Without ever witnessing direct combat, I came of age during the Vietnam War. In the late 1960s, when I was in college, my father left his job as vice president of a publishing company to do fulltime draft counseling and political activist work, organizing in 1969 a weekly peace vigil on the green outside our town hall. This was an hourlong silent gathering, which my World War II veteran Air Force pilot father faithfully attended until the cease-fire of the Vietnam War in 1973. And long before I began to practice engaged Zen meditation with Vietnamese monk and author Thich Nhat Hanh, I remember the dog-eared copy of one of his first books, Lotus in a Sea of Fire, on our dining room table next to my father’s reading glasses.
Fourteen years after the fall of Saigon, Vietnam War veterans and their families began to meet in meditation retreats convened by Thich Nhat Hanh and friends, retreats designed to heal the wounds of war. With the encouragement and leadership of National Book Award–winning author Maxine Hong Kingston, the Veteran Writers Group arose out of these retreats, beginning to meet at the onset of the first Gulf War. The writing group, in which I participate, still meets. There is a rotating and dedicated membership practicing meditation and writing in community.
These vets are neither tame nor obedient. Hong Kingston reports that they are no longer willing to follow orders. Rebellious writer warriors, they open up the notion of what a veteran is, welcoming to their circle combat vets as well as female civilians caught in the crossfire of conflict; they encourage more resisters and deserters to write alongside veterans of street-gang and domestic violence. This group knows firsthand that we are all veterans when we sit down together to hear and tell the blunt truth of war.
On Veterans Day 2006, the strong Dharma-rooted book Veterans of War, Veterans of Peace was published. It was edited by Hong Kingston and published by Koa Books, a new press founded by Arnie Kotler, a veteran of publishing. Candid tales of war and peace are told in the raw vernacular of more than eighty veteran writers whose fiction, nonfiction and poetry span five wars.
The contributors to Veterans of War, Veterans of Peace are plainspoken truth-tellers: Michael Wong became a soldier of conscience and deserted the U.S. Army’s medic training school after the My Lai massacre of 1968; Claude Anshin Thomas, now a Buddhist monk, served in Vietnam in the late 1960s as a helicopter crew chief shot down five times during his tour of duty. Thomas writes in terse, dream-sequence prose.
“A bullet slams into my body
I cannot see
the sounds of war disappear.”
During our annual Veterans Day weekend mindfulness retreat held in 1998 at the old Fort Cronkhite military base just north of San Francisco, Hong Kingston encouraged us to write about war in a way that a child could understand. Former platoon medic James Janko was startled to find children and animals rising up out of his meditation and writing practice. In this book they speak in the voices of Buffalo Boy and Geronimo, who tell a tale of truth and violent beauty in the unsentimental language of children of war.
I found it difficult to read more than two or three of these unflinching pieces at a sitting, especially essays like those of longtime meditators and husband-and-wife team Ron Greenberg and Vietnam War widow and filmmaker Barbara Sonneborn, who wrote and produced the Academy Award–nominated film Regret to Inform after joining the Veteran Writers Group. Greenberg and Sonneborn’s stark writing haunts with an unspoken horror that refuses to be named in their paired pieces, “Last Time” and “Two Husbands in Vietnam.”
Veterans of War, Veterans of Peace is not a simple antiwar compendium. It is a book that stays close to the muscle, asking reader and writer alike to know the body of war and peace without turning away. This knowledge is in the writing and life story of my veteran friend and Dharma brother Ted Sexauer, a man I wish my father could have known and been known by.
Poem for Têt
This is the poem
that will save my life
this the line that will cure me
This word, this, the word word
this breath the one I am
To find out more about Veterans of War, Veterans of Peace workshops, writings and readings, visit www.vowvop.org.
Art credit: You Are Not My Enemy, Vol IV-I, by Combat Paper (Drew Cameron in collaboration with Drew Matott, photographs by Hannah Carpenter Pitkin). Silkscreen and pulp stencil print on handmade paper from military uniforms. 12 in x 18 inches, edition of 8. 2008. Used by permission.
Please do not copy or download images without artist’s permission.