Saturday, Jan. 9
Collected Works Bookstore
202 Galisteo St.
This Saturday, New Mexico author K Stewart reads from and signs his book,
The Smell of Blood
, a poetic memoir about his experience as a combat soldier in Vietnam. Stewart, now an emergency doctor on an Indian reservation, took time to share with SFR his views on Vietnam, America's current wars, and the hopes he has for his book.
All proceeds from sales of
The Smell of Blood
benefit Veterans for Peace.
SFR: It's been a long time since you were in combat in Vietnam; what triggered you to express yourself and write it down now?
As for motivating factors, for one thing, my children were of an age when they were at risk for being involved in conflicts. That motivated me to try and give them some guidance or sense of experience that hopefully would help them avoid it—or at least look at it in a rational, realistic way. Secondly, the forces in the world and in our country especially that can make war do it with great abandon, which is really inconsiderate of the suffering caused in the people they ask to do it, to perform it...Intelligent, well-educated people with the best intentions, presumably, are making the same mistakes and errors, and the cost is just really mind-boggling. For me, doing an emotional piece on this subject is valuable and, from the feedback I've gotten, it seems like it's effective.
Did you always feel this way about war, politically and emotionally?
I was born and raised in the military. I was totally as pro-military as you could be, and it was an enlightening experience to actually go to war and learn myself what it was really about and what it entailed. It affects you in a way that you never can leave behind. And I don't think that's something that's portrayed in our culture. For people to say, 'Thank you for your service' and 'Welcome home' and 'You're a hero,' that's a very unsatisfactory and superficial way of avoiding the issue. The book is specifically about war and the price you pay...I think we really are very unrealistic and unfair and dishonest.
So rather than simply say 'You're a hero,' then forget about it, what does America need to do?
First, you have to accept the reality that what you've asked someone to do is a horrible thing that's going to affect them forever. One of the things in Native American cultures is they have a very strong warrior appreciation in the community. One of the things they do is, when people come back, they do a ceremony—they welcome people back in and realize that they have been harmed and are carrying a burden. They do some kind of transformational or appreciation ceremony, a cleansing, to try to re-harmonize them with the environment they're coming back to, at the same time acknowledging that they have been in such a significant experience.
People have to take full accountability of what they're asking people to do. A president can have the good storyline down of why they're asking people to go, but soldiers don't want to go to war—in general. People generally don't look at it lightly at all, whereas politicians, people who don't go, have no problem sending people over there. That's a real problem.
Secondly, I don't believe there is no good cause for violence—sometimes there are valid reasons to protect yourself and your family; however, I am not aware, historically, culturally, that we as a society do that very humanely or morally. I think that when people do come back, it's important to realize that it's a devastating experience, and not to just say, 'Oh, they have post-traumatic stress disorder, they need some Prozac, and we need to get them some subsidy'—we need to have some kind of a mechanism for them to join with other similarly experienced people to try and work through some of the unreasonable an horrific things they have been asked to do and experience or witness. And that's true even for people who weren't in combat, but just around it.
Since you grew up in a military family, it was a given that you would enlist in the armed forces. Did your voluntary enlistment have an effect on how you thought of your actions in Vietnam later on?
It had something to do with my attitude. I grew up with the leadership and this idealized military environment—you know, the 'Onward, Christian Soldiers' kind of thing—and for me, it was educational in the sense that I was shocked at how untrue all that was, how false all that propaganda was. Coming from the '50s and the idealized wonderful America that we had, I really believed that, and I was really disappointed and shamed by the fact that it wasn't all that I believed.
My awareness of what happened afterward and how I related to it afterward was based on the extreme disappointment and anger that we weren't even trying. There was so much corruption. The corruption now even significantly outpaces anything I experienced, and I just couldn't believe it even then. The irony, for me, was that I had no hostility or emotional anger against the people I was actually fighting—it was toward the people that were sending them to fight me and were sending me to fight them. To this day, that's not a forgivable offense, in my mind.
Give me an example.
Robert McNamara, who was a big orchestrator of this war, later was tearful and said, 'Gee, I'm sorry.' It's like—the people that he sent and the burden that they have to carry and the prices they paid, whether with their lives or injury or emotional distress—that's something they don't just get to cry and say they're sorry and it's better. They have to live with that burden, and McNamara should know that burden as well should anybody.
Why do you think previous generations of your military family did not have this kind of disillusionment?
In the '60s there was a lot of challenging [of authority] that had not been as widespread before. I think it had to do with the media. The media was much more limited. Just think of Korea and World War II and how limited that was; whereas in Vietnam, suddenly you had some guy say, 'I'm gonna be a correspondent,' and they pop over to Vietnam, take some pictures, write some stories, talk to some people, and it's on the evening news. That's not happening right now at all—we're really restricting the public information for a specific reason, but regardless, people have the internet. Anybody can bring information out to everybody on the world...That's been a significant difference, and that started during Vietnam. That had a big effect on Vietnam—people watching dead Americans on the evening news over dinner.
One of the most powerful pieces of journalism in that era was when Life magazine did one issue that just had pictures and [basic information on] all the people that had died in Vietnam that week. It was, like, 260 guys. This is striking. Hundreds of young men—it was mostly young men—lost their lives, and still it took 10 years to stop that war. And here we are in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Even beyond the sheer loss of life, it takes a great psychological toll on our country, whether we realize it or not.
I recently read an article by a psychologist that said that America is [in an abusive relationship with its citizens]. You can't understand why someone stays in an abusive relationship where they're harmed and at risk for their own life, and you go, 'Why don't they just leave?'—but there's a whole mentality of accepting your status instead of knowing you can change. And the basis of the article was, yeah, with a little bit of optimism is all it takes sometimes to make a big difference.
That's really interesting. There's also the whole concept of needing the abuser and not being able to survive without that abuser; America has very much that mindset. And I, too, have totally fallen into it—not being able to imagine living in anything 'less' than America and the comfort in which we live here, when it's completely possible and perhaps better elsewhere.
Well, if a patriot is someone who believes in the people of the country of the US, then I'm that. I have great faith and hope and I'm very romantic about America in an idealized way and the potential that we have. I'm a little discouraged by the evidence to our inability to live up to our idealization. But that's what keeps me going; that's what inspired me to write a book. I thought that maybe some one individual can make one tiny contribution that can make a difference in some way. If everybody made little contributions, it's bound to have some impact. You hit a certain threshold and something cumulative becomes overwhelmingly real.
THE SMELL OF BLOOD
Saturday, Jan. 9
Collected Works Bookstore
202 Galisteo St.