IT IS THE IMAGES of the loved ones at home that I have the hardest time watching on television. The mothers, children, brothers, sisters, aunts, and uncles of soldiers who’ve been wounded, killed, or taken prisoner in the war against Iraq. As television cameras cram into living rooms made suddenly small by the video equipment and lights, the intense grief of those left behind burns into my consciousness, as it must for any viewer. Of course, this is the soft side of news, the personal stories that " put a face on the war " and touch us in ways that pyrotechnic images of the intense bombardment of Baghdad can’t. There is nothing sentimental about these images, nothing false, nothing insincere: they are immediate, real, and true. But they also underscore the idea that we must " support our troops. "
How could you not support the troops? Regardless of your feelings about the Bush administration and its war, surely no one wants to not support our troops. Presumably, very few people in America want to see them hurt or killed. Yet when I hear the phase " support our troops " — whether it be from Bill O’Reilly, Larry King, or the resolution passed by Congress last week declaring " official " support of the troops — I cringe. I can’t help myself. The phrase " support our troops, " as it’s currently used, is nothing more than not-very-veiled code for supporting the war and the administration’s ill-considered policy in Iraq. In my most cynical moments, " support our troops " sounds like " shut up. "
Of course, it’s more complicated than that. As are my own feelings about US foreign policy, the military, and the soldiers — both past and present, living and dead. I spent most of the 1980s being emotionally and sexually involved with two men who were Vietnam veterans. Both are now dead of AIDS. But during that time I saw, repeatedly and vividly, the effects of war on them. How they continued to suffer, how they were emotionally damaged, how they lived in pain, and how the mantra " support our troops " — even more ubiquitous during the late 1960s and the ’70s than it is now — was a pathetic lie in terms of its application to soldiers’ lives after the war. When I see grieving family members on TV desperately struggling to make sense of their losses in Iraq in a world spun out of control, I think of my lovers Jim and Derrick desperately grappling to make sense of their time in Vietnam and their deeply conflicted feelings of being American in a country that had all but deserted them.
I AM AN UNREPENTANT child of the 1960s and its counterculture. I was going on civil-rights marches as early as 1964, when I was 15 years old. My politics were fueled by the liberal Catholicism taught in my working-class, all-boys parochial high school. By my last years in high school, I was speaking out and writing articles against the Vietnam War. I was an unabashed hippie, and by 1967 I had come out as gay. I spent college protesting the war in Vietnam, and as a member of Students for a Democratic Society I worked with social-change groups in neighborhoods close to my inner-city college. When I was called for my draft physical, I proudly told the induction doctor that I was a homosexual — I even verified it with a letter from my therapist — and so successfully avoided the draft. Far from wanting to serve, I was convinced the war was illegal and immoral, and I was determined to resist it any way I could. As far as I’m concerned, my resistance was a display of fierce patriotism. I knew Jane Fonda was right even back then. I wanted to support the troops — as the bumper stickers said — but I wanted to do it by bringing them home.
Far from alienating either Jim or Derrick, who did not know each other during their time in Vietnam, my anti-war, anti-establishment history attracted them to me. In each of these relationships — the first, with Jim, lasted from 1979 to 1984; I was involved with Derrick from 1984 to 1986 — my past was not the issue; theirs was.
For both of them, their time " in country " was a nightmare. How they survived the stresses of jungle warfare while living as closeted gay men is unimaginable. Both men hated the military. Each had been drafted because neither could find a way to dodge it. Jim was a just-out-of-med-school Marine. Derrick was a college dropout who had no other options. Both men hated what they did in Vietnam. They hated the policies they had been sent there to enforce. They had, pretty much across the board, almost no respect left for the US government after what they saw — and did — there. And these feelings were unthinkable for them, since both been raised devout, conservative Catholics who, before Vietnam, saw themselves as intensely law-abiding and deeply patriotic.
When I began dating Jim, I had absolutely no idea of the intensity of his feelings about the war. On one of our first dates, we were at his apartment in the South End. I asked him about Vietnam, and as he began talking, he started to cry. At first I thought some specific memory had been triggered, but it soon became clear that he was overwhelmed with anger. He could barely talk, although he began telling a few stories — disconnected, but filled with vivid images of wounded or dead soldiers upon whom he had operated. His grief was overwhelming, not only for him, but also for me. I had no illusions about the war, but I had never come this close to the pain it caused. Over the next five years, Jim — especially if he were drunk or stoned — would describe, or rather try to describe, his feelings about the war. Sometimes he would try to tell ironic or even funny stories. Sometimes he would talk about the sex he’d had with the mostly heterosexual soldiers. Sometimes he would tell gruesome tales laced with black humor about medical procedures practiced in the jungle brush. But whenever and however he talked about Vietnam, he would invariably become consumed with rage.
Once he asked me if I thought of him as a murderer because of his actions in Vietnam. I said I didn’t — what was I going to say? But there was an unspoken chasm between us: he knew that I did consider the policies and actions of the US government murderous, and he had implemented them. I later realized that, in many ways, he considered himself a murderer and was looking to me for some kind of validation. And it was true; during the war there were times when I did think of " our " troops as the murderers of innocent Vietnamese, or of people who were defending their homeland.
After we broke up, I began dating Derrick and discovered that he was a Vietnam vet as well. I avoided the topic as much as possible. It was a much more casual relationship and, frankly, I didn’t need the drama. But it was, of course, unavoidable. Derrick was far less troubled than Jim about his time in Vietnam. He didn’t experience the trauma of being a doctor who couldn’t heal the wounded and dying. He saw his time there as merely something to get through. But there was damage. He would often describe his wartime experiences in caustic, funny terms that would turn bitter and rancorous. His pain was just beneath the surface. On some level, for him the entire experience was one of betrayal — both of American ideals he once held dear, and of his own sense of well-being. It became clear to me that sex for him was often some strange, disturbing playing out of the erotic and emotional stresses he had experienced in Vietnam. I asked him about this once and he became furious. He told me I had no idea what he had been through. He said that he respected my actions during the war and wished he had done the same — or even fled to Canada, which at the time didn’t feel like an option. He said I really had no way of even beginning to understand what he had experienced. His time in the war, again and again, rose between us like a vaporous cloud that silenced his pain and obscured my ability to understand it.
The pain Jim and Derrick carried with them — as do many Vietnam veterans — was central to their lives. It was formative and horrible, a spectral presence that never completely manifested itself, but also never disappeared. They didn’t speak to their families about it. They showed me their anger because there was no one else to give it to at the time. My anti-war history made me a safe harbor, not an enemy.
But there was another reason these men could turn to me. So much of their experience in Vietnam was wrapped up with their sexuality: they were — by dire necessity — closeted in Vietnam. The anxiety surrounding their hidden sexuality was completely entangled with having to control and manage the death, the pain, the ripped-open, bleeding bodies they encountered. The men they were attracted to, close to, even emotionally dependent on, were men who were dying in their arms, on the operating table, at their sides felled by sniper bullets in the jungle, or a few steps behind them decimated by exploding land mines.
In many ways I was smug in my politics. I knew I was right — and still do — but I was unprepared to deal with the hurt and pain caused by the war. Especially in men I loved and cared about. I could hold them and comfort them and have sex with them when they were upset. I could be a whole body that replaced their haunting mental images of dismemberment and ripped-apart flesh, but it was complicated, hard, and distressing.
After Jim died, in 1987, his sister and her husband — also a former Marine, from a military family — insisted that he be given a military funeral. They were both proud of the fact that he had served in Vietnam. There was a five-gun salute given by men in uniforms — were they Marines? National Guard? — and an American flag draped his casket. I was sickened by it, as well as by the fact that his sister and her husband asked Jim’s new lover and his gay friends to stand apart from the family. AIDS was never mentioned, and it was only on my way home after the service that the hatefulness of this charade finally hit me: in the two years Jim was dying, his sister never came to visit him. So much for familial, as well as national, support.