"I have seen war. . . . I hate war," said Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Many Americans feel the same way about Vietnam even though they did not see it anywhere except on television, a medium known for its drastic editing of reality.
But like any other war, Vietnam has generated a body of afterimages, works of art that attempt to make sense of, or to convey the senselessness of a conflict still lives on in the minds of too many who participated in it.
Histories like Frances FitzGerald's "Fire in the Lake," journalistic accounts like Michael Herr's "Dispatches," and novels like Tim O'Brien's "Going After Cacciato" have illuminated the war in Vietnam.
To this list add "NAM" and "Everything We Had." Unlike previous works, these are oral histories -- accounts in the words of the men and women who were there, who fought, who survived, but who -- in most cases -- came home less than heroes.
Mark Baker's "NAM" is the more sensational of the books. Unlike Al Santoli, the author of "Everything We Had," Baker is not a Vietnam veteran. But Baker knew from friends that "the whole story hadn't really been told. I couldn't tell it myself, but I . . . wanted to hear it."
Baker's subjects are largely "grunts," the low-ranking enlisted men, who are not identified by name. Their anonymity shades "NAM's" historicity, but the "unknown soldier" quality also redoubles the visceral force of Baker's stories.
Many of the veterans Baker and Santoli spoke with had John Wayne or Sergeant Rock (the comic book character) fantasies about war before they went to Vietnam. What they found was very different.Said one soldier: "It was the movies, except it was real."
"The only technology you have [in Vietnam] is death," said another soldier. "M-16s -- black plastic rifles -- grenades, pocket bombs, Claymores, M-79s, M-60 s, mortars, jungle utilities, flak jackets, jungle boots, C-4, radios, and jet planes to drop the napalm. That was the only technology happening."
Some soldiers enjoyed this "technology." Others felt simply that "surviving . . . was the only thing you could get any gratification from."
One veteran tells of his anticlimactic homecoming: "I went home straight from California to O'Hare Airport in Chicago. I got home about three in the morning. Everybody in the house got up and said hello. They all went back to sleep. At 8:30 when my father left for work, he woke me up to say, 'Listen, now that you're home, when are you going to get a job?'"
"Everything We Had" is more balanced and less strident than "NAM". Al Santoli has compiled what is probably a more representative oral history.
The 33 soldiers he interviews range from "grunt" to admiral, from helicopter gunner to POW, from medic to interrogation officer. His subjects were in Vietnam as early as 1962, and as late as the mad dash out of Saigon in 1975. Each speaker is identified; most are shown in photographs.
The stories in "Everything We Had" can be every bit as gruesome as those in "NAM," but they are counterbalanced by more tales of compassion and heroism than are found in Baker's book.
Listen, for example, to a medic named Douglas Anderson. "I'm not a heroic type of individual," he says, but "I don't believe the things I did over there . . . that I got up and ran under fire as much as I did to get those people. I don't believe that I made myself do these things."
Anderson knew, however, that if he "had been hit and there was no way to get out of there, they [the Americans] would have grabbed me up in a poncho and carried me a hundred miles if they had to.There was that kind of feeling."
Or consider Adm. William Lawrence, a POW for six years. "You come away from that experience," he says, and "you know that there are very few things in life that could happen to you that you couldn't cope with . . . in fact, nothing."
For most Americans, Vietnam was, as author and TV critic Michael Arlen has put it, "the living room war": horrible images appeared on the television; people gasped; the images disappeared. What "Everything We Had" and "NAM" reveal are the lives of those who lived the war others watched: people for whom the images often rema in vivid.