Unforgiven

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For years after he had served in Viet Nam, American lieutenant Nathaniel Tripp would dream that he returned to the war. The dream is always the same. He is living on his Vermont farm with his children when he hears a distant noise, beating and throbbing. ‘I know they are coming for me, and there is not much time.’ Five helicopters approach. The sound makes him weep, but he knows what he must do. He sets off a smoke grenade to indicate his position, stands tall, signals with his arms. He is overwhelmed with contradictory feelings: awe, sadness, pleasure, fatigue. He feels proud of the spectacle he is providing for his sons.

As the helicopters land, he is surrounded by the thick smell of kerosene, ‘the hot breath of death’. He recognises the men from his platoon. He is distressed to learn that the war, which he thought had ended in 1975, is still going on. He was 24 when he went to Viet Nam, a young man with little to lose. Now he is middle aged and a father. But in the dream he knows he must return, to continue in ‘this utterly awful and meaningless task’.

In the dream, Tripp always obeys the imperative to go back to Viet Nam. Awake, he wonders why he is unable to walk away. Why is it that he finds reassurance in his compass and maps and ‘the cool hiss of the radio’, commanding him to give up everything and return to the war? Perhaps because he, like many veterans, has never really left. He calls the Viet Nam War a poison in his veins, but it is also a strangely benign presence which he likens to a river. Cruel yet comforting, it will never let him go.

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Nathaniel Tripp arrived in Viet Nam early in 1968, after the Tet Offensive. Stepping off the plane for the first time, he writes, was like walking into ‘the biggest, hottest fart on earth’. A military bus took the troops through Saigon towards Bien Hoa. He was shocked to find part of the city in complete ruins, like Dresden or Hamburg, yet thronging with people. ‘I was amazed’, he says. ‘It seemed impossible that anyone could survive such devastation’. He recalls that he was still naive enough to assume that the damage had been caused by the Viet Cong.

The new recruits were embarrassed by their clean uniforms and youthful faces. Despite their training, they knew it would take weeks before they were any use as soldiers. As they set off by helicopter to Quan Loi, they felt like helpless prisoners facing a death sentence. According to Tripp, many of the American casualities were new arrivals, ‘killed during their first few weeks, before their instincts had been sharpened, and while they were still blinded by fear’. He is critical of the policy which replaced individual men rather than whole units, regarding it as a public relations exercise to disguise the escalation of the United States’ involvement, and like many such policies, ‘it ignored the human truth of the war’.

The FNG (‘fucking new guy’) could hamper the whole unit while he was learning; this was especially true for officers responsible for the lives of their men. The new arrivals felt acutely anxious as they approached their first real experience of the war. What they did not know, says Tripp, is that they would feel worse later, if they survived. Going home would be even more painful without the comfort of the men they had come to love. Nor would they be helped to reassimilate into civilian life, and for some veterans home became more unbearable than the war.

On arrival at the base, the new officers were taken to a tent containing eight bunks, seven empty and the last apparently a dumping place for old field equipment. Tripp was shown around the camp and returned to the tent convinced that he would soon be dead. As he started to settle in, the dirty heap of equipment grunted and sat up. It was an officer back from reconnaissance, a ‘wild man festooned with fragmentation grenades, smoke grenades, flashlight, watch, compass, bandage packs, ammunition pouches, canteens, flares, claymore mines’ and numerous other objects. He laughed maniacally at the sight of the new arrivals, and explained that he had just come in for stitches in his ear after a machine gun bullet had passed through it. Now he was going back to his platoon, and had the contented air of a man returning to his lover.

The new officers were nauseated and appalled by this apparition. It was all a terrible mistake; if this was an officer, then clearly they did not belong in the army or the war. Not long afterwards, the war had transformed Tripp into the same kind of wild man, dirty, happy, disturbed, and deeply committed to his men – the men who would return to him in his dreams long after the war had ended.

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Like other writers about the Viet Nam War, Tripp values the intense relationships which developed among the men, but he also recognises the dangers involved. To a closely bonded group, everyone else becomes the enemy. Such closeness makes loss by death or departure almost impossible to bear, and one can become paranoically suspicious of the rest of the world. A morality based on them and us, black and white, and simplistic notions of good and evil is precisely what led the United States into the war in the first place, argues Tripp. He wonders how we might preserve the good which emerges in wartime – the commitment, bonding, courage, and endurance – in civilian life. Can we not discover these virtues without engaging in violent conflict? This question has vexed veterans since at least the First World War. Consciously or not, Tripp’s book revisits several themes from writers of the 1914–18 conflict, from Sassoon and Owen to Barbusse, Remarque, and Graves.

In the early months of his tour, Tripp serves as an officer in the countryside. First he is involved in a series of operations to ‘seal and search’ a wooded district; to find and eliminate the active VC in the area. He learns quickly, but he is troubled for the first few weeks with a profound sense of failure, worrying that he will never be as competent as his men, and fearing to take responsibility for their safety. At one point he tries in desperation to resign his commission, but his commanding officer wisely advises him to wait for a while before making a final decision. The matter is never mentioned again, and Tripp is surprised and grateful to discover that he can succeed in the job. But as his tour of duty proceeds, he starts to wonder about the value of that job. The men feel they are risking everything for a cause which looks increasingly questionable. But there is little time to think, says Tripp, for the army deliberately keeps them busy to prevent introspection.

They serve in difficult terrain, including a place known as the Iron Triangle, once one of the enemy’s most secure areas. Now it was ‘so pummeled and poisoned and riddled with holes that it seemed impossible for anything human to survive, including us’. The few villages in the area are empty and burned to the ground. The local people have died, or become refugees in Saigon, or joined the resistance. Tripp finds it difficult to imagine what the area must have looked like before it was destroyed. The hills and forests are still under attack by B-52s and defoliants.

Sometimes it seems that the bombing does little more than destroy the landscape. The men hate to see the desolation; the ‘silent moonscapes of craters and broken stubs of trees’. The bombing rocks the ground ten kilometres away, like an earthquake. On one occasion they find a tunnel which has been hit when full of people. ‘The bombs had left the dirt and woods and people so thoroughly homogenized that the only recognizable human fragments were vertebrae’.

The landscape is hard to penetrate. Paradoxically, they find the defoliated areas are the worst. ‘We didn’t know anything about Agent Orange beyond the fact that it was a failure.’ The area has been sprayed a year or two earlier, and rapid-growing vines have since taken over, ‘like a kudzu horror movie’. Prickly vines hang thickly from the poisoned trees, producing a thicket as high as the men’s shoulders, which they have to hack through, laboriously, by hand. Men collapse with heat exhaustion. ‘So it went, day after day’, says Tripp, the men feeling they are being ‘punished for some unspeakable crime’.

Occasionally the men are moved around by helicopter, which they enjoy but also find rather demoralising. The view is great, says Tripp, but looking down, he can see that ‘this was a hopeless war. … The mission of the infantry is to take and hold ground.’ Despite their overwhelming technological superiority and their success in firefights, the Americans take and hold no ground here.

Later Tripp is transferred to a place known as the Rome Plow Shitpile. On the eastern side of the Iron Triangle, the Americans are destroying miles of woods each day with huge bulldozers called Rome Plows. ‘It was something to see from the air; like battalions of tornadoes had just passed through leaving nothing but a shattered tangle of mud and tree trunks and root masses.’ Tripp regards this as one of the more stupid acts of war. The bulldozers are easy targets for large land mines and for explosives suspended in the trees, and there is a high casualty rate. Tripp and his men are brought in to help to protect the machines.

Poorly equipped, the Americans sleep on piles of wood and mud, in the rain. The Viet Cong live more comfortably in the woods nearby. Each night, the VC mine the road; each morning, the Americans have to find and clear the mines. The VC wear shoes made from old car tyres, ‘Ho Chi Minh freedom sandals’, which leave a distinctive footprint. But these do not help the Americans to discover the mines, and the casualty rates remain high. In Tripp’s view, the men are put needlessly at risk due to poor or missing equipment and bad management from above. The men feel increasingly angry and betrayed, and Tripp speculates that the high command, for its part, feels betrayed by the men. ‘This was so often the case’, he argues, ‘during this unusual war, a war which had paranoia and delusion as its foundations’. This is perhaps one reason why many veterans would find it difficult to live with their war experiences afterwards.

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In the second  half of his tour, Tripp becomes an advisor to the South Vietnamese army (the ARVN), working with a Chinese-Vietnamese captain called Tu. They are based in villages about an hour away from Saigon. This period is an education; he meets Vietnamese people, learns something about their culture, their history, and their experiences of the war. A strange kind of identification occurs, and he begins to wear black VC pyjamas – the clothes of the enemy – and develops a passion for Vietnamese food.

His work takes him to Saigon, which he loathes. ‘It was noisy and filthy … the very foundations of the city were exploitation of one sort or another … the constant hustle for survival, the great open market of Mammon beside heart-breaking slums. Everything was for sale: drugs, weapons, people, principles, the past, the future. We had brought Walmart to Saigon’, a city in which prostitutes and napalm-scarred beggars struggle side by side to make a living, and thousands of families live in the rubbish dump.

One day in Saigon, Tripp and Tu get caught in a traffic jam. After waiting for a while, they drive the jeep off the road and around the traffic, to find that the blockage is due to a young man who has been knocked of his motorbike and killed. ‘A crowd had gathered and was stripping his corpse of everything, watch, ballpoint pens, shirt, while others stripped his mashed motorcyle.’ They drive on, and after a long silence, Tu remarks ‘So now you see what your war has done to my country.’ Tripp is startled; he had not thought of it as ‘my war’ until now. One purpose of his book is to understand what Tu’s statement might mean; what it signifies to be an American and to have served in the war.

Tripp’s group has to round up and interrogate VC suspects. They pay people to name names, and pay more for bodies. The back yard of their house in the village becomes an interrogation centre with ‘tiger cages’, structures built of barbed wire and stakes which are too small to allow a prisoner to stand up or to lie down. The American advisors keep out of the way while the South Vietnamese conduct interrogations, sometimes with the aid of shocks administred via field telephone wires. The suspects writhe and shriek while Tripp and the others watch television, ‘and the laugh track of some old [American] sitcom rerun would be interspersed with screams’. Somewhere along the line, he feels, they have ‘stopped being soldiers and become instead the gestapo’. He begins to hate America, ‘my fatherland, with the television laugh track and the screams of torture blending together’.

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Like many who served in Viet Nam, Nathaniel Tripp is the son of a Second World War veteran. From childhood, however, he was aware of his father’s war service with embarrassment rather than pride, for Tripp senior never made it into battle. Somewhere in the Pacific, he had had a nervous breakdown. Tripp was raised by his mother and grandmother. As a little child of 3 or 4, he remembers, he missed his father terribly, even though they had not yet met. His childhood and young adulthood were troubled by this father who was so often absent, and who when present was so often a disappointment.

As a soldier, Tripp found himself driven to make good, to compensate, to succeed where his father had failed. As a platoon leader, he learned to assume the role of ‘father’ to his men. Keeping them safe became more important than their military mission. Indeed, he says, the mission itself was vague and easily forgotten. By the time he arrived in 1968, he says, few soldiers cared about the war; they just wanted to survive.

Tripp can never forgive his own father for failing as a soldier, and he is haunted by the fear of becoming the same kind of man. He condemns his father for refusing to take responsibility for his own actions, and for neglecting his son’s upbringing. At the same time, Tripp realises how much he needs to please and placate his father whom he still imagines as powerful and malevolent as well as weak and selfish. Even the death of his father barely diminishes his capacity to undermine.

Tripp comes to an understanding of his experiences of war, and his inability to cope with the conflicting emotions it produces, through a model of father-son relationships, real and fantasised. This theme reappears throughout the book, and raises many interesting questions about the ways in which we imagine ourselves in times of war. But it is also perhaps a constraint; events which do not fit the father-son model fall out of sight, and limit the development of Tripp’s analysis. That said, it is unusual and illuminating to find a Viet Nam memoir which is committed to analysing the experiences of war. Other memoirs tend simply to tell the story without much self-reflection: Robert Mason’sChickenhawk (1984), a gripping account of an American helicopter pilot; or Peter Haran’s marvellous Trackers (2000), a book about Australian men who served with tracker dogs in Viet Nam. These are important, powerful works, but Tripp tries to do something rather different, to make his memoir self-reflexive, self-consciously literary, as well as analytical. His style is often lyrical, moving backwards and forwards through time, interweaving events from Tripp’s childhood and his post-war life with his memories of the war. Viet Nam memoirs often treat the war experience as a complete rupture from the rest of life; Tripp tries to integrate it into his life history.

This is a courageous approach, and one cannot but be moved by his struggle to find meaning in the sacrifices made in the Viet Nam War. Tripp considers that the war itself was morally wrong and caused great and unnecessary suffering among the Vietnamese, as well as damaging or killing many young Americans (and their allies, whom Tripp does not mention). Yet he takes pride in the endurance, courage, and selflessness of the Americans with whom he served. Some Viet Nam veterans have suffered decades of physical or psychological stresses as a result of their war service. Like the disillusioned soldiers of the First World War, Tripp finds it hard to forgive the ‘fathers’ who sent the young people to war and did so little to support them afterwards. Nor does he forgive his own father’s failings. Tripp’s anger is both personal and political, and his book shows why the Viet Nam War makes him feel that way. Set against this, Tripp affirms himself as having learned to be the ‘good father’, the man who takes responsibility and teaches and supports his children, giving them a sense of strength and pride without having to go to war. This might sound like Hollywood schmaltz, but the book is unsettling rather than comforting, and the reader is left wondering whether the person whom Tripp is least able to forgive might be himself.

 

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Review of Nathaniel Tripp, Father, Soldier, Son: Memoir of a Platoon Leader in Vietnam. Steerforth Press, 1997. First published in Quadrant (Australia), 45, 4 (April 2001). Copyright (c) Trudi Tate 2001.