortcoming. Almost all of his in-depth interviews with former combat soldiers are with men who became vocal protestors against the war. That was a tiny percentage of those of us who fought. Most of us simply came home and tried to take up our lives where we left off. Mr. Burns spends far too little time on what so many Vietnam veterans faced when they came home. That is a tragedy worthy of its own documentation. But all of this said, it is one of the best documentaries I have seen on this agonizing subject.
No matter how well done and extensive it might be, no film can ever communicate what being a combat soldier is really like. Combat is not just an assault on the body. It is an assault on the soul. Some die from it, but all are wounded and the reality of those wounds cannot be experienced secondhand. Though they may not use these words to express it and they may cover it well, every combat soldier comes home with a broken heart.
When you make a documentary, you focus on the most dramatic and compelling stories and visuals available. Burns chose to cover some of the most hideous and bloody battles of the Vietnam war. I would have done the same. But that is very far from the whole story. Also, in making a film you contract time. While this is necessary, it gives a false sense of reality. In speeding up time, you speed up the misery. Before you know it, the film is over. But the real misery is slow and grinding. It is the loneliness and utter despair of seemingly endless days and nights. And it is fear, but not simply the fear when bullets strike. It is the constant fear of not knowing what tomorrow will bring. And when you are living through it, as much you want to contract time, you can’t. In Vietnam, time was measured on calendars where you crossed off the days until you could go home. Most of all, watching a documentary you cannot experience the endless sweat and stink of your own body and the ever-increasing vileness of your soul. After you finish watching, you can forget what you have seen and keep on believing the sweet fantasy that humans are basically good.
Let me be specific. There is something dark that Mr. Burns’ documentary doesn’t touch on at all, because I’m sure neither he nor any of his team could fathom it. With all of the agony of that terrible war, how could anyone fathom it? But it must said. With all of its horror, men love war. The myth of the warrior runs deep within the human race. It is at the heart of every super hero film. But no film can ever communicate the sense of pride that a man feels when he has done his best and fought bravely in the face of great danger. He has stood where many others were too afraid to stand. Whether we like it or not, whether it is good or not, for thousands of years, the myth of the warrior has defined manhood.
Over the decades, many times, when men have learned about my experience in war, I have seen a kind of wistfulness come over them. Though it isn’t true at all, somehow they seem to feel that they missed an important step in achieving manhood. This is beyond rationality, but to think it doesn’t exist or is unimportant is blindness. Sadly, it is part of our fallen and lost human condition. And it echoes down through history from ancient mothers who told their sons, “Come back victorious or come back on your shield,” to the ticker tape parades for armies that won. As a nation, it isn’t really war we hate. What we hate is losing.
It is an interesting question to ask, how would we feel if we had won in Vietnam with maximum enemy casualties, but a minimal number of our own? But we didn’t. And there is no acceptable alternative to victory. Is the way we feel after Vietnam, the way untold thousands of families in the American South felt after they lost their war? Far more of their husbands, sons, fathers and brothers never came home. To their enemies, even their mourning was considered a traitorous act. And all of it for what? Why do men love war? Because there is violence inside of us. When the thin veneer of socialization is stripped away, it appears in all its lurid glory. Our love of violent films is an echo of this. Mr. Burns does not touch on that awful reality, but I think it is at the heart of so much that happened in Vietnam. Not only do we love war, also, we utterly despise it.
While watching the documentary, I did something else. For fifty years a large box has been sitting in our various garages. It is filled with all the letters that I wrote to Carel while I was in Vietnam. I took out that box and read them for the first time since I wrote them. Sadly, I could not keep the hundreds of letters that Carel wrote to me. Our front-line infantry battalion was constantly moving from place to place, while our personal gear was stored in a huge base camp. I had a duffel bag stolen, also a footlocker broken into. The perpetrators (never caught) were rear-echelon American soldiers. (You think veterans are wonderful? There are plenty of them who are despicable rats.)
What is it like when you are 72, to meet yourself when you are 22, and living through one of the most awful experiences of your life? As I read the letters, the first thing that struck me was how very much is completely gone from my conscious memory. In the letters I read about many intense experiences that I do not remember at all. Even more disturbing, in one or two cases, what I thought I remembered was not accurate.
The second thing that stood out in the letters that I wrote to the wonderful girl I had married, was how very hard it was for a young couple to live through all that we did and stay together. When I went to Vietnam, Carel and I had been married for a little over two years. Of that time, we had actually lived together only about five months. And all of those few months were high stress periods during which I was either undergoing intense military training or training others for combat.
In the letters you meet two young people who are deeply in love, but in a constant state of low-level agony. Carel, living with many difficulties here at home, while every day fearing that when she came home from work she would see a green car waiting for her with news of my death. She wrote to me constantly, sending packages, trying to encourage me, while living in a country filled with chaos and consumed by hate, the streets of the cities burning with riots, the evening news spewing horrifying images of war with ever-increasing stories about the evils of American soldiers. And always, she was waiting, waiting, counting the days that seemed to never end, waiting for my return. And across the world, me in Vietnam, desperately lonely, filled with despair, surrounded by men who felt exactly the same. Today you would say that we were all clinically depressed. But there was no therapy. You simply went out and did your job, while thirsting for mail from home and counting the days. As you ticked them off, you grew ever harder, tougher and angrier.
During the year in my infantry battalion, I had three assignments. The first was Assistant S4. In this capacity, I was responsible for the resupply of our rifle companies out in the field. This entailed collecting food and ammunition and delivering it by helicopter. Also, when the entire battalion moved, which we did often, the S4 department was responsible for logistics. The captain who was the official S4 and my superior, was a dithering incompetent. Everyone in the battalion knew this and came to me instead of to him. He would give stupid, impossible instructions. I would say, “Yes sir”, then do it my way. If I hadn’t, we would have hit disaster. Later when that same captain took command of a rifle company, because of his incompetence, he was relieved of his command under fire. Other than death, there’s nothing worse for a career infantry officer. With the number of fools I encountered in positions of authority, I was amazed that we got anything done at all. Dealing with idiots doesn’t encourage you in your depression.
My second assignment was leader of the battalion’s heavy mortar platoon. In Burns’ documentary you see some footage of mortars being fired. They are tubes. You drop an explosive round into them and it blasts into the air. The ones in the documentary are small. Mine were very large, 4.2 inches in diameter, and fired huge rounds. For a couple of months, my platoon was given an interesting assignment. Outside of Saigon, there was a Shell Oil tank farm lined with giant tanks filled with highly combustible liquid. Almost every night, the enemy would fire mortars and rockets, trying to hit them. My platoon was right next to them. Our job was simple. When rounds were fired at the tanks, we had to track where they were coming from and fire back to stop them. This assumed that the first incoming rounds didn’t hit the tanks, which would have been very uncomfortable for us. Thankfully, the enemy was not accurate, while my guys were very fast and accurate. It felt good the next morning to get word from ground units that blown-up bodies and equipment had been found where we had targeted. Long after we were gone, the enemy did hit that tank farm, which wasn’t pretty. But it didn’t happen on my watch.
My third assignment as rifle platoon leader, first platoon, Bravo company, was by far the most intense of the entire year. In looking back at all of it, the amount of responsibility I carried as a 22-year-old, was frightening and amazing. Of course, at the time, it seemed quite normal. One of the problems I had in adjusting to civilian life at 23 was going from all of that to being a student again and working at a regular job. As a young officer, some of the things I had to deal with were slightly mind-bending. Let me tell you about one “management” challenge.
Near one of our fire support bases there was a whore house. Each week the battalion surgeon would visit the house, check out the women, give shots and make sure they were healthy. As a reward for his efforts, he would get himself a freebie. The word came down the chain of command that it was permissible for the men to visit the house, but it was up to each platoon leader to either give permission or refuse it. Now the entire battalion was going to the whore house, including the “Christian” chaplain. (Every chaplain I met over there disgusted me.) Well, I was (and am) a Christian. I was married and committed to being faithful to my wife. As a Christian, I refuse to abuse women. Going to a prostitute is participating in her abuse. Many of the poor women who worked as prostitutes in Vietnam didn’t want to be doing that kind of hellish work. They were trying desperately to feed their families and didn’t know any other way to do it. And what of the men? I firmly believe that going to a prostitute is not only abusing her, it is abusing you. There is no free moral lunch. You join yourself to a prostitute, it will cost you much more than the money you put on her bed. Needless to say, the men wanted to visit the whore house. But was it all just raging lust? There was plenty of that. But lust wasn’t the whole story.
How can I explain to you what it is like to live in a world that is iron-hard and filled with despair, where every day is endless exhaustion and desperate hopelessness? How can I explain what it is like to live in a world where you long for a single gentle word and touch, where you dream of a moment when soft fingers will run through your hair? To be an American combat soldier in Vietnam was to live in a world harsh beyond description, where every day and night you were haunted with the memories of loved ones that you had left behind.
And the ones left behind? What agony they could cause. There were horrible wounds that didn’t come from the enemy. Do you think that the protestors who spit on returning soldiers were despicable? They were, but that kind of rejection was nothing. Things happened over there that were infinitely worse. Just remembering them after all the years, is gut-wrenching. Do you want to hear about true loneliness? How lonely could you get, how filled with absolute despair? Several young married officer friends of mine received letters telling them that their wives were leaving them. While their combat soldier husbands were in Vietnam, they had found someone else. One friend who deeply loved his wife got divorce papers in the mail. Not only had she found another man, she was pregnant with that man’s child. In the darkness of our world in that far country, what does that do to you inside? How do you remain human? Just listening to my friend tell about it was a nightmare. He was so filled with anguish. What kind of woman would do that? I hated her though I had never met her. When friends have such experiences, suddenly, ugly questions roar in your head. Can you trust your own wife? Does she love you enough? Will she be faithful? Or are all women just whores? It is impossible to describe the darkness and rage that can descend upon you.
Heartbroken loneliness, the longing for a single, gentle touch even if you had to pay for it, can you imagine all of that? No, you can’t, unless you were there. So what about the whore house? I won’t tell you what I did. What would you have done?
I knew of only one other officer in my battalion who wasn’t sleeping with prostitutes. He was an old man, probably all of 39 or 40, and an infantry captain. He was a good man who was married with children and he was faithful to his wife. We sort of stood together. Then he was assigned to lead a rifle company and I didn’t see him again. But after a while, I heard a story. One night he came in from a long, grueling operation. He was exhausted with the kind of exhaustion that grinds down into your soul. I know what that feels like. Well, his men had a present waiting for him. She was in his bed. Knowing him, I’m certain that the sad memory of that night is one that never left him. I’m sure that night brought a new sorrow. And I felt sorrow for him. We never had contact again.
Over the course of many letters, a transition in me is apparent. At one point, I tell Carel that I feel myself aging inside. What is physical aging? It is slow, creeping death. The dark, spiritual aging of despair and horror is the same. One of the marks of it in war is that nothing shocks you anymore. In very matter-of-fact terms, I write about a man in our battalion who tried to commit suicide. He pulled a pin on a grenade and dropped it into one of the deep pockets in his jungle fatigues. The fool, it didn’t work. It just blew his legs off. But it killed a man and a child who were near him. My reaction? This place is full of weirdos. In another letter, I mention that a friend of mine, a young lieutenant, was just killed in combat. Nothing to be said except that he “bought the farm”. And that was that.
When you are in darkness that never ends, what happens inside? Either you disintegrate or you become very, very hard. Part of the transition in me was the growth of a rock-hard resolve. Whatever might come, I could handle anything and face anything. I was a seasoned leader and nothing was going to shake me. It was a resolve built out of low-level rage. I was smart and I was tough. But also, I was heartbroken. It wasn’t like the heartbreak of romantic stories or even of bereavement. It was something deep within the soul where words could not find it. Dimly, you knew that a part of you had died and would never return. That’s why you felt yourself growing old. Now I know that it was the young part of me that had died, the part that trusted, that could believe in hope, that viewed each day as filled with promise and possibilities. That person could not live in the world where I lived. So he died, but he didn’t die alone.
Hollywood speaks such abominable lies. One of the most evil of them is that killing is easy. You shoot, bodies fall. And you walk away. Those scripts are written and those films are made by stupid, little dilettantes who wouldn’t have the guts to kill a chicken for dinner. That includes every, single one of your pathetic “action heroes.” All they do is mouth words that were written for them. The truth? Even when killing is “justified”, the horror of taking a human life never leaves you. We weren’t killing machines over there. It would have been so much easier if we had been. Only a psychopath is a killing machine. We were young men who would carry the scars of killing as long as we lived.
Life is very strange. Because of my experience, I was the perfect person to write the character of Robert McCall, The Equalizer, for television. Fools in Hollywood thought that character was just a vigilante. I knew what he was. He was an angry, brokenhearted man searching for redemption, brokenhearted because he loved deeply. Our star, Edward Woodward, saw it in the first script I wrote for him and said, “This is what the series is about.” Edward understood, because he was a brokenhearted man too. All the wonderful writers on our show agreed with this character definition and we worked hard to keep killing from being nothing but an orgasmic thrill. Real killing is messy and bloody and there is something strange and awful about a human body when the spirit has left it … especially when it’s gone because of what you did. The emptiness reaches inside of you.
During my year in Vietnam, with good reason, I did not trust a single person with authority above me. We had four battalion commanders. Several of them were fools. One was particularly aggravating. While we were slogging in the heat and filth of the swamps and rice paddies, he would circle above us in his helicopter, yelling over the radio for us to move faster. One day one of my men shot at his aircraft. The colonel was not pleased about that. I tried to find out who did it, I certainly did, but I never could. I had to inform my platoon that shooting at the battalion commander’s helicopter was not a good plan. (I didn’t mention that I sympathized with the effort.) From that point, he didn’t fly quite as close to us. Part of my rock-hard resolve came from the clear understanding that no one in command above me cared whether we lived or died. It was up to me to try to get these young soldiers home alive. But that wasn’t always possible.
It is clear now, looking back, that the young man who left for Vietnam in November of 1967 never came home again. The vile, black gash of a wall in Washington lists over 58,000 names, but many more died over there. The man who got off the plane in November of 1968 at O’Hare Airport in Chicago was very different. He looked mostly the same, but he was tough and cynical beyond his years. He had left home filled with traditional patriotism. He came home respecting authority, but never trusting America again, not her government nor her people. The truth was that when I came home, I was very angry, but it was easy to cover it up for a while because I was so filled with the joy of being home from that hell. But very soon, my mother saw the change in me and didn’t like it. I didn’t care.
My wife saw it too. But she had changed as well. She wasn’t the starry-eyed bride anymore. Through that awful year, she had been forced to grow tougher. What is clear in the letters is how deeply we loved each other. But at least on my part it was an insecure kind of love. With what some of my friends were going through, when I went for a week or more without any letters from her I would get very angry. I would express it to her in a letter. Then I would get eight or ten letters from her in a bundle. The military mail was miserable. Of course, I would feel very guilty for what I had written. And on it went, so many letters and every letter filled with love, loneliness and despair.
When I got home, it’s a miracle of God that we stayed together. So many Vietnam veteran marriages didn’t make it. The transition period was rough. There were no classes or counseling sessions to help us. One day you were in the field in war and the next you were eating pizza as though the entire year hadn’t happened. But it had. And there was no way for us to talk about it. With what I had experienced there was no common ground of understanding, no language. So we just did our best to push on through. Thank God, I married a strong, dedicated woman. Ten months after I got home, our first child was born. Well, praise God, we made it. Last September we celebrated 51 years of marriage.
I didn’t write much to Carel about my combat experiences. I didn’t want her to worry. Some things are just unspeakable. One day in late September of 1968 at our fire support base, a helicopter landed. In it was a Major General named Julian J. Ewell. He was the commander of the Ninth Infantry Division of which we were a part. A small group of us were gathered in formation and as we stood at attention, we were a ratty looking bunch. Instead of boots, we were wearing flip-flops and our pants were rolled up above our knees. This was because our legs were covered with infected, running sores from spending weeks up to our waists in the swamps and filthy rice paddies. The battalion doctor was treating me for a fascinating range of skin infections including ringworm. Medics would scrape the pus from our sores with scalpels. Let me tell you, that is an agony worthy of the name.
That morning, General Ewell walked up to me and pinned a Bronze Star on my uniform. There was a little “V” on it that stood for valor. I was surprised. I hadn’t done anything heroic, unless heroic means feeling miserable and angry all the time. If that’s what it means, I should have gotten the Congressional Medal of Honor. I decided that it was like the Cowardly Lion in the Wizard of Oz. Being terrified every, single day in his war with witches, he needed a few medals from the Wizard to keep him going. I accepted the award as I have so many good things in my life, as a gift of grace, unmerited favor. It was nice of General Ewell to visit us. We all appreciated it.
Ken Burns talks about General Ewell in his documentary. Burns says that Ewell put out the word in our division that he wanted high enemy body counts and this caused many killings of innocent civilians as our units tried to give him what he wanted. All I can say is that on my level as a rifle platoon leader I never heard or was given such an order. Neither did I know anyone in our battalion who was pressured in that direction. While the entire concept of body counts came under great scrutiny and justified criticism throughout the Vietnam war, never was I prompted to bring in high body counts or inflate numbers. Were innocent civilians killed, sadly there were. But every unit I knew of made a deep effort to keep that from happening.
Also, Burns speaks about black soldiers being treated differently than white soldiers. Once again, all I can say is that I never saw it. There were both black and white officers in my battalion. In my rifle platoon, two thirds of the soldiers were white about one third were black. I had black and white NCO’s. All were excellent soldiers. I had only two young soldiers who gave me discipline problems. For what it’s worth, both were white. They were southern boys, 18 years old and both married. I had a simple way of dealing with discipline problems. One night when the platoon was out alone in a dangerous area, I woke up to find these two young men asleep when they were supposed to be on guard. This endangered all of us. Their punishment? The next day they walked point.
As it happened, my platoon was the lead element for our battalion on a search and destroy operation. As we entered a village and moved between the buildings, we walked into an ambush that could not be seen. Instantly, both of those young men died. I hadn’t intended that their punishment be a death sentence. But it was.
There are some memories that are so painted in fire and blood they never fade away. That morning is one of them. Six of our men died, two from my platoon and four from others. It took hours to destroy the enemy and get our soldiers’ bodies back. I can still hear the insanity, the yelling, the shooting. I can still hear the cobra gunship hovering 30 feet above my head, firing rockets at an enemy bunker 15 yards in front of me. When it was over I remember feeling tremendous relief. I was still alive and I had been only a few feet from where our men had fallen in the initial attack. But with the relief there was a terrible emptiness as we loaded our dead onto helicopters. They were going home. I thought of their families, busy with their normal lives, unaware that this morning their husbands and sons and brothers had died. But soon they would know. Then would begin the crying time. I’ve wondered about those broken families over the years and prayed for them.
At the end of Burns’ documentary, a vet reads a poem about the weight of memory. It is true, there are some memories that are too heavy to bear. It is those memories that must be given to the One who said, “Come unto me all you who are weary and heavy laden and I will give you rest…”
I’m sorry, I have to say this. One of the most infuriating moments in the documentary was seeing John Kerry give his testimony before Congress. That pathetic man who had experienced so little combat himself, helped to create the entire evil myth of American soldiers as baby killers. During all of 1968 I never knew of any unit around me that perpetrated the kinds of crimes that he described. And he hadn’t seen any such crimes himself. Yes, My Lai happened. And all of those criminals who perpetrated it should have been tried and executed. That was the opinion of many soldiers I knew during that time. Did other horrors happen? I’m sure they did, but they were uncommon. After hearing John Kerry talk, Americans thought such aberrations were the rule.
Because Mr. Kerry told people what they wanted to hear about American soldiers, he was rewarded with a high position in progressive political leadership. But he built that success on the backs of untold thousands of Vietnam veterans whose reputations he smeared. There were Vietnam veterans who supported the anti-war movement and that was their right. If they were baby killers, they should have admitted it and volunteered to be tried by a military court. I don’t remember hearing one man stand up and make such an admission. It was their right to throw away the medals they had received. Of course, the orders and citations for those medals continued to exist in their military records. They couldn’t throw those away. What effect did their protests have? Burns seems to think it was significant. Well, it was in one way. As they appeared to agree with John Kerry’s slander that American soldiers were baby killers, their protests made everything much more difficult for all of us when we came home.
Let me be clear, I had no problem with people protesting. I had no problem with those who went to Canada. Also, I had no problem with those who tried to serve honorably and did not protest. We all live with our choices. But what America did to my generation of veterans will live in infamy as long as this country exists. As long as Vietnam veterans are alive, no other veterans will be spit on, rejected and made to feel ashamed for honorable service. For my generation of veterans, there were no parades. All we could do was try to vanish in silence back into “normal” life. To a very large extent, the so-called “Greatest Generation” that had fought in World War II, did not defend their sons when they came home. And that is to their shame. Now Vietnam veterans are old men, wearing baseball caps with bumper stickers on their cars proclaiming where they gave their youth away.
So what are we to say about Vietnam? It was the greatest tragedy since the American Civil War. In reality it started another civil war that continues to this day and is tearing us apart. Why did men who knew such a war would fail take us into it anyway? Why did 58,000 American soldiers need to die for nothing? What answer would you like to hear? Well, that depends on your political bent, doesn’t it? It depends on what you have been taught to believe. Would you like to hear that we did it so big corporations could become rich? There’s always a lot of money to be made in war. Would you like to hear we did it because communism is brutal and evil and had to be stopped? It is one of the most brutal evils in the history of the human race and an utter failure as an economic system.
Would it satisfy you to believe that one president after another felt trapped into making horrible decisions that each knew would fail? Does that explain their lying? Maybe they were utterly corrupt. Or maybe we should blame it all on the evil generals of the Pentagon. Isn’t it true, that all they ever want is war? Perhaps Americans and their leaders are just stupid and arrogantly idealistic, insisting on making the same mistakes over and over, demanding that democracy be implanted around the world, when we are in the process of proving that it doesn’t even work in America. Or maybe all of our leaders were just broken men trying in their own faulty ways to do what was right and making awful decisions in the process. Which answers would satisfy you? If you don’t like any of these, I could come up with more.
In the last hour of Burns’ documentary I was glad to see my old friend, Frank Snepp interviewed. You couldn’t do a documentary about the fall of Saigon without talking to Frank. He was a high level CIA officer who worked with the Phoenix Program. I didn’t know him over there. We met years later in Hollywood. No one knows more about the ultimate fall of Vietnam, than Frank. He was on one of the last helicopters out. What he didn’t talk about in the documentary was the personal price he paid and it was unspeakably tragic. When he told me of it years ago, it just took my breath away.
Frank is a brave man dedicated to truth. When it was all over, he wrote a long, carefully documented book entitled Decent Interval. In it he detailed the despicable way we abandoned our Vietnamese allies, people who had believed our lies and helped us for years. In that action, we proved that we are a nation of selfish, heartless traitors. Frank didn’t use one classified source in writing his book. Everything he documented in it was taken from the public record. But because he told the truth and because he didn’t have CIA approval to do so, he was heavily punished. His case went all the way to the Supreme Court. Rarely has our government in any form wanted to hear the truth about anything. We are still a nation of fools led by liars.
Burns tells the truth about the aftermath of the fall. After the communists took control, many thousands of innocent Vietnamese people risked their lives to escape the oppression. Many thousands died in the attempt. I know two women in Fresno who escaped with their families when they were little girls. What their parents and so many others suffered we would prefer not to hear. For us, the war was over and that’s all that mattered. Our leaders proclaimed that it was time to heal. But it hasn’t healed.
At the start, I said that in spite of everything, I view my experience in Vietnam as a gift of God to me. What did I mean by that? How could that be true? There are things that we can only understand as we look back from the vantage point of many years. What was my Christian faith like in Vietnam? It was real. Often, I had the strong sense that God was protecting me. I knew that He had a plan for my life. But there were many things I didn’t understand. Or perhaps a better way to put it is that I didn’t want to understand. So in the darkness and chaos of Vietnam, you might say that I placed my faith in a kind of glass box where it could be viewed and appreciated without causing trouble. What was constantly operational was my own intelligence, toughness and will.
In Vietnam, I began the process of becoming a man, but not the right kind of man yet. I knew how to take responsibility. I knew how to lead. I knew how to set goals and achieve them. I knew how to stand, even when I stood alone. I knew what it meant to be very afraid, but to do it anyway. I was committed to defending those in need and helping everyone I could. But all of it I did out of my own pride, anger and resolve. In the letters to my wife, that kind of raw self-confidence is very clear. I brought it home with me. Also, as I said, I came home with a broken heart. Of course, I wouldn’t have described it that way. I would never have admitted such a thing. I would have said that I was just being realistic about life, sucking it up, disdaining suffering, focusing on the future, moving forward no matter what. That’s what Christian hard-asses do. I was a Christian, but I was serving myself and my own goals, while “spiritualizing” all of it to make it sound good, especially to me. Being a man wasn’t enough, even a creative, driven, goal-oriented man. Down deep I knew that all of it was empty and unsatisfying. I had to start becoming a man of God. And I have to say that is not something I really wanted because I was afraid it would disrupt my plans. And, thank God, it did.
I didn’t want my empty, unsatisfying plans to be disrupted. Does that sound stupid? It was supremely so. It is amazing how we cling to our rags. I had to get to the place where all of that self-motivated house of cards came crashing down. God is an expert at engineering such crashes. It took almost ten years after the army to get to the crossroads where I confronted the stark reality that I was a total failure at running my own life. Then came an awful year when I faced something that was far bigger than I could ever handle on my own. Literally, it drove me to my knees. But that is another story.
What came out of that year was the clear understanding that I had to surrender my life to the absolute Kingship of Jesus Christ. I could not be in the business of serving myself and my own goals. Whatever I did, it had to be to serve Him and to serve others in His Name. At the end of that year, I entered Hollywood with my first script sale. Suddenly, all of the things I had learned as a young military leader in war came into focus. They were necessary for what I had to do, but the power and purpose motivating all of it no longer came simply from me. Consequently, my entire definition of what it meant to be successful went through a dramatic redefinition. It could not be measured by money in the bank, fame or awards. I came to the place where I realized that success and failure would be determined only by Jesus, the King, when I stand before Him.
In entering Hollywood, I entered what I have come to call the “Story Wars” of my life. And, yes, that is another story. All I will say is that a price had to be paid. And it was paid. Now at the end of that war, there is sadness. I don’t believe you can come out of a war without it. But, also, there is peace. I have a family that loves me, many wonderful friends and a purpose that was far beyond anything I could have fabricated for myself. So I can say in the words of the New Testament, all things, including Vietnam and all that came afterward, work together for good for those who love God and are called according to His Purpose.
Let me conclude with this. Every person goes through a war. And sooner or later, every person living in this world will have a broken heart. I have come to believe that a broken heart can be a very great gift as long as it isn’t diseased and dying from hate, rage and self-pity. Broken hearts don’t go away, but they can be made strong and beautiful through the forgiving Love of God and that’s what Jesus is all about. Getting forgiveness from Him for all the things you’ve done to break your own heart and the hearts of others is the first step. Then comes forgiving others who broke your heart and asking forgiveness from the people whose hearts you broke.
The beauty of a broken heart that has been forgiven is that in spite of sorrow it is filled with gratitude. You find yourself grateful to God even for the things that broke your heart because through it all you experienced His Love. To make all of that possible is why Jesus came and gave His life to forgive your sins. Don’t try to carry a broken heart without Him.
Well, Vietnam is long ago. The letters are back in their box. I won’t read them again. But, perhaps, someday a great-grandchild will be curious about that old box. He or she will pull it out and start to read about two young lovers struggling through great darkness. That child should understand that God, in His Love, carried us through. All truly happy endings come from Him. For Carel and me, the happiest is yet to come.
In the Sierra Nevada mountains near Yosemite National Park
January 7 in the Year of Our Lord, 2018.