Seared by Vietnam by Carol P. Christ

Warning: This post discusses and includes images of the violence of war. 

Recently I have been binge-watching the American comedy-drama series This Is Us. I am of the same generation as Jack and Rebecca, the parents of the triplets, but I didn’t think much about that connection during the first two seasons. The middle class father works-mother stays home family and the “father knows best” story line seemed like a throwback to the generation of my parents. Though everyone was supposed to have loved him, I didn’t like Jack, and I didn’t identify with Rebecca. The children’s lives seemed much more interesting to me, and I resented it when the flashbacks to the parents’ lives began to take over the script.

When the plot turned to Jack’s experiences in Vietnam, I fast-forwarded. “Been there, done that,” I said to myself, “I don’t need to see it again.” But eventually I realized I had to watch some of the scenes of the Vietnam War or I would not be able to follow the plot.

With no television and immersed in my studies, I was not really aware of the Civil Rights movement or the Vietnam War until the summer after I graduated college. Over the summer of 1967, a friend made it his mission to introduce me to the world around me. He was sure he could turn me from conservative to liberal–if he could make me aware of what was going on, and he succeeded. By the time I started graduate school in the fall, I was firmly committed to ending the war, poverty, and racism.

While watching the episodes of This Is Us that focused on the Vietnam War, memories flooded back: the image of the naked girl running down the road, the stories of the My Lai massacre, marching while chanting “war, war what are we fighting for” and “Ho Ho Ho Chi Minh, the Viet Cong are gonna win.” Most of my friends had student deferments and my brother did not serve because he was married with children, but one of the dearest loves of my youth, Tony, who was a black man, told me that he still had shrapnel in his leg, that he was the only one to survive from his infantry unit, and that he would never forgive himself for throwing a grenade that killed a small Vietnamese girl who was walking toward him–because a girl the same age had thrown a grenade that killed his best friend. A white veteran, a work colleague of one of my other boyfriends, would duck and start muttering to himself whenever he heard a loud noise; and needless to say he drank way too much.

In my first job, I was required to teach the Iliad, which for me was neither beautiful poetry, nor a magnificent depiction of the heroic quest. I found it to be a glorification of warriors and war. The fact that my colleagues could speak dispassionately about Briseis as a “spear captive” turned my stomach. She was the “spoils of war” and a victim of rape. I could not discuss whether Achilles or Agamemnon had greater right to hold her as his captive and to rape her. Nor did I find Achilles’ “metaphysical dilemma” of whether to fight and die in war and be remembered forever or to return to an ordinary life to be compelling. It was obvious to me that the road not taken would have been the better choice.

I did not experience the Vietnam War directly, but the horror of war was etched into my brain and has shaped my life ever since. Because of the Vietnam War, I have opposed war and everything to do with the military. While many were shocked when rape in war made headlines following the conflict in Bosnia-Herzegovina, I already knew that rape is an ordinary weapon of war, practiced not only by Serbians but also by US soldiers in Vietnam. I have also always understood that war is an integral part of patriarchy and vice versa and have made ending war one of my feminist priorities.

In This is Us Jack’s brother Nick is one of the walking wounded and Jack is a silent sufferer. Nick retreats into an alcoholic haze. Jack has a drinking problem and refuses to speak of what he has seen and done. It is a credit to the writers of the series that the war that shaped a generation is not glorified in This is Us. I wonder though, will the writers go a step further: will they help us to understand that the only way to end the suffering of war is to end war?

When will we ever learn, oh when will we ever learn?


Carol P. Christ is an internationally known feminist writer, activist, and educator currently living in Lesbos, Greece. Carol’s recent book written with Judith Plaskow, Goddess and God in the World: Conversations in Embodied Theology, is on Amazon. A Serpentine Path: Mysteries of the Goddess is on sale for $9.99 on Amazon. Carol has been leading Goddess Pilgrimage to Crete for over twenty years: join her in Crete. Carol’s photo by Michael Honneger.

Listen to Carol’s a-mazing interview with Mary Hynes on CBC’s Tapestry recorded in conjunction with her keynote address to the Parliament of World’s Religions.

Categories: Abuse of Power, Feminism, Feminism and Religion, pacifism, Peacemaking, Rape Culture

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7 replies

  1. It is quite the story that so many years later, the scars are felt so keenly. I wonder how we human beings can do what we do to each other. It is interesting to note that the girl in the picture that you posted is Phan Thi Kim Phuc and she has become a voice for forgiveness and healing work. She recently won a Peace Award for her work in this field and she has a Foundation, the Kim Phuc Foundation. I am inspired and wonder, feel, believe that this is an essential path for us, individually and as a culture, for us to continue.

    It would be better, though if we could stop the source so the need for forgiveness is not so brutal or common.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Thank you, Carol. Found myself agreeing with every word. I loathed “The Iliad” when my father obliged me to read it as a teenager—in fact, I fell asleep over three different translations.

    With regard to patriarchy, which delights in killing and uses rape as a weapon, yes, absolutely, patriarchy must end. I’ve come to believe that hatred of women underlies the way all of human society is organized. Currently I’m reading an old novel written by Taylor Caldwell, “Glory and Lightning,” about Aspasia and Pericles. It’s reinforced not only my belief, but why the ancient Greek culture that everyone seems to admire so much leaves me cold.

    Liked by 3 people

  3. Carol, reading this post brought back horrible memories.

    I never remember a time when war wasn’t a reality in my life or a time when I wasn’t against war or viscerally repelled by it.

    First of all, I grew up in a war zone inside my family system.

    Before Vietnam was the Korean war. I lost uncles in that one. Vietnam was terrifying, not just because of its horrors which were literally beyond my ability to witness or grasp, but because my beloved brother was drafted just after graduating from Harvard. I lived with the the frightening reality that he could become a part of that insanity. The one time I saw my parents unite was when they supported my brother’s defecting to Canada to avoid this fate.

    At some point in my life it occurred to me that I might have been born into something like the “archetype of war” because I have never been neutral regarding this atrocity.

    Interesting thought.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Yes, we really are, sadly.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. I’ve never heard of that TV program. I agree that the Iliad is a celebration of war and warriors, and I don’t much like Odysseus, either. If I were in charge of anything, I’m pretty sure I’d banish the works of Homer into, as they say, the dustbin of history.

    I knew a Vietnam vet when I was working on my M.A. He lived upstairs with his girlfriend and hardly ever said a word to anyone. Looking back, and having seen Ken Burns’ documentary on the war, I think I see my neighbor a little more clearly now. War damages everyone and everything it touches, even remotely. Yes, indeed, we are children of violence.

    Liked by 2 people

  6. And now I see Venezuela, Palestine, the Middle East. Trump’s threats and manipulations. Canada’s sale of weapons. We are like the coward who holds the bully’s coat and cheers him on, all for a few dollars. This coming Mothers Day, how can we say “NO” once again, more loudly, more forcefully?

    Liked by 2 people

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