“You don’t have to do this,” my wife Lisa says, as I carry the plastic box containing what’s left of my father’s things up from our dimly lit basement and into the bright light of the living room.
“I know,” I reply reassuringly, continuing out the front door to place the box gently into the back of my car.
It’s that time of year again, and I know Lisa’s been sensing my uneasiness all day. Tomorrow morning, in my high school classroom, my students and I will begin exploring the personal cost of war. We will read Tim O’Brien’s short story “The Things They Carried,” and discuss the literal and metaphoric weight so many soldiers “humped” across the battlefields of the central highlands of Viet Nam. We will write and talk about our own physical and emotional baggage. We will make lists of all the things we know or think we know about the war in Viet Nam. And then I will open that box and hope that I can keep it together long enough to make a very important point: War is not something that happens elsewhere to other people, and it’s certainly not something that ends once all the treaties have been signed, and the soldiers make their long journeys home. War is a thing that’s carried forward, out of the shadowy past and into the bright light of the present by each and every person touched by it. And sometimes it is carried into the florescent light of high school classrooms by teachers who feel a responsibility to share their personal experience, their lingering questions, and their increasing discomfort with the catastrophic decisions our nation continues to make.
War Is Hell
We have a dysfunctional relationship with war. We both praise and condemn it, often simultaneously. “War is hell,” our hero mutters before trudging stoically into battle and doing his patriotic duty. War is scary and war is exciting; war is atrocious and war is glorious, war is pure evil and war is a profound necessity for our national freedom. On any given day, high school teenagers may sit in a darkened classroom watching a black-and-white rendition of the My Lai massacre, and then at lunch speak sunnily with a Marine recruiter emblazoned with all the über-masculinity embodied by his dress blues.
This troubles me. For all our good intentions—and all our creative attempts to soothe anger and mitigate violence—most schools send an embarrassingly mixed message when it comes to war. We teach the numbers and we teach the facts, but do we teach the true cost of this most violent of human acts? Beyond the dates, the battles, the multidimensional causes, the geopolitical fallout, and the socio-economic effects, do we teach that at the epicenter of every war lies death, destruction, and deep human suffering? And, as educators, are we doing enough to prepare our students, who stand at the threshold of this stunning reality, for the awesome responsibility, brute impact, and devastating finality of this national obsession?
I never met my father. He died dropping napalm over Phu Yen Province on Sept. 16, 1966, two months before I was born. He was the eldest son of working-class parents who had moved out to Southern California from Chicago chasing the American dream. For my grandparents, my father embodied that dream. He was an academic achiever, the captain of his high school basketball team, and ultimately a Marine officer and pilot. I’m not sure my family ever fully recovered.
But I was lucky. I grew up with a loving mother who took good care of me, and gave me a handful of stories about my father and an armload of his material things, to keep and to wonder about. In that box in the basement, I have some letters, a couple of newspaper clippings, a coffee cup, a wristwatch, a pipe, and a pair of tarnished aviator glasses. I have a brown leather flight jacket and a silky red Fullerton High School basketball jersey. And I have my mother’s assurance that my father was a good man who would have loved me very much. But I also have a whole lot of questions that will never be answered.
A photograph of my mother holding me as a baby hangs in the hallway of my home. She stands there, young and beautiful, with her head bowed slightly, as an aging general in stiff military dress presents me with my father’s purple heart. In the photograph, I reach out a tiny fist that contrasts sharply with the manicured confidence of the general’s surprisingly delicate hand. The general holds the medal gingerly, like an offering. Does he realize the absurdity of his actions?
When I was in the 3rd grade, my grandmother gave me a baseball cap stenciled with my father’s flight insignia—VMA 121. It was green and white and decorated with a chessboard knight richly draped in military iconography. I wore that cap proudly to school the next day and would not take it off for anything, not even the Pledge of Allegiance. I wore that cap as if it were an inseparable piece of my physical being. When an unsuspecting teacher decided that it had become too much of a distraction and tried to take it from me, I howled. I remember the startled face of my teacher as she desperately tried to console me. I remember the frightened faces of my classmates as they frantically covered their ears. And I remember my apologetic mother coming to school to offer some form of explanation and take me home.
These are the things and the stories I share with my students before we begin any serious exploration of war literature. Before my students and I can read, write, and thoughtfully discuss the topic of war—any war—we need to understand that it has a profound and lingering effect that permeates society long after the military battles cease. So I begin by cracking open that box and affording my students the opportunity to handle the real life flotsam and jetsam of my father’s and my family’s broken life.
Cracking the Box
“What this?” I ask, draping my father’s coffin flag over the long narrow table I’ve stolen from one of the science classrooms.
“An American flag,” offers Jeff.
“Very good,” I say. “What do you notice about it?”
“It’s red, white, and blue,” continues Jeff, as several students laugh at his exaggerated enthusiasm.
“Right again,” I continue. “But what else do you notice about it? What about its shape? Does this American flag look the same as the one that hangs in our courtyard, or the one that flies over the Harley Davidson dealership down the road?”
“Those are kind of square,” says Maddie. “This one’s long and narrow.”
“That’s right. Why do you think that is?” I ask. And as my students puzzle over the flag’s curious shape, I think about the images I saw on television as a kid, flatbed trucks wheeling coffin after coffin, all shrouded with the same bright flag, off the sweltering grey tarmac of some government air base. Then I think about the United States’ more recent military ventures in Afghanistan and Iraq, and the Bush administration’s politically savvy censorship of such images. And then I begin to feel a little guilty, because I know what’s coming next.
“This is my father’s coffin flag,” I say, my voice quavering slightly as the classroom grows quiet. I usually ease my students into delicate situations, but this time I’ve pulled up something dark and heavy, and they don’t know what to do with it. So we sit in silence for a moment, and then I begin to tell my father’s story and to share the other items in the box. I show them my father’s medals and his dog tags. I talk about who he was, and how he died. I read the telegram that begins “We regret to inform. . .” I answer questions about my mother and explain that I can’t really answer most of them since she doesn’t talk about my father all that much. And finally, I read a couple of his letters.
The first letter I share was written just after my father arrived at Chu Lai Air Base, and I pass around some 8×10 glossy photos that show the primitive airfield and some of the makeshift housing that would be my father’s final home. When I finish, I ask my students, “So what do you think about my dad? How’s he feeling about this whole Viet Nam thing?”
“He sounds excited,” Jon says. “He had a pretty cool adventure getting over there.”
“He says he loves the flying,” Sydney adds. “He sounds proud.”
“Thanks,” I say. “Now I’m going to read you his final letter. See if you notice any changes.”
As I read my father’s final letter, written just days before he died, my students immediately recognize some connections with the first. My father’s still proud to be a Marine, especially a Marine pilot, and he’s still excited, only this time he’s excited about the birth of his first child. My students laugh when he says he doesn’t care if it’s a boy or a girl, but he really wants a boy. As the letter progresses, my students pick up darker tones. My father confesses that he’s struggling with how he feels: “I can’t explain how it feels to know I’m killing people. I can’t explain what it’s like to destroy entire villages. Both good and bad feelings.” Despite these mixed feelings he goes on to brag about how he’s still trying to kill as many “gooks” as he can, and my students watch me wince shamefully. Finally, I stop before the postscript and let them know that these are the final words my father wrote from Viet Nam: “187 MORE DAYS IN THIS FUCKING PLACE.”
At this point, no one knows what to say, so I invite my students to come up and check out my father’s things for themselves. Students approach quietly, cautiously, respectfully. They pick up my father’s things and hold them in their hands. This is the true cost of war, I think, and for a few moments beneath those fluorescent lights, my students and I carry it together.
Later, we will carry other things. We will carry the stories of my students’ own grandfathers, fathers, mothers, aunts, uncles, brothers, and sisters who served, fought, and suffered. We will carry the aspirations and anxieties of our fellow classmates who are considering or already committed to military service after high school. And we will try—through film, oral history, painting, poetry, and statistics—to carry the suffering of the Vietnamese people on both sides of that awful conflict. Indeed, this small moment is just the beginning of our collective attempt to somehow understand, shoulder, and carry the true cost of war.
The Road to a More Peaceful Future
When I became a teacher, I never intended to wear my heart so nakedly on my sleeve. And I never intended to drag so much raw emotion into the center of my classroom for show and tell. But I realized that I needed to offer more than a textbook or even literary explanation of the true cost of war. I needed to offer up my father—and myself—as examples of war’s more personal toll. But to be honest, I’m tired of doing it. I’m tired of fighting back tears and trying to keep cool as my voice breaks and my hands shake. I’m tired of unfurling my family’s intimate history for all to see. I’m tired of the uneasy compassion in my students’ eyes. And I’m more than tired of the fact that this continues to be a necessity.
So, as we acknowledge the 50th anniversary of the beginning of our involvement in Viet Nam, and as we continue to struggle to untangle ourselves from our more recent military adventures, perhaps it’s time to take a hard look at ourselves and realize that before we can expect our young people to imagine peace, we need to help them understand the true cost of war. Only then will we be able to permanently lift the lid off this more than five-century fascination and begin to embrace a more hopeful future. And then perhaps, when my wife senses my uneasiness and says, “You don’t have to do this,” I’ll be able to say, “I know,” and take that box back down into the basement.