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.
What author Karlin does is slog us through minutes and days of screeching, bleeding, often mismanaged firefights for this or that hill, those very toxic details for which Steedly and so many others never found a willing audience once back home. They could never convey their post-trauma otherness, even remotely. There is some hard reading; that’s exactly what it takes to articulate fatal chaos.
The subtitle of Wandering Souls is Journeys with the Dead and the Living in Viet Nam. In veteran Steedly’s post-war war, the campaign that most settled his soul began only a few years ago when he asked his mother for whatever she had kept of what he sent her. Soon he was reunited with all his letters along with that packet from his dead enemy’s pockets. This launched a surreal, intimate and healing journey to return Dam’s belongings to his family, to find Dam’s remains in a battlefield graveyard and to help carry Dam’s casket to his village cemetery.
Karlin was there for every bus ride and train ride, for every long hotel night and prayer vigil, for every step toward peace for all concerned. The story at its end is no less stunning than the rifle shot that began it.
Wandering Souls has a second story. Its author has worked for years to promote Vietnamese writers to U.S. readers, to help them tell us about the American war. In 30,000 volumes already written from our side, that is the most untold tale. By weaving some of their names and observations into his story of two soldiers, we see both their skill as wordsmiths as well as the universality of the effect of war on warriors, whether invaders or invaded, in victory or defeat.