War was both a real and abstract occurrence in my life. I was born during and into a war being carried out in a relatively tiny country that I was taught to forget or not consider ‘real’ at all when I grew up as an American. Due to numerous political and economic circumstances, as well as sheer distance and the passage of time, my body and consciousness were well shielded from the ripping and tearing, the decay and degradation, and the dying moans of war.
Because I wasn’t told about it, I didn’t know; because the secreted past wasn’t acknowledged, I didn’t recognize my part in it.
My suburban lifestyle and the mentality that came with it, made the ir-reality of my past even more prominent. I melted in with everyone else and hardly ever thought of what made me different from my peers and other community members. My willingness to ‘pass’ was accepted as a natural stage of development because not to do so would have been the death of me. And, I really don’t think that’s an overstatement.
However, the more my pot was stirred, the more detritus came floating to the top. The truths of war and the aftereffects of others’ decisions in times of crises began expanding past the Keepers of Lies until I started noticing inconsistencies and uncomfortable silences cropped up when I asked inconvenient questions of the elders.
Like many a struggling teenager, I used music as a form of self-expression that went against the grain of the inauthenticity I noticed all around me. Certain songs from specific artists helped me comment on the state of the world and on my own life.
“One”, by Metallica, was a song that gave me a shove out of slack acceptance and woke me up to the stultifying stillness that had clouded my surroundings. It’s a song that starts with the soft, but building, sound of strafing machine gun fire and exploding bombs, as if you were just coming to after a long sleep. The first clanging guitar notes mark the descent into the main subject’s personal torment. Blind, deaf, mute and with no limbs to speak of, this stump of a war veteran is kept alive through the egos of others and the vanity of bureaucrats.
now that the war is through with me
I’m waking up, I cannot see
that there’s not much left of me
nothing is real but pain now
No one pays attention to his humanity because he cannot speak for himself and his vulnerable physical stature causes his caretakers to disregard his mental well-being (“I’m just a piece of meat that keeps on living.”). The guy lives his thoughts, dreams, nightmares and desires in his head, lives through time in a loop of childhood memories, and continually messages for help to end his misery (“Inside me I’m screaming, but nobody pays any attention. If I had arms, I’d kill myself; if I had legs, I could run away; if I had a voice, I could talk and be some kind of company to myself.”).
The italicized quotes come from the movie clips from “Johnny Got His Gun” (1971), which were incorporated into the music video for “One”. At the time, I took the anti-war commentary literally and viewed the song and video as a common critique of the popular glorification of war in our society.
From the benefit of hindsight, however, the song was speaking to me on a much more personal level. The speechless and devalued stump lying on the hospital bed was how I felt whenever I delved into my actual role in my family and in my community. I was simply kept alive for someone else’s amusement, or out of someone else’s sense of duty and responsibility, or because I fit nicely on the mantel for my parents’ friends to gaze at and comment upon.
fed through the tube that sticks in me
just like a wartime novelty
tied to machines that make me be
cut this life off from me
To be made an orphan by the war on the Vietnamese, allowed a segment of the American population to take pity on my predicament. In my mind, the predicament is really this: how does one bring in and raise a child of the enemy? What sort of mental calculations had to be made to account for the fact that these people who brought me into their community to live and become a citizen among them were the same ones who did nothing to end their government’s willful killing off of my countrymen and women?
Well, I think I can offer one educated guess as to how they accomplished this feat: They gave me a second chance. And, I could take it or leave it. My survival, my well-being and my happiness were placed squarely on my shoulders.
My family, my community and the people of the United States could then sit back and pat themselves on the back that at least one good thing came out of that war: I was alive due to their charity.
Now, all I had to do was forgive and forget.