Kupang, East Nusa Tenggara
In high school, I asked a Vietnam veteran-turned writer who had come to speak if he had ever killed a man in battle. My teachers and classmates were aghast. I don't remember what the speaker's response was. But I do remember its tone—a little reproachful and mostly weary.
The memory is mortifying and I have all but pushed it out of my mind. It did not even resurface last Fall, when I was reading Tim O'Brien's
The Things They Carried with my own sophomore English class. In one chapter, titled "The Man I Killed," O'Brien describes in searing detail the mental and emotional contortions that result from having killed an enemy fighter. The chapter makes painfully obvious (if it was not already) why you should never ask a veteran such a question unless he clearly wants to talk about it.
Why, then, wasn't this simple code of conduct obvious to high school me? What was going through my mind when I asked that question?
I think there are two explanations, both of which contain some truth. The harsh explanation is that I was an ignorant kid who was trying to appear edgy for any number of pathetic, attention-seeking reasons. The forgiving explanation is that I wanted to better understand an experience that is famously difficult to understand. In other words, I wanted to strike hard and fast at the truth and thought I might to do so by being straightforward—even a little provocative. Recently, I read something from Kurt Vonnegut's essay "Do you know what a twerp is?" that gave me some perspective on the whole ordeal. He wrote it only a few years before he died and it is refreshingly wry and crotchety:
Ernest Hemingway wrote a story after the First World War called "A Soldier's Home" about how it was very rude to ask a soldier what he'd seen when he got back home. I think a lot of people including me, clammed up when a civilian asked about battle, about war. It was fashionable. One of the most impressive ways to tell your war story is to refuse to tell it, you know. Civilians would then have to imagine all kinds of deeds of derring-do.
But I think the Vietnam War freed me and other writers, because it made our leadership and our motives seem so scruffy and essentially stupid. We could finally talk about something bad that we did to the worst people imaginable, the Nazis. And what I saw, what I had to report, made war look so ugly. You know, the truth can be really powerful stuff. You're not expecting it.
Of course, another reason not to talk about war is that it's unspeakable.
Whether or not it was my place to go digging for the truth in that moment (and it almost certainly wasn't), I went ahead and did so anyways, in the most selfish, ham-fisted, insensitive way possible. But I also didn't realize that even if I could have corrected my approach towards the truth, sometimes there just aren't any words for it.