Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Along the Roads of Vietnam at War – A Poet Remembers

The ex-Vietnam GI poet, John Buquoi, retraces his seven-year journey through wartime Vietnam in his recently published collection of poems. He was first in Vietnam as a soldier, 1963-65 – serving with my brother Jeff Sharlet*– and then as a civilian as an independent contractor supporting the military mission from 1965 to 1970.

Following his military tour as a Vietnamese linguist, John returned to the States in April ’65. Texas was home, but a strong attraction to the exotic land he had gotten to know soon drew him back to Southeast Asia. By midnight, Christmas ’65, John was aboard a PanAm flight winging his way again to Vietnam. This time working as a civilian in-country, the poet would range far and wide throughout South Vietnam.

With his language ability, civilian employment was not a problem for John. He was soon snapped up by a large US electrical sub-contractor. The firm was under contract to a giant construction outfit that built air fields and other military facilities for America’s growing involvement in the war against Communist North Vietnam and its southern proxy, the Viet Cong, or VC.  

After completing his initial contract, John signed on with Pacific Architects and Engineers and was assigned to the staff of a former general who had retired through the revolving door to a cushy position with the defense contractor. The poet traveled extensively throughout the embattled country, continuing apace as he subsequently became a Labor Relations manager for the Pentagon's largest defense contractor in South Vietnam. His poems look back nearly a half century to that unforgettable time in his young life.  

John’s book of poems can be read as written one by one, or alternatively viewed as a continuous narrative poem. Either way, the reader journeys with the poet through a tumultuous time in the history of the 20th century.

One of John’s first work assignments is recorded in an early poem. He and the general visited a major military base. As an ex-GI, the poet was aware that combat riflemen were not only in harm’s way, but lived and fought in a war not far from the Equator under conditions of extreme difficulty and hardship.

Even at one of his relatively sheltered postings as an intelligence operative, he recalled many men were billeted in tents with little relief from the searing heat and enervating humidity of tropical Asia.

However, in the company of a general as a newly reminted civilian, the poet was able to pass through the two-way mirror into the bifurcated world of the US military. Travelling north from Saigon to Cu Chi, they arrived at the vast encampment of the 25th Infantry Division – a base the size of a small city complete with its own airfield.

Shoulder patch 25th Inf, Tropic Lightning

Driving through base to the quarters of the commanding general (CG), they could see the area where the ‘grunts’, the combat troopers, were billeted:

                                      the 11-bravos, ‘grunts’
                                      are tented in fetid ‘favelas’
                                      of rotting surplus canvas
                                      from Korea, world war two,
                                      … to endure beyond combat
                                      the heat, the bugs, the rats,
                                      the endless monsoon
                                      and the most inelegant 
                                      mess chow mélange
                                      slung to steel trays

Moving on to their corporate destination – to confer with the divisional CG, the poet came upon a scene barely imaginable in his previous incarnation as a Spec-5, roughly the equivalent of sergeant. His lines reveal the surprising contrast:

                                      in the commanding
                                      general’s mess
                                      nestled in officer country’s
                                      manicured, suburban
                                      emerald otherworld
                                      of putting green lawns
                                      and air conditioned luxury
                                      command staff trailers
                                      privacy fenced and gated,
                                      guarded against the envy
                                      and anger of their own troops

In that inner sanctum of the highly stratified US Army, the poet and his general were invited to lunch – a splendid repast worthy of colonial days in French Indochina – first cocktails, then “lobster, shrimp, filet mignon, prime rib,” washed down with fine wine followed by cigars all around. The poet might well have wondered – Am I still in the same war zone?1

John married in Vietnam, and he and his wife began a family in Saigon. For help with the house and the infant, they hired little Miss Anh. Early one Monday morning, Anh came to work, punctual as always, and began playing with the baby.
But the poet noticed her quietly crying, choking back tears. She managed to say very politely “I need to take a week off/a personal matter/I can be back next week.

John replied, of course, take whatever time you need and gently asked, “is everything okay, are you okay.” Amidst a flood of tears, Anh explained that her brother had just died and she needed to go back to the village in the Mekong Delta to help with his children.

Sympathetically, the poet inquired had her brother been ill or perhaps in an accident? The weeping young woman replied:

                                      he was just a farmer
                                      and he was at home
                                      standing in his doorway
                                      smoking a cigarette
                                      drinking coffee
                                      looking out at his field
                                      watching his children play
                                      and they just came
                                      and killed him
                                      from the helicopter
                                      from the air
                                      with a rocket
                                      and machine guns

Shocked and saddened, John said “I am so sorry … take whatever you need, it’s okay,” but quickly realized “it’s not ‘okay’ at all” as … “tears echo up in my own eyes/and, choked silent/in the cold realization/of shared responsibility.”2

Another poem mourns a company man working at a regimental base up country who had died saving three GIs wounded by a road mine. If not for the poet’s eulogy, the man would have been a hero unsung lost in oblivion:

                                      If he’d been an army man
                                      his name would be carved on the wall
                                      but he was just a civilian,
                                      a blue collar construction guy,
                                      working at Blackhorse, near Xuan Loc
                                      not a very important job
                                      even for an old guy like him,
                                      the oldest man on Blackhorse base3 

Then came Tet ’68, the VC’s coordinated attacks on every major urban center in South Vietnam. Like an angry volcano, the war – long raging in the jungles and mountains – erupted, its lethal flows coursing through cities and towns. Asleep at home in Saigon, John

                                      woke startled
                                      with the neighborhood
                                      to the mortars,
                                      grenades, small arms,
                                      machine gun fire
                                      and, loudest of all,
                                      the eerie haunted
                                      silences echoing
                                      muffled in between
                                      … battle fires
                                      in Saigon’s
                                      bloodiest alley
                                      just barely
                                      a block away

From the rooftop, the poet watched the heavy fighting below “like picnickers/at Bull Run/ … ashamed/ embarrassed/ at our helplessness/ in our raw exposed/impotence/as the city burned/and so, so many died/… just barely/ and more than/those hundred/lost lives away/in this insanity/of war.4                                               

 Saigon street fighting, Tet ‘68

The streets and alleys of the capital awash in death, civilians too fell victim as the poet renders the fate of neighbors in verse. An old Vietnamese woman gone mad in protective entombment from the violence outside her door. A priest, fearful of becoming a casualty of the fighting elsewhere, had fled to Saigon where – as in the ancient Persian tale of Samarra -- Death found him after all, in the form of a Katyusha rocket.

In perhaps his finest and most memorable poetic image of the war, John was driving on the road south of Saigon enroute toward the delta, the Mekong River Delta. Stopping at a roadside soup stand near a large, well-tended rice paddy, the poet attracted a small group of peasants, curious to see a lone American in those parts, not to mention one who spoke their language.

In the midst of the war, the countryside seemed like “an ancient watercolor scene/as from a silken scroll” until the crowd suddenly turned away toward the paddy berm, peering at something on the far tree line.

Curious, John looked over and saw “the three/dark shadow elephant-like hulks/approaching fast abreast” – Armored Personnel Carriers, or APCs, churning through the pristine green paddies, ugly scars in their wake.

Rice paddies in South Vietnam

As the villagers watched, muttering angrily, the “amphibian herd” closed the distance, crested the berm, one of them dragging a cargo net. What occurred next the poet found disturbing:

                                      cheering soldiers jump running       
                                      to drop their netted catch
                                      and, as in a play, set up, laughing,
                                      their grim trophy-like display,
                                      eight bodies neatly laid in rows
                                      along the paddy dike
                                      eight dead boys, so young
                                      eight dead teenage boys,
                                      forever teens, forever dead
                                      from today until forever

Mounting up, the soldiers sped away “jeering, laughing, cheering/ …
as though their own still last tomorrows/might not ever come.”

In an epiphany the poet foresaw

                                      that the final victors in this
                                      now all American war
                                      would be not ‘assisted friends’
                                      but comrades, sisters
                                      and blood’s brothers
                                      of these eight dead
                                      these eight so dead
                                      teen guerrilla boys
                                      at rest on the altar berm

But this had not yet been grasped in Saigon “where fantasies of progress/still
sustained the war machine.5

The longer John worked in Vietnam during the war, the more he saw of the dark side of US ‘assistance’ to our ally, the South Vietnamese. In a poem about an orphanage run by Buddhist monks, the poet tells of the huge amount of rice required daily to feed the children.

And as rice boils, it multiplies in volume,

                                      so, too, the orphanage
                                      swells in numbers
                                      of orphaned children
                                      ever since the Americans
                                      came to help their friends
                                      and set the land
                                      so much to fire6
Fast forwarding to the end of the century and beyond to the new one, the last poems in John Buquoi’s fine volume, Snapshots from the Edge of a War, are suffused with sadness – for  the young of Vietnam, “unearned deaths before they even lived;”7 for a buddy, an old soldier, with whom he visited the Wall, “so many so long dead/so many;”8 and for the country his wife Kim left behind, “older now, dazed at so much change/she walked the Saigon of her youth.”9

Vietnam War Memorial, Washington, DC

The poet closes his meditation on the past reflecting on a final trip back to Vietnam, revisiting “again one’s youth/that was so shaped in that far place.” And hence his last lament

                             for those too soon
                             already gone who cannot go
                             or did not leave that never land
                             and, yes, for all those times long lost
                             but to fast fading memory
                             this one last memorial trip
                             on landscapes now but faintly dreamed
                             across those ancient miles of time10

The book is available in e-book, Kindle, and hard copy.

  1. “tropic lightning, cu chi base,” J Buquoi, snapshots from the edge of a war (2015), 60. Quotes from the poems in the text are indicated in bold blue type.
  1. “monday morning, early,” Ibid, 63.
  1. “death and recompense,” Ibid, 69.
  1. “surprise,” Ibid, 74 
  1. “on the chau thanh road,” Ibid, 89.
  1. “mindfulness,” Ibid, 100.
  1. “collateral damage,” Ibid, 117.
  1. “brother ghost,” Ibid, 101.
  1. “quanta of memory,” 115.
  1. “meditation on a trip back,” Ibid, 128.