Paul K. Haeder, author of “Wide Open Eyes: Surfacing from Vietnam,” captured this photo outside the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum in Hanoi, Vietnam. (Photo by Paul K. Haeder)
Collection of short fiction relives memories of Vietnam and its American war
Author Paul K. Haeder believes that until Americans truly learn from Vietnam, we are doomed to keep repeating the mistakes and abuses that transpired there.
At 7 tonight, Cirque Press will officially launch Haeder’s book “Wide Open Eyes: Surfacing from Vietnam,” with a reading from the author, via Zoom web conferencing.
Paul K. Haeder is the author of “Wide Open Eyes: Surfacing from Vietnam."Book cover courtesy of Cirque Press
Haeder is a lifelong journalist who now resides in the small town of Waldport on Oregon’s central coast. His new book, his third, is a collection of 17 short stories. While fictional, the protagonists are based on people and composites of people he met when he worked in Vietnam 26 years ago, surveying wildlife, and in his capacity as a social worker serving veterans, many of the Vietnam War.
He also writes a regular column for Street Roots called Finding Fringe.
A reader may find “Wide Open Eyes” both beautiful and jarring. Haeder’s descriptive precision invokes a vivid sense of place and time, with the book serving as a literary time capsule containing Haeder’s real life muses, all of whom have died.
Emily Green: Can you tell me about the impact the Vietnam War has had on your life, by way of the impact it had on your father?
Paul K. Haeder: There is positive and negative impact on my life. The positive was that my dad was in the Air Force before the war. I grew up the first five years of my life in the Azores Islands, but then we went to the U.K. Then we got stationed in Paris, France. Then, when I was 14, we were living in Arizona. That’s when he went to the Vietnam War, and he was shot.
I wasn’t speaking to my dad before he was shot because I did not believe in the Vietnam War and a lot of the rhetoric that was behind it, but then he got shot, and so I realized the fragility of life. From the age 14 on, the war impacted me because he was a professional soldier, 32 years, two Purple Hearts; he wasn’t really a macho guy — he never talked about it.
I learned a lot from the Vietnam War through my sister’s friends who were soldiers who lost legs, and lost arms, and were burned in the war. I used to hang out with them — they were sort of bikers, motorcyclists, some of them were drug dealers and all that, the under-the-table economy, so that was my tutelage.
Then, when I was trying to survive as a graduate student, I ended up taking teaching assignments in Fort Bliss (Texas), at the Sergeants Major Academy, of all places. It’s the academy for all the enlisted people in all branches of the military to get their last stripe, and so I was thrown into the military and Vietnam War again and again because many of my students — when they did their composition assignments — were talking about the effects of the Vietnam War on them. They were old enough to have been in it.
Then later, talking to my dad — he finally admitted there were a lot of bad things about the war — he gave me a lot of insight into the terrible stuff that he saw was happening in the war as a professional soldier; locking up weapons at night because the American soldiers had vendettas against each other. There were race wars; there were bazaar things going on in Vietnam.
He respected the Vietnamese soldiers because on New Year’s, American soldiers got White Castle burgers, they got an Army-Navy football game, they got Blue Bunny Ice Cream, they got parties. And the Viet Cong and people fighting for the North Vietnamese Army, they got an extra bowl of rice. He told me they watched outside the wire all these crazy Americans getting drunk on Budweiser, shooting off fireworks, gorging themselves, and the Viet Cong, North Vietnamese Army, would get an extra bowl of rice on their New Year’s — it was not the same day as the American New Year — and it’s their country. They’re watching these invaders do these crazy, crazy things, and they’re just trying to get their land back. They’re farmers. So it was a love-hate relationship with my dad.
It was sort of a hidden life I had with my military students because I had to keep my job, but I didn’t divorce myself as a human. I was known as sort of the liberal or the commie; they made fun that I was a socialist, and I wouldn’t hide that, but I gave them a couple ounces of respect and the allowance to learn, and not to agitate, because it’s easy to be against the war and to know more than the soldier who was there eight months.
I studied the war, people who wrote books about Vietnam; some had never been to Vietnam, and those books are the most valuable records of the war in many stages. I went to Vietnam when I was 36 and sort of saying goodbye to my dad; he had died the year before.
Now, it’s 2020, and I’m still around the Vietnam War because I’ve got these Veterans for Peace, people are dying who, when I was working at Central City Concern, were homeless veterans from the Vietnam War. It just doesn’t go away.
Green: You worked with veterans as a social worker, and I was wondering if you’ve noticed anything unique to veterans of the Vietnam War that you tried to impart in this book?
Haeder: The whole idea is that they were the ones that were spat upon; they were the ones that weren’t respected. Thank you for your service — those were lies.
There is a great documentary called “Sir! No sir!” and it’s about how members of the U.S. military were actually fighting in the military against the Vietnam War — active-duty Navy people refused to go on an aircraft carrier in San Diego. And, it’s about how a reporter studied all the news of major newspapers and never saw a true incident of girls, women, hippies spitting on people when they returned, but there is a mythology tied to that.
You have to remember, there was at one time 530,000 Americans in Vietnam. Those people mostly didn’t see combat — they were rear guard, logistics, all this stuff that Radar did on MASH, but I still think that there are older-era Vietnam veterans, they still believe in the mythology that we were treated like crap, they spit on us, they called us baby killers — but it didn’t happen that often.
They said the “televised war,” putting it on TV, would make people hate the war. It actually did the opposite. It gave people more support of the war because 1,000 hours of film was brought down to a 35-second or one-minute news clip with Dan Rather, and people felt that it was like the war movies. It was unreal; it wasn’t the true filmmaking, and like the news we have now where you have extended interviews of people coming to reckon with the fact that they hate this war, you didn’t have a lot of that on those CBS, ABC news reels.
The Vietnam-era soldiers, most of them never saw combat, but they’re receiving benefits. They’re homeless, but so are others — about the same percentage. There is a big difference between a soldier that was drafted and joined up in an economic draft versus those like my dad. My dad was (in the military) 32 years, and so somebody who was eight months or 16 months in the Army, and they are now my client, their experience of the Army is a snapshot. I have more experience with the Army than that. It’s their own focus, their own lens, so they have a very unusual viewpoint of what it was to be a soldier and a returning soldier. And they still feel they did not get their just cause — and they’re right.
If you look at the Agent Orange battle, they are still coming up with some new chronic illnesses that they are attributing to Agent Orange. It just got accepted two years ago that people who were stationed at Camp Lejeune (North Carolina) and their offspring are now getting VA benefits because of the pollutants they put into the water, that went into the whole water system that people on the post and outside the post used.
I have a soldier who is 62, and I just helped him get his disability based on his Parkinson’s disease that was rushing like a tsunami the few months I worked with him, and it was attributed to the pollutants, water exposure.
I heard every single chief of staff that went into war after Vietnam say, “This is not going to be another Vietnam.” Every war, I heard the rhetoric. And they are absolutely lying about it. Every war since has been the Vietnam War on steroids because of the civilian military industrial complex, the complete rip-off game, the bad equipment, the bad intel, the hubris, the racism and the patriarchy and xenophobia, it’s still there — every single war.
We did not learn from the Vietnam War that created terms like ecocide, and now we’re finding out Agent Orange was not just a defoliant. Robert McNamara (former U.S. secretary of defense) and the head of Dow (Chemical Company) said that this is going to be the toxin that is the gift that keeps on giving; it will destroy their rice crops, it will destroy the soil for generations to come, so there is a mythology that it was just to take off canopy in the Vietnam jungle so you could see where the Viet Cong were walking. That’s BS. These are war crimes. They did it to destroy the soil.
When I was in Vietnam in 1994, I was with a team that was studying women’s breast milk and girls that were lactating; they had 16 times the PCBs allowable by our own EPA, and it’s all attributed to dioxins coming directly from the Agent Orange that was sprayed throughout the country. And so you bet, never another Vietnam — it’s always another Vietnam, with more technology, more drones and more firepower. It’s just amazing we don’t learn the lessons.
And Vietnam veterans are dying. We’re losing groundtruthers, so we have to depend on people studying the Vietnam War and finding all these old documents that reverse the mythology of the history of the Vietnam War. Ken Burns’ history of the Vietnam War — terrible! Read the reviews from real soldiers and historians. He created a false balance.
Green: So much of your book was about the pain and discomfort, and the after-effects of violence and exploitation over in Vietnam. What are you hoping readers glean from these little slices of that experience?
Haeder: People might look for some universalities in their lives — that’s what fiction and poetry are all about. It’s about really interesting characters that happen to be in bad situations. Some of the stuff is comedic — it’s not all trauma and all of that — but I think all of us though, war or not, are working through trauma. And, I think what I want people to get away from it is entertainment, and it’s the fine line of am I telling them to be more aware of their belief systems and the history of war, including the Vietnam War? I don’t think I did that, but when you read it, I certainly think that’s there.
And there is a long preface where I pontificate and contextualize a lot of stuff. A fiction writer is like a shaman; they take the energy from their muses and from the culture and create a two- or three-dimensional written work. That’s what I hope they see, and I hope there is a newfound love of serious fiction that they may get from a short story collection. Or, I might say, it’s not experimental, but it’s sort of weirdly experimental that they are all thematically connected. The narrative voice in some ways sounds like the same voice, but in other situations, I was sort of playing around with the palette a lot. It’s ethos; it’s pathos; it’s logos. It’s “entertainment.”
I’m not sure what entertainment is, these days. Maybe this is just a slice of time that will never happen again. These people are gone; they’re dead. The way we treat homeless people and veterans, it’s so different — even the collective consciousness of those characters, it’s gone. It’s 26 years ago that I traveled to Vietnam. Things have changed a lot in 26 years, even our collective consciousness.
Green: One thing I took away from it was Vietnam as a sense of place — how vividly you were able to describe the people, the jungle, the animals, the food. What kind of place in your heart does Vietnam hold, and how has that perception changed over time?
Haeder: I have several friends who were teachers in Vietnam. Vietnam has lost one person with COVID-19, and there are a lot of stories about how Vietnam as a society, even after all the wars — remember they were invaded for 1,000 years; Americans were not the first invaders — and it’s a heroic story that Vietnam is doing the right thing to stop COVID-19 from becoming a pandemic in that country.
The Vietnamese are depicted in all the war movies or books: They’re either raped, saved, killing — but you never get Vietnam, and you never get the Vietnamese. So it hasn’t changed since my time in Vietnam; it has just become a much more dynamic and heroic country in my mind. It just symbolizes — I hate to use the term Third World — developing countries, how they can break out of these terrible imperial wars, and do they have trauma? People don’t think of Vietnamese having trauma or generational trauma. Of course they do, but when you’re in Vietnam, you don’t feel it as much as you do here. Three million people died. They had 800,000 missing in action. Many Vietnamese were blown up, and their bodies just rotted. So talk about the MIA thing.
Every day, it just becomes another touchstone. Can you learn from Vietnam? Can you learn about that agricultural society? Can you learn about that society that is blending socialism and market capitalism? Can we ever learn how they dealt with the COVID? And it just seems like the United States of America cannot learn from their enemies that have actually opened their arms and said, hey, we’ll do trade with you.
Those are things that are so valuable in our society, and we keep forgetting them and try and reinvent the wheel. We have no collective consciousness saying that if you didn’t learn about the Vietnam War, you’re never going to learn about Sudan; you let Libya happen; Somalia, come on! Yemen? Yeah, sure. Afghanistan? How’s that one working out?
In America, we’ve allowed that stupidity and that imperial hubris and lockstep exceptionalism to destroy our own people, but also those other people. The Vietnamese, ironically, they are not destroyed, and that’s a lesson I don’t know if Americans ever want to learn from. I know a lot of ex-soldiers go there, and they want to learn from it. A lot of people go over there, and they retire. Vietnam has a certain attractiveness to people. It’s this exoticism. Vietnam is Chiapas, it’s Chile, it’s Bolivia, it’s the Bolivarian Revolution, it’s Ho Chi Minh, it’s Che Guevara, it’s all of it; it’s all threaded together for me.
Living is about a revolution. It’s about radical — get to the root. If Vietnam is not your example about how the root should be, how we should treat people, we are just going to keep abusing and misusing more and more countries and more and more nations, like we are, every day, as a country.