"Remembering Vietnam: Poet Doug Rawlings on the war"
The Real News Network (October 6, 2023)
An American soldier dropped from a helicopter for a reconnaissance mission near the city of Da Nang on April 30, 1965, Vietnam. Photo by REPORTERS ASSOCIES/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images
REMEMBERING VIETNAM: POET DOUG RAWLINGS ON THE WAR
Over 50 years since his deployment, anti-war poet Doug Rawlings returned to Vietnam.
Doug Rawlings found poetry in 1970 after returning from his tour of duty in the Vietnam War. Over fifty years later, he returned to Vietnam for the first time. In conversation with Chris Hedges, Rawlings looks back on his experience of the war with unflinching honesty on the many crimes of the US military, and shares some of the poems he’s written to process these experiences. Doug Rawlings is a veteran of the Vietnam War who has published several volumes of poetry, including In the Shadow of the Annamese Mountains (2020). He is a cofounder of Veterans for Peace.
Chris Hedges: “I was first introduced to the idea of political poetry on October 18, 1970, about midnight, in an all-night Harvard Square Corner Bookstore.” Doug Rawlings writes, “A few months before that encounter I had returned from the war in Vietnam. To say that I was confused and angry is an understatement. I was also somewhat lost. Then on that fateful night, I found this wonderful collection of poems by Denise Levertov that captured her journey to North Vietnam as a peace activist. This was the first serious ‘discussion’ I had read from and about ‘my’ war. And true to what Robert Bly considers effective political poetry, Levertov used the personal to open up the universal. I was captured, and unlike my response to military ‘service,’ I did not want to escape. Instead, I sought out more of her work and other poets and, eventually, began to write my own poems.”
Rawlings, who recently made his first trip to Vietnam since he was there as a soldier, has been haunted throughout his life by the war. The images from the war do not go away. The bodies, the carnage, the faces, the children, the smells, the concussions. All are present. These images make their way into his poems. Rawlings, who was one of several co-founders of Veterans for Peace, which today claims thousands of members and 130 chapters worldwide, has spent his life trying to convey the horror of war and atone for the crimes we committed against the Vietnamese people.
Joining me to discuss the war, its aftermath, and his return to Vietnam after 53 years, is Doug Rawlings, who was a retired professor of English from the University of Maine, Farmington. Let’s run through the experience you had in Vietnam because it’s something you’ve been grappling with for a lifetime.
Doug Rawlings: Well, I was part of that package, if you will. It happened at the end of ’68 and the beginning of ’69 when things were going horribly for the US military. So I was literally drafted out of graduate school, eight weeks basic training, eight weeks AIT down at Fort Sill in artillery. A two-week leave, and then bam, Vietnam. And back in those days, of course, we didn’t go with the unit. So when I landed in Thanh Son Air Force Base in July of ’69, I didn’t know anybody. I was totally alone.
And of course, to do the usual military shuffle back and forth and get on a chopper, do this and everything else, I ended up at this landing zone in the Central Highlands with the 173rd Airborne. And then after about five months there, we moved further north and built a firebase to support the 173rd. So I was in a place where our great fear was the NLF, the so-called Viet Cong. And we were at the firebase. We had four howitzers to support the 173rd. And we were mortared and sappers came at us and various things like that throughout the 13.5 months I spent there. 411 days, or 822 nights, if you will. It was the nights that we were terrified. We were really, very worried.
Chris Hedges: Talk about the experiences there that most affected you.
Doug Rawlings: Well, beyond the obvious thing of living with the knowledge that someone was trying to kill you the whole time you were there. That wires you in a certain way. But what we did, myself and three other guys were about nine months in country, and we decided to go into the village of Bong Son. And so everything was off limits, of course, we’re in this firebase with a concertina wire and all that stuff. We went to the village and we took off our helmets and flak jackets, and stacked our weapons, and let somebody watch them.
We walked into the village and engaged with the people and they were just stunned by that, seeing four soldiers without weapons and all that stuff. And that really moved me. Obviously, the only people who were there were women, old men, and little kids. People our age were not to be found at all. That was an overwhelming experience for me: engaging with these people as human beings as opposed to dehumanized objects of war probably was the most moving experience for me.
Chris Hedges: I know you’ve written about the faces of the children, the way they looked at you.
Doug Rawlings: Yeah. I’ve got some pictures of them. My friend took some pictures and I took some pictures, but there are a few. For example, there was this Vietnamese girl, she might’ve been 10, or 11 years old. We called her “Little Butterfly” and she sold us dope and also prostitutes. Okay? So I didn’t have kids at the time when I was there. When I came back and started raising a family, I realized what we had done to that poor girl, how we had destroyed her childhood because she was doing that stuff to survive.
That really stays with me. It’s what we did to the children more than anything else that bothers me the most, quite frankly.
Chris Hedges: Anybody who’s been to war, myself included, what’s most devastating is what’s done to the children.
Doug Rawlings: And that’s what struck me when I went back this time for this conference that I went to. I went back with my son. And the opening moment of the conference, these young Vietnamese girls and boys, I don’t know, 15-16 year olds, got up on the stage and started singing. And with beautiful, beautiful animation. Beautiful. And I lost it. I hadn’t seen those Vietnamese children ever. And all of a sudden there they were right there and engaged with life and really having a wonderful experience. And I was blown away by that.
Chris Hedges: Artillery, you kill from a distance. It’s different from being in a firefight. It is a difference. It’s more abstract. Talk about that difference.
Doug Rawlings: Well, 173rd guys would go out and leave the wire and go out and engage. And if they needed our help, they’d call in artillery. Then they’d come back in. It was difficult dealing with them and talking to them. The range of the howitzers we had, we had eight inches and 175s, which were large, large weapons. So you’re right, I didn’t see any of that firsthand.
Chris Hedges: We should be clear, Doug, a 175, describe it. It’s a very large weapon.
Doug Rawlings: It’s a very large howitzer. It’s got a round range probably of about 20 kilometers I would think. And the eight inches were even larger. And they had a range of about 10, 15 kilometers probably.
Chris Hedges: And you’re talking about massive shells. Very large shells.
Doug Rawlings: Yeah, huge. One of the things that really got me, I could understand when the coordinates were called in to assist the infantry and stuff like that, but more times than I care to admit, they did what they call H-and-I, which is harassment [and] interdiction. They would sporadically fire off these rounds just to “keep them on their toes.” And if you stop for a second and think they’re not even aiming at a military target if you will. These things are coming in, God knows where.
Chris Hedges: How quickly did you realize the war was an atrocity?
Doug Rawlings: I like to refer to myself as a spoiled, white male coming out of a college experience and stuff like that. I had no idea what the military was involved in and stuff. And so I was amoral, if you will. Not even really aware of it, other than the fact that… I’m from Rochester, New York, and I used to go back home from Cleveland where I went to school. And I’d bump in the guys I went to high school with who were coming back from Nam and they were really messed up. But that didn’t register with me at all.
So I kept a journal while I was over there and I was writing actually on the plane flying from the US to Vietnam, my concerns, my worries, if you will. And literally, it’s honest God’s truth, because I’ve got this written in my internal, so it’s got to be true, I was reading Jean-Paul Sartre’s book on genocide on the plane over to Vietnam. So I knew. Intellectually, I knew this was wrong. But when I was actually there, it really got me viscerally. It really, really struck home. I quickly got out of that notion they like to give you in the military that you’re going to become a man and that stuff. Like you’re playing in your own little sandbox and not affecting anybody.
Well, I saw the impact we were having on the villagers. I saw young American men who were probably decent human beings, turned into sociopaths, if you will, and some perhaps even psychopaths. I saw this thing unraveling in front of me. And so I got angrier and angrier and angrier. And they tried to give me an Article 15 in the military, which is a reduction in rank, for doing this horrible thing, which was engaging with the Vietnamese people.
Chris Hedges: This is when you went into the village?
Doug Rawlings: No. Actually, we were at this firebase and these majors would show up to make rank to get in the combat zones and stuff. And these young punks, if you will, a lot of them were. I have friends who were officers now, but back then it was like, forget it. And this one guy showed up and I’ve been in country, I don’t know, seven months or whatever, and he all of a sudden decided that we were not going to talk to the villagers who came to the wire as I mentioned, the young girls selling us drugs and prostitutes and stuff like that.
But the villagers would come to the wire and just started trying to engage with us and stuff. And so this guy said, no way. You guys are buying dope. Forget it. I looked at him and I said screw you. I walked to the wire and started talking to him. And of course, he wrote me up an Article 15, which was a reduction in rank and who knows what else. But he didn’t know who he was dealing with. I’m not bragging or anything, but I’m a college student. I figured out things. I knew how to write so I wrote up my defense and I flew into Phu Cat Air Force Base, which was, I don’t know, 50 kilometers from where we were, and they had an adjuvant general’s office there. And I presented my case.
My case basically was you guys gave us a card that says your job is to win hearts and minds. How can we win hearts and minds if we’re not allowed to communicate with the Vietnamese? Which was my argument. And I won. Sort of. I won and I beat that Article 15. I ended up burning a lot of shit when I… This guy really hated me after that. He thought of everything he could do to make my life miserable after that. But anyway, it was that resistance. And there were moments when we would defy orders, which you’re not supposed to do in the military. We’d have these guys tell us okay, we want you to drive to wherever take your deuce-and-a-half, and go to wherever. And we’d do some quick calculation and said sir, if we do that, we’re going to be coming back at night and there’s no way in hell we were going to drive down those roads at night. Then they would find some way to sound like they were still in authority, but they’d listen to us because we were not going to do it.
Chris Hedges: What did you learn about the military? What did you learn about war and what did you learn about yourself?
Doug Rawlings: How much time have you got? Okay, I was an economics major and I was working on my MBA and my dad was an executive at Eastman Kodak, and I was heading into the corporate world until I was drafted. The military showed me exactly how a bureaucracy really, really works, which is authority figures dictating your lives, treating you like assets, literally, as they called us. And I said there’s no way in hell I’m going to go back into a bureaucracy like that. So the military taught me that.
I learned about war, and as I made reference to earlier, it’s more than a personal journey. The impact on other people is immense and it’s almost, as you well know from your experiences, it’s almost impossible to capture it totally in words, and even in images because there are so many other factors. There’s smells and sounds and stuff like that. And it’s an overwhelming experience. I thought of myself, I was going to be like Norman Mailer or Ernest Hemingway. I was going to write about this experience from an objective stance, from a distance, if you will.
No. It engages you entirely, 100%. And I did stuff that I didn’t think I would do. War impacted me like that and I came back incredibly angry. I spent an extra 34 days there which were the longest days of my life, quite frankly, because I discovered that if I came back stateside with less than six months of active duty, I could get out of the military. So I literally spent the shortest possible time you could in the military. I came back one day less than six months. So I knew that I could not in any way function stateside in a military base. I was so angry. I was so disgusted with this uniform and stuff.
So I learned that about myself. And then I dabbled with joining the VVAW in Boston. I moved up to Boston really quickly. But then I joined the Socialist Workers Party because they were really militant they were organized, and they had some good stuff going on. I was trying to give my voice, somehow, to the peace movement. And this was early on. So that’s changed everything I looked at from then on. I decided to become a high school English teacher because I wanted to work with young people and not preach to them. In a sense, direct them in another way from the way the recruiters were trying to convince them to go. So my life was totally changed, obviously.
Chris Hedges: Let’s have you read one of your poems. Let’s begin with “Unexploded Ordnance: A Ballad.”
Doug Rawlings: Okay.” Unexploded Ordnance: A Ballad.” I wrote this for Chuck Searcy, who’s a founder and member – And I met with him when I was in Vietnam – Of Project RENEW, which is dedicated to removing unexploded ordnance from the villages. 50 years later, there are still kids having their legs blown off and arms blown off by these cluster munitions, if you will, that were dropped off. So as an artillery person, I felt a real personal guilt, if you will, the unexploded ordnance. So here’s the ballad:
“So I was maybe all at twenty-one
when they whipped me
into some kind of soul-less shape.
Yet another one of America’s
weeping mother’s sons
set forth into this world
to raze, pillage, and rape.
Now, it’s coming on
to another Christmas Eve.
And songs of joy and peace
fill up our little town.
How I asked myself
could I possibly believe
I could do what I did
and not reap what I had sown
In that land far away
from what I call home
a grandfather leads
his granddaughter by the hand
into a field where we did
what had to be done.
They trip into a searing heat
brighter than a thousand suns.”
Chris Hedges: You used the word rape. Women are always collateral in war. Prostitution that war creates, prostituted women, perhaps, only in greater numbers, of course, is created. Let’s talk about that aspect of war because it’s not often talked about. There were brothels set up, and prostitution was rife.
Doug Rawlings: Yeah. And one of my first experiences when I was there, I didn’t know what was going on. I was one of these greenies. And these guys loaded into a deuce-and-a-half and had me drive the truck. And they said stop here and wait for us. We went into this little village. They went in and they were engaging with what they call prostitutes. I was sitting there looking, and I saw some of these girls come out of the thing. And they were like 16. I don’t know. They were young teenage girls and these guys called them whores, right? And I’m like, what the hell? I realized that was actually going on. But when I use the word rape in that poem, I go beyond just women. I’m talking about raping the environment. I’m talking about about raping our minds. Raping us, if you will. Oftentimes, I have to be very careful in making this illusion, but I still make it on occasion. In a sense, those of us who were drafted were in a sense, raped. The government didn’t care about us at all. They wanted our bodies, they wanted to use us, and then they wanted to discard us when they were done with us.
So I’m trying to capture that notion as well. But the whole idea of prostitution was prevalent throughout that war. And you’re right, and there were brothels. I was never in a city the whole time I was there. I was pretty much in this little village and outside this village the whole time I was there, except when I went on R-and-R to Australia. But it was there. Women were, it’s the old cliche, they were part of the war and we took advantage of that.
Chris Hedges: Let’s read” The Girl in the Picture.”
Doug Rawlings: “The Girl in the Picture” comes from the famous picture of Phan Thi Kim Phuc. Most of us in our generation know that picture, right? When I say “The Girl in the Picture,” the people from my generation, know immediately the picture I’m talking about. Chris Hedges: Yeah. That was first published in Ramparts by Bob Scherer. Doug Rawlings: For me, and for many of us, it became an iconic picture of the realities of that war. So I wrote this poem, “The Girl in the Picture”, but I like to tell people I began writing this poem as a poem about suicide. I like to tell my kids and my loved ones, not all poetry is autobiographical. It doesn’t mean the old man is going to commit suicide tomorrow but I was grappling with this notion of suicide. And what we used to call them in the Vietnam War was “single-car suicide.” You’d find guys dead alongside the road, no alcohol involved at all, just smash a car into a tree going 70 miles an hour. And they’re non-vets. And we’d say that’s a suicide, VA didn’t say so.
So anyway, I’m writing this poem and I happened to pick up a magazine dealing with that picture. And in that magazine article, they said that Kim was nine years old when that picture was taken. Well, when I was writing this poem, my oldest granddaughter was nine years old, and that changed the whole poem. So here it is. It’s called “The Girl in the Picture,” and I begin it with a Buddhist aphorism. “Whatever you run from becomes your shadow.”
“The Girl in the Picture
‘Whatever you run from, becomes your shadow.’
If you’re a namvet, a survivor of sorts,
she’ll come for you across the decades
casting a shadow in the dying light of your dreams,
naked and nine, terror in her eyes
Of course, you’ll have to ignore her –
If you wish to survive over the years –
But then your daughters will turn nine
and then your granddaughter’s nine
As the shadows lengthen.
So, you will have no choice on that one night
screaming down the Ridge Road, lights off,
under a full moon, she’s standing in the middle of the road,
still naked and nine, terror in her eyes
Now you must stop to pick her up, to carry her back
home to where she came from, to that gentle
village with a forgiving and the forgiven
gather at high noon. There are no shadows.”
Chris Hedges: That’s beautiful. So let’s talk about –
Doug Rawlings: I consider… I’m sorry.
Chris Hedges: – Go ahead.
Doug Rawlings: I was going to say, I consider the poem of remorse. And I say – When I went back to Vietnam, I felt this 100% – I have no right to ask the Vietnamese people to forgive me for what I did, for being a participant in that war. If they do forgive us, it’s wonderful. We accept it graciously and wonderfully, but I have no right to ask for that.
So in a sense, what I was writing about was that whole notion that somehow can I put my life together, engage with the Vietnamese people in some way that they could offer me some forgiveness? So that’s at the heart of that poem.
Chris Hedges: Let’s talk briefly about your readjustment following the war and then your return. You went back with your son. 53 years, you’re back in Vietnam.
Doug Rawlings: I’m a huge fan of Carl Jung’s notion of synchronicity of things happening. There’s no such thing as a coincidence. Things happen in a certain way. So when I was in Vietnam, I started corresponding with this woman whom I dated in college. As it went along, I finally said, hey, you want to meet me when I get out of the army? And she said sure. So she met me in San Francisco when I processed out. What we did then, was we went down to Los Angeles. And then this was 1970, of course, ’71. We hitchhiked across the US.
A cop actually took us to the thing. And people from our generation don’t realize this, but when you hitchhiked, you got on this ramp and there were like 10 people lined up hitchhiking rides. And there we were. And for three weeks I was on the road before I even went home with Judy. And by the way, Judy and I have been married 52 years now. But she was there, and I was able to start processing out this whole thing. I like to tell people I didn’t tell anybody. I wasn’t wearing a uniform or anything. But I’d get into a car and the driver would look at me and after about 10 nanoseconds say, are you a NAMVET? Goddamn, how did you know that? Well, guess what?
But it was three weeks of that, processing that out. And then we moved up to Boston. We didn’t know anybody. I got a job in a hospital. I’ve got a degree now. I got an economics degree. I could have gotten a job. I could have gone to Eastman Kodak. But I got that thing and I started counting pills and filling bottles in this Coast Guard hospital for a year, getting involved in the anti-war movement as much as possible.
We moved out to Seattle and got involved there and came back to Boston and got my degree and stuff. So I was processing that whole war in a sense, trying to distance myself from it, but at the same time trying to use the experience in a positive way. So then my life unfolds and whatnot. And in 1984, I’m up here now in Farmington, Maine, and we had this wonderful group, we still have, Western Maine Peace Action Workshop. And we bring people in. We brought this couple to speak to us about the Nicaragua War. This is 1984. Jerry and Judy Dionisio. They were part of the Witness for Peace program. They’d gone to Nicaragua as American citizens, trying to intervene as much as possible.
So they spoke to us about their experience. And at the end of it, Jerry, whose brother was killed in Vietnam, and Jerry, who’s an ex-Marine said, I’m looking for some veterans who might want to form a peace group. Anybody interested? Yeah. Okay. So five of us here in Maine formed Veterans for Peace in 1985. And our whole mission is to abolish war. We take this pledge of non-violence as much as possible, and we try to make it as transparent and as open a group as possible. As you alluded to earlier, we have 130 chapters now, six international chapters, NGO status, and the United Nations. So that’s what I’ve been trying to do with my life, is trying to turn that experience that I’ve had from a negative one into a positive one as much as possible.
You make reference to PTSD, which I refer to, and stuff like that. But there’s a term out there now called moral injury which is much more comprehensive and engages me much more. Which is basically, if you’re involved in something – It’s either the perpetrator or the witness of something – And you don’t do something, you don’t try to stop it from happening, you’re going to suffer from moral injury. And oftentimes you don’t realize it until years later, decades later. And that’s why I think a lot of guys my age who are now vets are going through that moral injury thing like, oh my God, I really did do that. I really did that. As fathers of children, ourselves, and grandchildren, it’s overwhelming sometimes to realize what we did to the people. So still working on that. I’m trying to work on that.
Chris Hedges: Let’s read this poem, “Vietnam Redux: Going Back for Josh.” And then in the last couple minutes, talk about what it meant to go back or maybe talk a little bit for a minute about what it was like to go back and read. We’ll end with the poem.
Doug Rawlings: Okay. Well, first off, I went back, and that’s after 53 years. And so I went back as part of a conference for this book, Waging Peace in Vietnam, Ron Carver’s wonderful collection. And we were invited to speak at this conference, which is, again, engaging with Vietnam. It was all Vietnamese people who put together this conference. And they asked us to be a participant in it, to present a panel, if you will, because of the work that Ron had been doing at the War Remnants Museum in Saigon or Ho Chi Minh City. And the director there, Dr. Van, asked us to present at this conference. And so we did. It was about 500 people at the conference. Almost all of them are Vietnamese. Scholars and some college students and whatnot.
So that’s why I went back. I didn’t want to go back as a tourist, although I did the tour stuff. I wanted to present something. Okay? So we did. We presented this panel and was very well received. One wonderful experience I had with a guy who was a former Viet Cong attended it, and we ended up hugging because he thanked us for telling the people about the fact that there really was a GI resistance movement. There are really members of the American military who are trying to stop that war to help them save their lives. And a lot of the young people, of course, were totally unaware of that.
So our conference did that. So I did that, and I was smart enough. Someone said to me, look, you’re a tender age. I’m 76. They said you ought to bring somebody younger with you. And so I have a son and a daughter, and I offered them, and my daughter couldn’t go, but my son could. He’s 46 years old. My wife can attest to this. I spent a lot of my life not talking about the war with my kids. I didn’t want to put that on them. But when Josh came with me, it was a long flight and then we got there and I met guys who had been living there for years. Chuck Searcy, he’d been living there 35 years. And there’s another guy, David, 12 years.
So Josh had to listen to us, old war veterans, swap war stories and stuff like that. And so he got a glimpse of the war from that perspective, but he also got a glimpse from the Vietnamese perspective. After the conference, we left the conference and Chuck, who was the director of Project RENEW, flew to Dong Ha. We got a car. He was the driver. We drove to the DMZ. We drove to Da Nang, we drove to Khe Sanh.
We drove to Dong Ha and we were out on the roads and really engaging with the countryside. My son was really taken by. He’s an international traveler and he said one thing which I love. And then I’ll read this poem. But he said… He’d been to Mexico. He was in Mexico a lot. And he said, when you’re in Mexico, it’s like you’re always on edge. The people there are trying to sell you something.
He wandered around Hue where the conference was in Hanoi and stuff like that. And he said I felt so peaceful, so safe the whole time I was there. Hanoi has got 10 million people for God’s sake. It’s a sprawling city. And he said the Vietnamese people were so amazing. Anyway, here’s a poem called “Vietnam Redux.” I wrote it for my son, Josh.
“I look twice now where I used to look only once,
like where Routes 2 and 4 merge with Route 156,
or when my imagination takes me to a little village
just on the other side of the River Styx
where there truly was hell to pay those many years ago
across that river and up and down those swirling tides
where Beelzebub got to play with his gift box of GI Joe’s
as we desperately hung on for his satanic little ride
. I went back to that land of my 50-year-old dreams
thinking I’d finally put some nightmares out to pasture,
hoping to quiet down those mama-san beetle-mouth screams,
looking for that proverbial sense of closure.
But who am I to expect more from this madly tortured land
that once swallowed up my illusions of masculine grandeur
and spat out a soldier boy who had tried to become a man
only to become a tool of that mindless, endless slaughter?”
So I still feel that way. As much as I have feelings of remorse and I’m trying to do stuff like that, I still ultimately feel I cannot get away from the fact that I was a tool of a military that did these horrible things.
Chris Hedges: I want to ask about the difference between those veterans who come back, attempt to confront, rather than bury what they did, and become active as you have been in the peace movement. And those who essentially don’t process their experience. You’ve seen both. And I want you to talk psychologically about the different routes that they travel.
Doug Rawlings: For three years, I went up to our VA hospital’s psychiatric ward to work with patients on a weekly basis. What I would do is I’d bring poetry from the Civil War, Walt Whitman, right up through the Afghan and Iraq wars, including Vietnam. And the patients that I worked with – I’d get maybe 10 or 12 at a session – And there was a mix of Iraq and Afghan war veterans and Vietnam War veterans. They were there not by choice. These had serious psychological problems and mostly, of course, dealing with drugs and alcohol and whatnot.
I love talking about this. I would come in early into the sessions and, I probably can’t use this word on your radio program, but I would use the so-called F word, if you will, almost immediately so they would know that I’m not a psychiatrist, I’m not a counselor, I’m not a teacher; I’m a veteran and I want to talk to them about the power of poetry or the arts, and how it can help them get through their lives. One of the things I would point out, they all kept therapeutic journals, so I would say after we read some poems, I’d say, take something from your therapeutic journal. Turn it into a poem, if you will. And they would. And then I would say, okay.
We’d put them on a table and I’d say, see, we’re talking about this thing here, this artifact called your poem. We’re not talking about you. We’re not talking about your experience, we’re talking about this poem. And the nurses said that was incredibly therapeutic because they were able to distance themselves from it, but at the same time engage with it. And that’s the hard part of it all. I will never forget what I did and what happened to me in that war, but at the same time, I don’t want it to dominate my life.
So I really do believe that we can actually set aside, if you will, those experiences to some extent and use them instead of them using us. We can selectively say, okay, I’m going to talk about Nam right now. I’m going to talk to you guys about it right now. And then I’m going to walk out this door and I’m not going to talk about it again. But it’s still there. And so I honestly think the differences for veterans to be able to transform their experiences into some art form; And I’m not talking about proselytizing, I’m not talking about preaching. I’m not talking about any of that stuff. I’m talking about trying to transform it into something that can express the sort of visceral experiences that they’ve had.
We’ve over-intellectualized this whole process, and people want to talk in the abstract about war. It doesn’t work, not for me anyway. Hence, we have Joe Biden going to Hanoi and talking about China and talking about commerce and all this stuff, and not once talking about the plight of the Vietnamese people and the horrible things that happened that we did. And that’s what the arts do.
Chris Hedges: Well, Jung calls it the wounded healer.
Doug Rawlings: Wow. I never heard that.
Chris Hedges: Those who are truly able to heal, are those who carry the wounds.
Doug Rawlings: Wow.
Chris Hedges: Which is precisely what you’ve done. And it is as the wounded healer that… Let’s not call it psychic wholeness, but it’s psychic survival. There is a difference between those such as yourself who take the experience that you had in war and seek to fight against war and those who attempt to shut it off. It’s very self-damaging not to grapple on both psychological and moral levels with what you’ve been through.
Doug Rawlings: Ironically, there are, guys, who refer to their military service as a highlight of their life, for many of them. And for me, it was one of the lowest periods of my life. And yet I still want to honor and respect those guys, those men and women, who speak about that whole thing. We had our VFP national conference via Zoom, and one of the workshops there were these Mexican-American soldiers who were promised and given US citizenship, and then they served in Iraq and Afghanistan, and when they came back and they got caught in some minor, whatever, drug possession, whatever, and they were deported.
So we have a chapter in Tijuana, Mexico, VFP, working with these people, trying to get them back. One of the stories that was told of this woman, who was a combat medic in Iraq, a Hispanic woman, who came back and was heavily dealing with drugs herself. That’s the only way she’d deal is to get stoned and all that stuff. And then she had to start dealing drugs on the street to survive to get money for her drugs. And she was busted and deported and stuff and called a prostitute and a whore, and all that.
She got back to the US because of the efforts of Veterans for Peace. She thanked us for that and that’s the work that we’re doing. Her experience was stunning. An amazing combat medic. You can well imagine. And then to have that happen to her, those are the stories that we want out there more and more and more, quite frankly.
Chris Hedges: Great. That was Doug Rawlings, retired professor of English from the University of Maine, Farmington, poet, and Vietnam veteran. I want to thank The Real News Network and its production team, Cameron Granadino, Adam Coley, David Hebden, and Kayla Rivara. You can find me at chrishedges.substack.com.