I wanted to sleep tonight. I felt that I’d written enough for one day. I came to bed, read a little of my trivia book, considered whether to masturbate or not and didn’t, made sure the air conditioning was on and the ceiling fan was spinning, shut off the lights and immediately my mind filled with the images I try so hard to keep locked up in that closet I keep in my head. PTSD does that to you. Ptsd is trickier than you can imagine.
I have dreams that don’t always begin as PTSD memories of horrors or the noises that scream at me day and night. I have dreams that start out comparatively calmly, maybe just standing to one side in someone’s backyard as they BBQ. I can smell the ribs and the burgers and feel the warm summer air. I can hear the murmur of voices, the sound of laughter and kids off somewhere out of sight playing at some game. I can see the shadows cast by the sun through the trees to the ground around me. It all seems so very peaceful.
Then I realize that no one has a face. No nose or hair or lips or eyes. It doesn’t seem to bother them much. A mouth appears when food or drink is brought close to it. I slowly realize that this isn’t a normal backyard gathering. The smells are off just a bit. It’s meat that’s roasting but not burgers, not pork. The liquid in the glasses looks thicker than it should. Finally, the faces begin to form. I really, really, really want to leave now but I haven’t the slightest idea where I am or how I got there and I slowly notice that the yard has a fence but no gate and it’s attached to no house or garage and the shadows from the trees that are dappling the ground are falling on barren dirt, not a blade of grass or bush or flower anywhere.
I begin to recognize the smell from the BBQ. It’s the smell of day old flesh burnt dry by napalm. It’s not a sickening aroma, in fact it’s a little too familiar, a little too, well, too sweet. I try to move closer to the group around the BBQ and table but the closer I move the more they seem to float away. I turn my head just a bit when I see movement out of the corner of my eye. I see the children but they are all rotten, corpse-like little things, their clothes barely hanging onto their bony little bodies.
I remember some of those clothes from so long ago. I remember the little bodies, so full of life that once inhabited those clothes and I remember the sound of so many weapons being fired and I remember my heart being torn apart as I watched those gleeful little children dance around along the ground as each round tore through them and pushed them a few inches further from us. I remember that somebody had shouted “sniper” and that was when all hell broke loose. Nobody else heard the shot supposedly from the sniper and no one really had any idea where it might have come from but once the firing begins it too often simply doesn’t matter anymore. For some reason the belief was that the sniper had fired from the bushes behind the children and the children were simply small obstacles that were being torn to tiny pieces as we filled the huts and the brush with hundreds and hundreds of rounds. Somebody had a grenade launcher and let loose a few rounds, the first few falling short into that mass of tiny bodies. Everything quieted down. Nobody moved. There were no cries from the children, they were long past that. We all began, one by one, to stand up and reform into our patrol mode. Nobody spoke. Nobody looked at anyone else. Then, from the back of the formation came the voice of whatever mindless officer was “leading” us that day. “They’re just Gooks, guys. Just fuckin’ Gooks”.
We moved along the road for maybe a half mile when we heard the Phantoms overhead. Somebody had reported the sniper attack and three Phantoms had been sent to cleanse the area. One by one they dove from the sky before they dropped four napalm bombs each along the middle of the tiny ville. Smoke and flames rose to the sky as the planes returned to their normal altitudes and headed back to Da Nang or Quang Tri or wherever they were based, their mission quickly and artfully executed.
We finished our patrol and were told to turn around and head back to our fire base at C-2. That took us right back through the ville. There were no children left. No brightly colored shirts or shorts or dresses. There were just these black little masses with tiny stubs where their arms and legs and heads used to be. The skin still smoldered. The smell was the smell of that BBQ I found myself back at.
I never found it odd that I was back there again. It was the most natural thing in the world for me. My ears were still ringing from the gunfire, the sweat still sticky on my lips and eyes but I was back at the BBQ. I looked for the children but they were gone again. I looked at the people and saw that faces were beginning to form. All of them were men. All of them were slowly becoming clothed in the camouflage and flak jackets and boots that were all we ever wore in Vietnam. The faces formed and I began to recognize them one by one. I couldn’t tell you one name but I knew every single man there and I had watched him die years before. They never smiled. Only one or two even seemed to recognize my existence there beside them.
One finally slowly came toward me. The sadness on his face was so great I began to cry. He came close to me and slowly shook his head. “You aren’t of us, yet.”, he said. “You have no right not to be of us.” he continued as he took my hand and began to lead me towards a door in a wall that appeared and became clearer the closer we came. “Go up there”, he said in this heartbreaking sad tone, “Go up there and you can be where you have belonged all these many, many years.” I lifted my eyes and found myself alone, standing in the yard, the BBQ still reeking of burning flesh, the door before me. I reached out to open it and it opened easily. Behind it were stairs that rose into the darkness. My feet moved of their own accord, taking one step at a time. There were no landings, no bends, no floors or doors or windows or lights, just one step after the next. Finally, after hours or minutes or seconds or years of walking up I came to a second door where the steps ended. I pushed open the door and saw that I was atop a single very, very tall building. The sad faced man was waiting for me just outside the door. Again he took my hand and gently pulled me toward the ledge.
“Those other men you saw down there? Do you have any idea why they died? Did their death change anything?”, he asked. “You lived. Did your life change anything?” he said. “Is there any good and decent reason why they died and you were given the chance to keep living and go back to The World sitting up while we laid in our boxes in the cargo hold”?
I had no answer. His sadness was washing over me like a wave and I still had no answer. The wars continued, based on new lies, in new countries, killing new people. There were still good, decent men dying horrible, painful deaths and nobody knew their names nor cared as Americans lived in their little homes and ate their poisons at McDonald’s and watched their mindless TV and lived their pointless lives. I had changed nothing even though I had been given the gift of coming home.
He took me near the ledge. I looked down. There was no bottom, no street, no ground, just blackness. “That’s where you belong”, he said, “Down where we are. Down where the forgotten go once the fighting stops and the next useless war begins and the next pile of dead men are decaying and forgotten in the soil.” I feel his hand on my back, gently pushing me towards that oblivion. I feel the emptiness below and that’s when I jerk awake, screaming, sometimes lying in my own feces that the fear had allowed to flow, always scared to death that this is the dream and that was reality.
I always get up, clean myself and the bed if I must, walk to the front door and look outside to try to prove to myself that I’m still in this world and no longer in theirs. But I remember. I remember how each of them died. I remember thinking way back then that somehow all the death and killing would end and we would look back and see that what we had done and what we had lost had created a better world, a world where peace finally stood a chance of becoming more important than whatever the hell we were ten thousand miles from home killing kids and watching friends die for.
A couple days ago, my neighbor’s son saw me limping out to my truck. He came over to say Hi and asked why I was walking like that. “War wounds”, I told him simply. “Oh, you were in Iraq?” he asked. “No,”, I told him, “many years before that in Vietnam”. He looked at me with that open and honest face that only the young have and, even though he will be off to college next year, he asked “Where’s Vietnam?” I wanted to cry. I wanted to tell those guys that I’m so sorry that everything they gave was for nothing and that they were all long ago forgotten and their sacrifices were for absolutely nothing.
As I climbed into my car I thought, “The next time that fellow leads me to the ledge, I’ll jump. I belong with them. If I can’t do anything to even keep their memories alive anywhere but in my nightmares, I’ll jump.” Maybe I will. Maybe I’ll awake screaming again.
The one thing I do know is that every single death in every single war is preventable and wasted. Every single mind crushed by PTSD never needed to exist. Only the old men who send the children off to kill and be killed are ever remembered and they are glorified as heroes even though they are as much cowards as the wealthy who own them and give them their orders. Anyone that defends war is a fool. Anyone that pretends to be a Christian or whatever follower of whatever invisible fiend in the sky that says wars prove anything is evil and a moron of the lowest sort. There is no god worth worshiping that wants its own children to kill its own children. That isn’t a god, that’s just an excuse that you go pray to now and again in hopes of avoiding the hell you, yourself, invented and belong in.
Oh, wait, there already is supposedly a god like that. The one that Christians despise so much because it expects them to behave in a decent, caring and sharing manner. Instead, Americans have found a new god to worship and kneel before. It’s called The Almighty Dollar and it’s symbol on earth is Capitalism and it’s demanded sacrifices are the lives of the children of the families who cannot afford to keep them safe at home. Burnt offerings to a heartless god.