“We change a lot. The change was individual. It brought silence and caution. Anger came from within, having seen how those boys jumped through the air. From that anger came the words, although no one said them aloud: ‘Now you are going to find out, you sons of bitches. As soon as it finds you, whoever it is, you will die just as they did.
I’m going to blow your head off until your brains are scattered all over the floor. ‘We returned to the jungle, full of rage, silent and determined to do what they had trained us to do: kill. This is how the oral history of Vietnam sounds, the horror, the brutality, the moral sinking told by the men and women who fought in that war and collected by Mark Baker in NAM, a book that delved into the still open wound in the United States when it was published six years after the end of the conflict and that now reaches Spain edited by Contra (translation by Elena Masip and Dario M. Pereda).
“Those who decided to talk to me did it naked, honestly, without sweeteners. They put themselves in the trigger and spoke in a stark way that we rarely experience in our daily lives”, the American author responds from his native Florida (Jacksonville, 70 years old) to explain why almost four decades later, the message of the book remains intact.
Through their testimonies, NAM reviews the experience of a whole group of young people sent to Vietnam like cannon fodder. Patriots who dreamed of emulating John Wayne; 17-year-olds waiting on the boat off the Vietnamese coast to come of age; young nonconformists, deluded, poor for the most part; children turned into older men after spending a few months in hell; Virgin recruits who became serial rapists, murderers with impunity, nurses who had to choose who lived and who did not by the color of their skin and other profiles of the dark side populate the pages of this choral and hallucinatory tale with their voices.
But the book is also the final song of the fairy tale that the United States lived. “Movies and television taught us that we were the good guys. If we were forced to shoot, we would. We might even bleed a little. But we were the winners. Most of the guys I interviewed had that idea in mind. However, war is real blood and guts.
It raises all the big questions in life and doesn’t give you much time to choose the right answer,” reflects Baker on the atrocities and nihilism that permeate the work. However, he does not believe that talking to him would serve them as therapy but to, for once, be heard without being judged or used.
Far from all mystification, NAMIt is an indispensable but not pleasant reading; it is a story full of violence, viscera, odors. “I was very sure from the beginning that I was not going to censor what they said to make it more pleasant to anyone. A lot of the conflict had already been intentionally whitewashed, suppressed or forgotten when I started this project”, says the author to bring out the second great theme of the book: contempt for the veteran, his discrimination from the official story, built around certain preconceived ideas as early as 1981.
“Nobody talked to them. It’s as if everyone who could tell us something about what had happened is dead. For many, survival was a great prize. Taking into account the experience they lived, combined with the reception they experienced, it is understood that many veterans succumbed to drugs, ended up on the street, we’re unable to move on.
But the incredible thing is that most of the men and women who fought in that war returned silently, without fanfare and without support, and became husbands and wives, fathers and mothers, respectable members of their society. Wounded, but resilient”.
In some of the most shocking testimonies, certain men and women admit that they spent years without talking about it, without telling anyone that they had gone to war, without crying, suppressing their feelings so that everything did not go to waste. Others admit that they did not want to return, that they knew nothing good awaited them outside of Vietnam, that they had become addicted to horror.
The memories of some green berets, special forces, and other unusual soldiers are also collected, people used to live on the edge but who, as Baker says, “we’re just skilled workers on the same demolition site. Beneath their costumes and make-up, behind the bravado there was nothing more than another group of frightened and sweaty common soldiers”.
A doubt arises as it progresses. How many lied or exaggerated? “At no time did I intend to compare their testimonies with proven facts to prove their accuracy. I don’t even know if this is journalism, guerrilla or something else”, he defends himself, at 70 and now retired, citing his great influence, Studs Terkel, a journalist who dedicated himself to collecting the statements of the working class after the Great Depression or soldiers involved in World War II and who called their stories “guerrilla journalism.”
The story takes on a strange force when it narrates moments in which nothing happens when boredom and expectation – often fueled by drugs – form a devastating cocktail in the minds of men and women deployed in the jungle. And yet sometimes horror gave way to hope.
“The deaths of my friends were replaying in my mind over and over again, it was a constant process. I didn’t get it out of my head. He wanted to kill, he couldn’t think of anything else. But suddenly, he had a chance to stay alive. It was a possibility that I had not taken into account”.