I recently received my copy of Bravo! in the mail and sat down to watch it again. The first time I experienced it at a screening at Boise State University, I was nearly overwhelmed by the stark power of the storytelling. There was too much to absorb in one sitting: too many deep wounds revealed, too much delayed closure. This is a film jammed with stories that demand re-visitation and reflection.
Something that struck me during my second viewing was the repeated use of “the world” to refer to life outside of Vietnam, life before war and the imagined life after it. Marines promised each other, “I’ll see you back in the world,” which underscored for me how extremely unreal life in the battle zone must have felt. Life in besieged Khe Sanh was so impossible to adapt to and to comprehend that it wasn’t even considered an earthly experience. Recently I heard a Korean War vet relate a similar kind of story: one night while on sentry duty, he watched a beautiful full moon slowly rise above a hill and illuminate the battlefield below. His first thought was that this can’t be the same moon that rises back home. Dislocation and surrealism…hallmarks of many combat veterans’ stories.
Decades later, many Vietnam vets have only made it halfway home, living with one foot in “the world” and one back in the battle zone. Some even have two feet planted in the past, at least for part of each day. I was struck by Michael O’Hara’s revelation in Bravo! that every morning before he is fully awake and has his first cup of coffee, he’s back in a trench at Khe Sanh. Every single morning he feels “bodies up to my kneecaps.” Returning daily to the horrors of combat, straddling two extremely different existences sounds horrific to me—I struggle to understand how someone could ever find peace while seesawing between the past and the present, the trenches and “the world.” But Michael didn’t look horrified. Instead, he states, “That’s OK; I’ve come to accept that. I’m not supposed to forget all that stuff.”
But not all combat vets have come to terms with their wartime experiences. Memory is a double-edged sword, capturing our finest as well as our worst moments. Memories of combat can teach non-participants about the realities of war. And the dead walk again in memory. However, when memories painfully invade and occupy the present, derailing daily routines and relationships, action needs to be taken.
Sharing these memories is powerful medicine. Stories externalized are easier to manage. Somewhere I read the injunction “either own your story or it owns you.” When stories find the light of day after being buried for years, deep healing can occur. In the veterans’ writing group I facilitate, memories are shared aloud in conversation and written down to preserve them. Whether captured on paper or on film, the healing power of storytelling is something that can help unstick boots from battlefield mud and plant them more firmly in the present day.
Sharing stories can help both the teller and the listener find the path to insight and healing. Author and psychologist Edward Tick in War and the Soul explains: “Telling our story is a way of preserving our individual history and at the same time defining our place in the larger flow of events. It reveals patterns and meaning that we might otherwise miss as we go about the mundane activities of living; it invites us to see the universe working through us.” Stories also unite tellers and listeners, forming a community of shared witness. War stories, like those so artfully portrayed in Bravo!, can therefore become tools of reconciliation and restoration.
For information about the Boise Area Veterans’ Writing Group, please visit http://boisevetswriting.wordpress.com/ or contact Ruth at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Ruth Salter has a Master of Fine Arts degree and is a lecturer in the Department of English at Boise State University.
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