Tell the Truth, and So Make Peace
All my life, I have wanted to keep soldiers safe from war. During World War II, my cousins in uniform stayed at our house on their way to and from military bases in California , the Pacific, and Europe . I heard veterans—including my mother, a refugee, a medic—talk story about the war that was killing and maiming right now as they spoke. Listening to people who had lived to tell the tale, I believed that it was the telling that kept them alive. They had survived hell and come back to warn us at home.
As Odysseus, the archetypical warrior, made his way home, he narrated his journey—setting off to war, waging the long war, coming home—to listener after listener. The story grew until, finally home, he could tell the whole tale and become whole. We tell stories and we listen to stories in order to live. To stay conscious. To connect one with another. To understand consequences. To keep history. To rebuild civilization.
About twenty years after our war in Vietnam —the Fall of Saigon , the Vietnam War, the American War—the Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh gathered war veterans and their family members in retreats for making peace. In Noble Silence, they meditated: eating mindfully, walking mindfully, hugging mindfully, and hearing the Bell of Mindfulness. Walking meditation is the specific antidote to the march that soldiers learn in basic training. On hugging, Thich Nhat Hanh said, “When you hug one Vietnamese person, you hug all Vietnamese people.” I thought, When you hug one American, you hug all of us. In the circle of the community, someone would sing or speak or dance; the entire sangha bowed to him or her.
Singing, hugging, dancing, we were a community. But it is in words that each individual reveals a unique mind. The veterans needed to write. They would write the unspeakable. Writing, they keep track of their thinking; they leave a permanent record. Processing chaos through story and poem, the writer shapes and forms experience, and thereby, I believe, changes the past and remakes the existing world. The writer becomes a new person after every story, every poem; and if the art is very good, perhaps the reader is changed, too. Miraculous transformations! So, I added writing meditation to Thich Nhat Hanh’s program for veterans.
We practiced writing in community. We would not have to write alone. We had one another to write with, and to write for. If you felt like quitting, you’d look across the table or garden or terrace or grove, and see the others bowed over their notebooks and laptops, and you kept going.
People who care what we have to say surround us. They draw the stories out of us by their wanting to know. Toward the end of the day, I evoke Avalokiteshvara, the bodhisattva of compassionate listening: “We aspire to learn your way of listening in order to help relieve the suffering in the world.” And each one reads aloud a new story, a new poem.
The veterans did their most dramatic writing when I presented the First Precept, which is a vow against killing: “I am determined not to kill, not to let others kill, and not to condone any act of killing in the world, in my thinking, and in my way of life.” A moral ethic helps shape and form thoughts about the war chaos. The drama is not just in the battle scenes but in the moral conf lict.
Worried that the veterans would not take instruction from me, a non-veteran, I invited writers who had had war experience to help me teach. Larry Heinemann. George Evans. Wayne Karlin. Ho Anh Thai. Le Minh Khue. Fred Marchant. Grace Paley. Every one of these good-hearted artists affirmed that the written word gives life.
As the writers became skilled in knowing others’ points of view, they enlarged the definition of veteran. A veteran could be a woman; a veteran could be a deserter; a veteran could be a civilian who had served in war; a veteran could have been a member of a street gang; a veteran could be a survivor of domestic violence; a veteran could be a peace activist. All manner of persons identified themselves as veterans and came to join the regulars, who argued for a while, then let every one belong. Wars affect all of our lives.
Our workshop/community/sangha has been meeting for a dozen years. There have been about 500 participants, counting people who met in the retreats on the East Coast and in Southern California . Nowadays, about thirty of us (never quite the same thirty) will gather in Sebastopol , California , once each season. A veteran from the other end of the country will set his clock to Pacific Time and meditate when we meditate, write when we write. This book is a harvest of conversations among multitudes. Most of these writers have met one another face-to-face. Nearby or at a distance, we inspire and inf luence one another, reading one another, editing, translating, giving feedback. We even appear in one another’s tales.
If there is one thing the writers in this book have in common, it is that they are rebels. They had been assigned to war; they had volunteered and almost lost their lives. No more volunteering. No more following assignments. Suspicious of institutions, they have no name for our group. So, in this book, various writers call us: The Veteran Writers Group, the Veteran Writers’ Workshop, the Veterans Writing Sangha. I have not edited for uniformity. Let stand Viet Nam or Vietnam or Viêt Nam, Tet or Têt, Danang or Da Nang, Ha Noi or Hanoi, Communist or communist, terrorist or Terrorist, Hell or hell, God or god.
This community of writers began its work during Gulf War I and has continued meeting and writing to the present day—as the war against Iraq continues. All these years, these faithful writers have paid attention to wars past and to wars ongoing. Their stories and poems are immense in scope, and in heart, and—amazingly—full of life and laughter. They carried out our motto: Tell the truth.
And so make peace.