The last seven words in Michael Herr’s bestseller Dispatches lament: “Vietnam, Vietnam, Vietnam, we’ve all been there.” Well, yes and no.
In Wayne Karlin’s most recent book Wandering Souls, the College of Southern Maryland teacher and Marine Corps Viet Nam veteran shows us finely detailed frames of what most of us never knew about that war — while reminding us what we perhaps have always known about that war. Or any war. War’s slogging nature is one of those truths, and you find it not only in Wandering Souls but also in the reportage following this week’s Wikileaks’ revelations about our current war in Afghanistan.
As is so often true of so many things, it comes down to a story.
In this non-fiction action story, Karlin recounts the day in 1969 that Homer Steedly Jr., a young Army lieutenant from South Carolina’s swamplands, turned a bend on a trail. Thirty feet ahead was a young medic named Hoang Ngok Dam, also from a rural village. Their eyes met. In the contest of who could move his rifle into shooting position, Steedly won. Dam died.
Steedly approached and kicked away Dam’s weapon. By procedure, he went through pockets of Dam’s neat, starched and now-bloodied uniform. He found a personal notebook, IDs and other papers. By procedure, these items went to an intelligence unit to be assessed. Contradicting procedure, Steedly asked a friend to retrieve Dam’s personal property. He got it, boxed it and sent it to his mother in South Carolina.
The first of 30-some years before Steedly again held Dam’s notebook was spent in war against a foreign enemy. By all military accounts, he succeeded, rising through ranks and leading men. Much of the remainder of those decades, in a soldier’s story as sad as it is common, Steedly spent in a war with himself.