(continued from Bob Jones)
“The Iraq thing has the feel of a potential quagmire where we just get deeper and deeper and deeper involved, and when that happens it’s harder and harder and harder to get out. There’s also the similarity with the difficulty in finding the enemy. In Vietnam, we couldn’t find the V.C., they were blended in with the population, and we’re having the same problem in Iraq . . .” –Tim O’Brien, author, from a 2003 interview
Today in Iraq two severely retarded women were outfitted with remote control explosive devices and sent into a popular outdoor market where animals are sold. According to an AP report by Kim Gamel, the blasts killed at least seventy-three people. Many others were wounded. Many others saw things they will probably never leave behind.
“I just remember the horrible scene of the bodies of dead and wounded people mixed with the blood of animals and birds,” said a market vendor named Ali Ahmed. “Then I found myself lying in a hospital bed.”
In his classic work of Vietnam War literature, The Things They Carried, Tim O’Brien, who served in Vietnam in 1969 and 1970, describes a memory so vivid it had the power to rip him out of sleep twenty years later. In the memory that O’Brien can never leave behind, a mine has just blasted a member of his platoon into a tree.
“The parts were just hanging there,” he writes, “so Dave Jensen and I were ordered to shinny up and peel him off. I remember the white bone of an arm. I remember pieces of skin and something wet and yellow that must’ve been the intestines.”
“It was indelible,” recalls another person who was in Vietnam in those years, a North Vietnamese child named Tran Luong who witnessed the aftermath of the 1972 Christmas bombings of Hanoi. The aerial attack, which came just after the United States promised to withdraw its forces from South Vietnam, killed 2,196 civilians.
“The morning after the bombing, I went to Kham Thien Street with some older children,” Tran recalls in Christian Appy’s oral history of the Vietnam War, Patriots. “I saw pieces of hair and scalp hanging on trees.”
Al Bumbry was a platoon leader in Vietnam in 1969 and 1970. He won the Bronze Star, which is given to soldiers for “heroic or meritorious achievement or service,” then he came home and made significant contributions as a speedy slap-hitting outfielder for the excellent Orioles teams of the 1970s and early 1980s.
He is shown here in the middle of that career, his hunched stance and his facial expression creating the impression of a man guarding private hurt. An earlier Bumbry card in my collection, from 1975, shows on the back his minor league years and the interruption in those years signified by the statement “In Military Service.” But on the back of this 1977 card there are only his major league statistics. It’s as if enough time has passed for certain more complicated elements of the past to have faded, the gap in the soothing progression of numbers gone, the wound healed. I don’t know if Al Bumbry believed in that kind of anesthetic forgetting. But the country he’d returned to seemed to believe in it. There were no victory celebrations. There were no parades. There was just a general desire to forget the whole thing ever happened.
So what was the weather like in Iraq today? It’s not usually something I concern myself with, preferring to fill my head with baseball, but information about the weather came out in the AP story about the homicide bombing mentioned above, probably because it correlates to the body count.
“It was nice weather today,” reports the hospitalized market vendor Ali Ahmed, “and the market was so crowded.”
It was nice weather on a certain day a few years ago. I was living in Williamsburg, a Brooklyn neighborhood just across the East River from Manhattan. I got up early to beat the crowd at a nearby laundromat. It was a tiny place, and if you didn’t get there early the whole day was shot battling hipsters and middle-aged Dominican women for a free drier. I wrote in my journal a couple days later about what happened next:
I was folding laundry at the laundromat on Bedford Avenue when a man came in and said the World Trade Center was hit by an airplane. He was a loud black man with a slight boozy chuckle and blurriness in his voice, so my first thought was that he was a street person and crazy. The Asian man who owns the laundromat turned on the television and the World Trade Center was burning, smoke pouring out a black gash near the top. I thought: accident. The adjacent tower exploded a few minutes later. I did not see an airplane flying into it and thought somehow the first building produced an explosion in the second. The television screen went blank. The Asian man tried to fix the television. I finished folding my laundry. . . .
All of us in New York have been breathing in dust and smoke and dead bodies for three days. I worked at the book store yesterday and had arguments with three coworkers, then late in my shift Abby called to tell me they were evacuating midtown. They were telling people to run toward the river. I thought: nuclear bomb. I am afraid of dying. The evacuation turned out to be based on a hoax, but for a few minutes I was waiting for the flash. I stole some post cards from the store that had the World Trade Centers on them. I went to Queens after work to see Abby and I was shaky and hollow and scared. I wanted to fuck but we were breathing in dead bodies then I didn’t want to fuck anymore.
I finally put away my clean laundry yesterday. The folded shirts and balled-up socks. I vacuumed the rug. I swept the kitchen floor.
A couple days later I met up with my brother in Manhattan. We went to a bar on Seventh Avenue and Nineteenth Street, the Peter McManus Cafe. There were a lot of off-duty firefighters and other rescue workers there, guys who’d been told, maybe even forced, to take a breather. One of the guys was next to us at the bar and something in him had snapped. He was a big guy and very strong and he kept grabbing onto us, clawing at us. He told us he’d served in Vietnam, special forces, and his training had gotten him onto a list of people called in to help with the rescue attempts at Ground Zero.
“I just can’t do it no more,” he said. “I can’t pull out no more bodies. When’s it gonna end?”
He kept repeating versions of these statements. Grabbing us, clawing us. He also said all the bodies he was pulling out were women. And a couple of times he said, “I’m back.”
It’s OK, we kept trying to tell him. It’s OK, it’s OK. It’s over. But he was inconsolable. He was trapped pulling out bodies of dead women from the rubble. He had been in Vietnam. He was back.
“When’s it gonna end?” he kept saying.
(to be continued)