In grad school, I took a Research course with my thesis director. She invited several guest lecturers to come and speak to our class about their process of researching for a piece of creative writing. One guest, Daniel Nathan Terry, was a recent graduate of the program, and had recently had a book of poetry published about the Civil War. Titled Capturing the Dead, the collection follows a well-known photojournalist of that era who photographed battlefields and soldiers—dead and alive—to document the events (and horrors) of the war. The poet addressing our class was a gay white man born in twentieth-century South Carolina, who previously knew almost nothing about the Civil War. But his subject, a real man, fascinated him, and he pursued the story that would win him the 2007 Stevens Poetry Manuscript Competition. From the historical personages, Terry extrapolated and created a fictional character whose story he follows most intimately. For the poet, it involved a synthesis of real historical fact, his own fictional plot, and the various forms and rigors of poetry.
One student asked Terry if he ever doubted his ability to deliver a faithful account of people and an era he had never known. Terry’s response rang true for me. He first discussed the issue as a larger argument in poetics: women writing as men, men as women, black writers as white characters and vice versa. “It’s done all the time,” he said. “Sometimes, yes, it’s done badly. But when it’s done well, it opens our eyes and our hearts to a different perspective previously unavailable to us. I think that the moment a writer is no longer willing to see ‘the other’s’ perspective, the moment we become unable to at least consider a point of view different from our own, our hope for world peace is gone.”
A Discovery-Times Channel documentary (produced in 2004) follows four former Ravens who return to Laos. They’re looking for closure, for peace of mind, for some resolution from their time at war. At least one of them wants to sit down with the surviving Hmong natives and apologize for leaving so suddenly. When the peace agreement for Vietnam was signed in January of 1973, the United States agreed to pull all personnel out of Laos as well as Vietnam. Many who had fought alongside the Hmong felt very deeply that they were abandoning their friends to a most cruel fate. (And they were right on that count. Hundreds of thousands of Hmong fled Laos and took refuge in camps in Thailand. Many were sent to “re-education” camps by the incoming Communist leaders.) Many of the Ravens felt ashamed of themselves, of their country. The United States left the wars in Southeast Asia, in large part, because the American public was so violently against the action, and it became an untenable political position. As one former Raven said, “It’s a very dark and shameful chapter of our history.” Not only did they face the brutalities of war, but they weren’t allowed to speak about it for over twenty years after they left Laos, when the work they did there was finally declassified. So these four men returned to make what peace they could.
The Ravens were led by a Laotian interpreter and guide, a retired military officer in the Communist army. Their guide was, in turn, monitored by a government “minder,” who made sure that the visitors would not cause trouble, or see anything they shouldn’t see. One large problem they encountered was not being able to visit Long Tieng, the site of their home and headquarters during the war. The issue was safety. Guerrilla troops had recently attacked a vehicle on the road near Long Tieng, killing four people. These guerrillas were likely Hmong, still fighting the Communist government after forty years. Instead of going to Long Tieng, the Ravens were rerouted to a city in northern Laos, near the Communist stronghold of Sam Neua. Here, they faced recriminations about the damage left by their forces during the war. At one ruined temple, the monk blessed them but also scolded them for staying away so long without an apology.
Finally, the guide led the Ravens to a village of natives who were supposedly Hmong, but Laotian interpreters examining the video back in America realized the villagers were from a different group, and not Hmong at all. The Communist minder had suggested this group. Watching the video, I felt enraged and betrayed on behalf of the veterans who had only wanted to make amends to the people they’d been forced to abandon so many years ago. One of these men also told about returning from Laos to his wife and children after five years overseas. “I was absent from my family for five years,” he said. “And when I came back, I was a stranger. And I lost that family.”
It is this tragic side of the Ravens’ experience that I am so drawn to. I have never been a soldier. I have never fought in a war. I was barely an infant when these men came home. But I am a human being, and my heart breaks for men who lost friends, lost families, lost parts of themselves in a war they could never win. And despite my comfortable civilian life, I was raised by a man scarred by his own war. I know what it’s like to try to reach someone, to strive endlessly for resolution, for peace, and be denied.