Turning Points

First published in Gloucester Encounters, Essays on the Cultural History of the City 1623-2023, edited by Martin Ray. Gloucester Cultural Initiative, November 2022.

Until twenty years ago I saw the Vietnam war through a shallow, selfish lens: My platoon. My war. Vietnamese culture was an alien poisoned thing. The enemy was a slippery bug to be stomped out. I knew little else of the world.

In my early forties I began traveling. First to Nicaragua, then Guatemala, where I lived in a highland village, trekking in the mountains, meeting the campesinos. I backpacked in other parts of the country, and in El Salvador and Honduras too. In all four countries, I was drawn to the survivors of their recent civil wars, and to their veterans. In 1994 I worked a year in New Zealand, where I came across Bao Ninh’s book The Sorrow of War, which recollected his time in the North Vietnamese Army and his life afterward as a writer in Hanoi. When reading that book I would fall into a light trance, feeling as if I were floating above the bed. Who was the man who wrote this incredible story? This enemy Vietnamese veteran? Why did I feel so drawn to him I did not know.

After New Zealand, I backpacked for eight months in Southeast Asia, Indonesia and Europe. I had not planned to go to Vietnam, but I did go, and had many adventures, though anxiety and flash backs dogged all my travels. In Hanoi I had an opportunity to seek out Bao Ninh but lacked the courage to take it. In a rainforest in Sumatra I hallucinated being in combat and broke down weeping.

In 1996, resettled in New York, I bought a hardback copy of Ninh’s book. Seeing his photo for the first time on the dust jacket, I gasped. Here was the face of the feared and loathed enemy, whom we had hunted each day on our jungle patrols, and who fervently hunted us. I had seen that face, that dead face, too many times after an ambush, and in too many of my dreams. Not long afterward, following the advice of a therapist friend, I spent seven weeks at a VA hospital in Montrose, New York. The quality of treatment for PTSD—a polite little phrase, unless you know its nightmare pattern up close and personal—was marginal at best.

A few months later I tried writing about my experiences during the war and afterward. These first narratives were crude but cathartic. One evening in Manhattan I met a man who knew Bao Ninh, and I wrote to him in Hanoi. To my astonishment, Ninh wrote back. “On the occasion of Christmas and the New year, I am very glad to send you our warmest regard from Vietnam. I wish you and your family a new year full of happiness. I hope we will soon meet each other in Hanoi.” The words in his Christmas card caused me to weep.

In 1998 I attended a two-week writer’s workshop at UMass Boston’s William Joiner Center for the Study of War and Social Consequences. My writing skills improved. I learned to fictionalize stories, rather than stick to the actual facts. And to express my deeper feelings, though still I did not fully understand the depth of my grief and sorrow, my anxiety and nightmares. One autumn day in New York the first confused reports came over the radio. When the long thick trail of ash gray smoke cleared, instead of two towers, there were none.

I’d been thinking of leaving New York, and after a few exploratory trips to New England I spent the winter house-sitting a Gloucester B and B, where I devoted much time to writing about the subject close to my heart. I moved nearer to town, formed friendships, attended a VA therapy group for Vietnam vets, and joined the local DAV chapter, where I stood out. During the Iraq War, the members sought ideas on what to send the troops. I loudly protested the unified vote in favor of Girl Scout Cookies.

“Are you kidding?” I said. “They’ll melt! They’ll rot! What the troops say they need are condoms! Yes, condoms!”

A close-knit, conservative group, the men looked at me like I was strange.
“To keep the sand out of their rifles,” I said. “They’re in the desert for Christ’s sake! And mosquito repellent for the bugs!”

They sent Girl Scout Cookies. I found progressive friends in Veterans for Peace and participated in Boston anti-war demonstrations. I spoke at several colleges and civic forums about my tour in Vietnam. When my emotions kicked in I could not hide them. In 2005 I co-wrote a play about the lives of four Vietnam vets: Dave Bianchini, Bob Vinson, and myself, from Gloucester, and Allen Gaskell, from Marblehead. I interviewed each man, coaxed out his growing up, tour in Vietnam, life after combat. What bravery they described. What dread and loss and sorrow. One after another, from deep within themselves, they told their war and postwar stories. And I told mine.
Based on the interviews, I wrote dialogue. The dancer Carl Thomsen provided a story arc and choreography. The musician Jeffery Hamilton Steele provided original music. “Silent Men Speaking” had a great run at Gloucester’s Blackburn Theater.

I attended a few more Joiner Center workshops, and a writer’s group at the Vet Center run by Dorothy Nelson of the Gloucester Writers Center. Several of my postwar stories, polished and complex, were published in literary journals. On John Ronan’s cable TV show The Writer’s Block I talked about the use of imagination when writing fiction. It’s a gift to make things up. To make the imagined believable. For one entire year, five days a week I walked from Fort Square—where Dave Bianchini rented me an apartment—to Good Harbor Beach and back, working off war stress, occasionally jotting down story notes.

The summer before I moved to Gloucester I was sitting in a crowded auditorium at UMass Boston, where the faculty and foreign guests for the Joiner workshop were being introduced. Off to one side, five Asian men patiently awaited their turn at the podium. I recognized one of them instantly. When they had finished their introductions, and were leaving the auditorium, I stood up, energetically pushed past a gauntlet of crossed and outstretched legs, and called out, just as he reached the exit door, “Bao Ninh!” From five meters we locked eyes. The expression on his face said, “Who is this American who knows my name?”

“It’s Marc Levy,” I hollared. “Moc Leby!” he shouted back. “Moc Leby!” We rushed to each other, caught up in the grace of coincidence. When I opened my arms to Ninh, he pulled me close, lifted me up, set me down, and clapped my back once, twice, three times, as if I were a human bell. In those moments my long-hidden sorrows were liberated and my tears would not stop. Ninh led me to a chair at the back of the hall. After I calmed down we tried to speak to each other in our separate languages. Thankfully, Lady Borton, an American Quaker who had provided medical aid to both sides during the war, and who was accompanying the Vietnamese delegation, came over and translated.

After a time Ninh said he had to leave, but we could meet tomorrow. We shook hands. For a time I felt a great sense of well-being, though it took years to understand why I wept. Years to grasp the depth of my grief for what I did in Vietnam, and what it did to me.

For three hours the next day I interviewed Bao Ninh. My questions were wooden, intellectual, academic. Ninh, to his credit, was patient, observant, thoughtful. At the end of our time I asked, “Is there anything I’ve overlooked? Is there anything you wish to add?” “Yes,” he said. “Tell your friends the NVA were not robots. We were human beings. That’s what you must tell people. We were human beings.” I’d completely overlooked the fact that Ninh had spent seven years in combat with the 514th Glorious Youth Brigade. Of its five hundred men and women only ten survived.

On the way to the student cafeteria Ninh stopped for a smoke. Ever since the war I’ve kept a certain picture in my wallet. I removed it, wrote an inscription on the back, handed it to Ninh. For a full minute he contemplated my platoon: nine young men draped in bandoleers, frags, canteens and pistol belts, armed with M16s. I watched him read what I had written: “To Bao Ninh, these good men meant as much to me as yours did to you.” His gaze implacable, he nodded “Thanks,” pulled the cigarette from his mouth, flicked it away. It was time for lunch.

Meeting Bao Ninh twenty-two years ago was a turning point in my life. Ten years ago, I moved to Salem, to be with a Gloucester girl who is now happily married and living in France. Here I continue to write, having published four books about the war. I run the website Medic in the Green Time, which showcases my writing, and the voices of other Vietnam vets. I have good days and bad, but I am never afraid to tell the truth about war and its aftermath. Having survived Vietnam, it’s the least I can do. As I have written elsewhere: WWII, Korea, Vietnam, Cambodia, Iraq, Afghanistan—wherever you were, whatever you did in war, it will always be with you. Always.

Gloucester Encounters is an amazing collection of stories and insights into one of the most famous fishing ports in the world…rich, authentic and colorful.” Sebastian Junger, author of The Perfect Storm

Gloucester Encounters is available for purchase from the Gloucester Cultural Initiative.