The VVA Veteran® Online

July/August 2014

The Aftermath: Vietnam War Poetry


In the January/February 2011 issue of The VVA Veteran we published David Willson’s “A Few Well-Chosen Words,” which reviewed the poetry of the Vietnam War. We asked Willson to review that literature again, but this time to show what veteran-poets have written about the peace.

Vietnam War poetry also deals with the challenges and struggles veterans have with PTSD, married life, fatherhood or motherhood, careers, further education—universal concerns that Vietnam War veteran poets have turned their talents and attention to. I trawled through hundreds of Vietnam War poetry books and chapbooks, and enjoyed the pursuit of the perfect poems for this piece. I found enough poems and produced enough comments and thoughts for a hundred-page essay. I’ll present just a sliver of that here.

Many poets tell us that there is life after our war, and that life is worth living and worth writing poetry about. Not all of our poets say that, but many do. Life after war is often hard, and the writing about that life can be angry and filled with blame, but it also can possess forgiveness.

Many Vietnam veterans returned home and got on with their lives and had great, productive lives. Others did not. There are no statistics on this that I trust. How could there be? It’s a subjective thing, a personal determination if your life has worked out. When we returned to The World on the so-called Freedom Bird (I never heard either of those expressions in Vietnam), our return could be a rocky experience, and Vietnam War poetry shows us what that could look like—what forms that could take. Expectations were high, often unrealistic. Some young returnees actually expected a parade—a delusion that always puzzled me. 

We hadn’t left Hitler dead in his bunker, Mussolini hanging by his heels, or Tojo in whatever oblivion was designated for him. It was business as usual in Vietnam. And at home as well. A parade was out of the question. There was no counseling for us, nobody to talk to. So many of us wrote poetry. Poured out our souls. Some of it was fine stuff and some of it was not so fine. I’ve searched for honesty in the writing and will start off with a short poem by John Wilson that cannot be faulted for its bald honesty and for how it expresses feelings that I have seen in hundreds of Vietnam War memoirs, novels, and poems. This is from Wilson’s book, Coming Home: Reflections of Vietnam. Wilson served as a Navy journalist in Vietnam. 

Heal With Time

I’m many years older now
And the emotions should be gone
But, it seems there is no escape
From my time in Vietnam

Mostly, I remember going there
With Patriotism and Pride
Then Coming Home again
Scorned and Pushed Aside

Wilson’s short poetical reflection is a summation of the point-of-view of an enormous number of Vietnam veterans. His poem is an accessible crowd-pleaser, written as directly as he can make it. For contrast, look at Horace Coleman’s poem from his book, In the Grass.

It Was Jane Fonda’s Fault
or College Again

Stirring us up.
Looking good.
Making sense.
Too many of us had
weirdly & recently
seen people buy it.
Tim Butz
(of later Counterspy fame)
came by a day or so afterwards.
Organized and left.
Doing it again
some place else
Fonda went.

When we reached our assembly point,
people used old habits to pick leaders
(date of rank).
The little I had was enough,
So I led ’em out singing:
“And it’s one, two, three,
what are we fighting for?”
And we really knew this time,
straggling toward a building
I sat in.

After we searched and destroyed
some “Vietnamese villagers”
right in the middle of ROTC’s
new tin soldier party,
we talked to the crowd. 
A smug kid student
(must have had a
high draft number
and a low “reality IQ”)
thought he’d shut me up by saying,
“Well, you must know; you’ve been there.”
I splattered his face with,
“Try thinking for yourself,
instead of believing
whoever yells loudest!”
then bounced a Bronze Star ribbon
off a colonel so conditioned
he almost returned
the knife sharp salute
I gave him as I left.

This poem might not be a crowd-pleaser, but it pleased me. It is also not immediately accessible, but like much good poetry—or fine wine—it rewards persistence and repeated exposure. It also brings home the oft-denied truth that some Vietnam veterans were comfortable returning from their war to college and antiwar demonstrations. I did it myself. Coleman’s fine book is filled with poems of great quality. Much of it is fun to read. Thought-provoking, too. 

Marilyn McMahon, in her chapbook Works in Progress, delineated the future that some of us had in store due to exposure to bad stuff.  We were told in grade school to believe in “Better Living Through Chemistry,” but our Weekly Readers lied to us about so much, and lulled us into being trusting automaton-citizens. So we bathed daily in Agent Orange and paid the price later. McMahon says it better in her poem, “Knowing.” Below the title of her poem is this quote:

(“Recent research indicates that Dioxin is the most potent toxin ever studied.” …news report, September 1987).


I watched the helicopters
Flying slowly north and south
along the DaNang river valley,
trailing a grey mist
which scattered the sun
in murky rainbows.
I never wondered if I knew
all I ought to know
about what we were doing.

I knew that it was called
that the spray would destroy
the hiding places of snipers
and ambushing guerillas.
I did not know to ask:
at what price?

Every evening,
the sunset choppers arrived
filled with soldiers burning
from jungle fevers:
malaria, dengue, dysentery.  
We took them directly
to the cooling showers,
stripped their wet
dirt encrusted uniforms
as we lowered their temperatures
and prepared them for bed. 
I did not ask where they had been,
whether they or the uniforms I held
had been caught in the mist,
whether defoliation
had saved their lives.
I did not know to ask. 

I knew part of the price
when nine other women
who had watched the helicopters
and seen the mist
talked of their children:
Jason’s heart defects, and
Amy’s and Rachel’s and Timothy’s.
Mary’s eye problems.
The multiple operations
to make and repair digestive organs
for John and Kathleen and little John.
How lucky they felt
when one child was born healthy

How they grieved
about the miscarriages
one, two, three, even seven.
Their pain, their helplessness,
their rage when
Marianne died of leukemia at 2,
and Michelle died of cancer at 2 1⁄2.
Their fear of what might yet happen.

I knew more
when I watched my parents
celebrate their fortieth
wedding anniversary,
four children, three grandchildren
sitting in the pews.
I knew what I would never know,
what the poisons and my fears
have removed forever from my knowing. 
The conceiving, the carrying of a child,
the stretching of my womb, my breasts.
The pain of labor.
The bringing forth from my body a new life. 

I choose not to know
if my eggs are
misshapen and withered
as the trees along the river.
If snipers are hidden
in the coils of my DNA.

This long poem is both hard and easy to read. Conversational about death, loss, and what she—a woman who volunteered to be an Army nurse in Vietnam—gave up without knowing the price for serving. McMahon speaks for all of us who have had our lives derailed by exposure to dioxins, with an anguished but dispassionate and scientific voice, as suits a person with her medical training. 

Heartbreaking stuff to read, but necessary for all to read. Not just for veterans of that ancient war we served in, but for general citizens, to provoke them to think about the butcher’s bill being levied on the young who serve in our current wars. Their many deployments expose them to chemicals and violent forces that will cost them their health and their lives—and the country trillions of dollars. As the late Pete Seeger (a fellow veteran) asked, “When will we ever learn?” 

Time for two shorter poems written by veterans who returned and successfully had families and who were able to protect, nurture, and enjoy their children. The lucky ones. David Vancil served in Vietnam for a year as an officer and an advisor. He has written poetry of that year in his book, The Homesick Patrol. This poem is from a more recent book, Night Photo, which deals with some of what he has done since his war.

Geese Flying over the Basketball Goal
Terre Haute, Indiana

Above us two geese rose from the nearby pond,
disturbed by our game, wings spread low overhead.
We stopped playing and looked up, listening
to their honking complaints. They were so close,
their legs dangled down. As if a rebound,
it seemed we could’ve leapt up and easily grabbed them.
But why would we? Laughing instead, we watched
their wings straining as slowly they climbed higher.

Ball on her hip, my daughter didn’t complain
for a change when they’d gone and I called it a night.

Vancil came back from his war, got more education, worked as a librarian and a professor, and wrote this lyric poem about the joy of spending time with his daughter. No bitterness here, only joy. 

Another poem with a lot of joy is this one by W.D. (Bill) Ehrhart. 

Coaching Winter Track in Time of War

The boys are running “suicides”
on the football field today:
ten-yard increments out to the fifty
and back again, push-ups in between.

It’s thirty degrees, but they sweat
like it’s summer in Baghdad,
curse like soldiers, swear to God
they’ll see you burn in Hell.

You could fall in love with boys
like these: so earnest, so eager, so
ready to do whatever you ask, so
full of themselves and the world.

How do you tell them it’s not that simple?
How do you tell them: question it all.
Question everything. Even a coach.
Even a president. How do you tell them:
ask the young dead soldiers coming home
each night in aluminum boxes
none of us is allowed to see,
an army of shades.

You tell the boys “good work” and call it a day,
stand alone in fading light while
memory’s phantoms circle the track
like weary athletes running a race
without a finish line.

Ehrhart is a Marine Corps veteran who became a coach and teacher of young men, and it is easy for him to visualize them dead in aluminum boxes. The Vietnam War informs and infiltrates everything Ehrhart does. He has learned from his war. The poem’s joy is leavened with a sense of dread. It’s taken from a book of essays, The Last Time I Dreamed About the War.

Leroy Quintana wrote a classic volume of Vietnam War poetry dealing with his tour of duty, Interrogations. He has also written many books of poetry about his family and friends. Here is one of those poems from his book, The History of Home.


The winter I returned from Vietnam
Grandpa told me Tony had been found
frozen to death in his pickup.
It was said he drank a lot; perhaps the mass layoffs.
He was good at marbles; swung an axe
with the strength, precision of somebody twice his age.
His father, I think, had abandoned the family.
In our First Holy Communion photo,
he is holding a candle,
his right hand over his heart,
and smiling, wearing a new suit.
Twenty years later the mines have been closed. 

I’m reading between the lines, but I feel that Quintana is saying that perhaps he was lucky to have been in warm and sunny South Vietnam, luckier than Tony, anyhow. Quintana survived to become a college professor and an acclaimed poet, but this is all we know of Tony. This isn’t quite a poem saying that the war had benefits for us, but it comes close. That war is in our bones and our souls. The proof is Quintana’s poem, “Eight Years After Vietnam.”


Eight years after Viet Nam
I still walk the jungles in camouflage
my M-16 mind
on recon patrol
on city streets,
in restaurants, bars, buses,
during breakfast, at work,
morning noon and
neighbors, relatives and friends, everybody
even my family
all have slant eyes
I watch their movements
listen to their words
record everything in notebooks


Nine years after Viet Nam
where friendly woodchoppers by day
would be Viet Cong by night
I’m still on recon patrol.
Everybody has slant eyes.

It’s an M-16 world.
Teacher by day, tonight
I’m at the trigger
of an electric typewriter.
This paper has yellow skin.
This poem has slant eyes.

This ultimate PTSD poem is from Quintana’s book, Sangre. There are many PTSD poems, but this one chills my blood and keeps me from searching the heap of poetry books for another. This one will do for all of the others. 

R.S. Carlson served his year in Vietnam, but these many decades later still is working that time out of his soul. This poem is from his book, Waiting to Say Amen.

Veni Emmanuel

how well washed

we come, blood
on our hands,

to take the
cake bodied

before us
into small

pieces and
eaten by

light of the
trick candle

we never

can blow all
the way out

For many of us, the war is that trick candle that we can never blow out.  I’ve been trying since 1967 to do so. As you can see from this article, I have not been successful. For good reason, blood and fire often appear as images in the poetry of Vietnam War poets. Dennis Ward Stiles wrote Saigon Tea. Another of his books, The Fire in Which We Burn, contains his poem, “Today.”


I did not want anything
to die today. No bird. No mouse.
No worm. No ant. No blade of grass.
I wanted each living life
to wake in peace
and fall asleep in perfect comfort.
Mosquitoes, bats, elephants, all.

No new skulls
No toothy jawbones
In the pastures.
No roadside crumpled carcass.
No insect spattered against glass.
No shriek of chain-saw ravishing a tree.
Not a whiff of fresh-cut hay.
No mortal hurt of any kind.

Even as the sun vanished
and dark took hold
while the slaughter continued
and the heavens marched by
in cold silence
I did not want anything to die.

I wanted blood to be honey.
I wanted stars to be bees.

Stiles’s poem is life-affirming, filled with hope. A similar sentiment is expressed in this small piece of verse from Jerry Neren’s book-length poem, Once Upon a Time in Vietnam.

Once Upon a Time in Vietnam.

In this new world of mine,
I’ve laid my weapons down,
a pile of weaponry
as high as a thousand-year-old redwood tree
and ten times wider than the tree is high:
the rifle and slingshot,
the hand grenades and spray cans of pesticide,
the bomber and boomerang,
the M-16, harpoon and fishing lures,
the missiles and bug-zappers,
the sticks and stones,
the mousetrap and rattrap and rod and reel,
the battleship and bayonet,
the ant poison and fly swatter,
the helicopter gunship and hunting bow,
the decoys and duck calls,
the fighter plane and fishing pole,
the flypaper and flame thrower,
the mortars and rockets,
the land mines and landing nets,
the ammo belts and bowie knife,
the tanks and artillery,
the napalm bombs and high explosive bombs,
the small-game gun and big-game gun,
the handgun and shotgun and blowgun and machine gun,
the barrels of Agent Orange.

Believe me,
no sooner would I march off to war again,
than desecrate my parents’ graves…

This gives the reader an idea where Neren now stands on war. I stand there beside him. I did not raise my sons to be soldiers. There have been Willsons in America’s wars since the Revolutionary War, and all since then, up to and including the Vietnam War. But none after.

Some of us had a harder time than others with getting on with our lives. In his book, Lost Lambs, Bill Bauer introduces us to Larry, who had a strike or two against him. This poem gives more reasons why some of us are done with war. Bauer served in Vietnam in 1969 with his activated National Guard unit. 

Larry’s Lament

Sylvia knew Larry knew,
and Larry knew she knew
she was lying,
knew about the difference
no left leg would mean,
knew that metal thing
they called a leg
wasn’t a leg nearly like
his blown off leg,
and Larry knew after Thanksgiving Dinner
at his parents’ house, her smile off center,
she knew she wouldn’t be
coming around very often
in the holiday dress
he bought her before he left,
wouldn’t be coming around
no time except
every other minute
in his mind

Larry is no longer a normal American and never will be again. That was true for many of us, but Larry couldn’t run. Couldn’t hide. Every time I go to the Seattle VA Hospital to see my oncologist to find out if my multiple myeloma is on the march again, I pass by the area where the people go to get treatment for their missing limbs. Usually the elevator has one or two of these folks aboard. It makes for a sobering ride. That could have been me. Easy to imagine. Then I feel lucky just to have this fatal disease. Puts things into perspective for me. Since I read this poem, I now imagine that it is Larry in that elevator with me. 

Fred Rosenblum served in the Marines in Vietnam, 1967-68. His poem “Festive Skies” deals with some of the same issues as the first poem in this article by John Wilson, but Rosenblum ratchets up the images. This is from his book, Hollow Tin Jingles.

Festive Skies

I haven’t visited that wall
where my country buried me

nor visited the structure
of so-called empathy

lest I be reminded
and revive the numbing reality

but thanks for the slap in the face
the spit in the eye

the shun me shame me
knife me in the pride

thanks for the perpetual zombie silence
that I brought home to those who would forsake me

those families and friends
who weren’t calling us
‘heroes’ back then

Rosenblum’s poem about The Wall in Washington is one of many by veteran poets, but he gets at things that all of us felt when we came home, but many of us never dared voice for fear of being considered bitter or maladjusted whiners. 

I’ll end with a poem from Jon Forrest Glade’s fine volume of poetry, Photographs of the Jungle, which should be on every Vietnam veteran’s shelf of the best books of our war. Glade served with the 101st Airborne in 1969 in the A Shau Valley as a pointman. His poem, “Walking Wounded,” exemplifies how all of us should support other veterans, no matter how different our tours of duty were. Because if we don’t help each other, who will we turn to? 

Walking Wounded
(Denver, 1969)

“This is Colfax,” the bus driver said,
“Seventeenth is two blocks north.”
The man with the white cane said,
“When I got on the bus
you told me you could stop on the
forty-one hundred block of seventeenth.”
“It’s just two blocks north.”
“Look, I’m newly blind.
I can’t cross the street without help.”
The bus driver said, “I’m sorry,
but there’s nothing I can do.”
It was none of my business,
but I butted in. “Give me a transfer.
I’ll walk him over
and catch the next bus.”

He got off without any help.
He had a nasty scar
that ran diagonally across his face.
His left eye was covered with gauze;
the other eye was blue,
and I think made of glass.
I told him I was a GI, too,
another patient from Fitz.
I said I was on crutches,
so I couldn’t take his arm,
but he could hang on 
to the hood of my coat.
People stared. It’s not everyday
you see the crippled
leading the blind.

Glade’s poem made me laugh and cry. That is the measure of true genius for a poet. Thank you, Jon Glade, and thanks to all of the other fine poets who have allowed us into their souls in the course of our reading their poetry. Poetry is the ultimate healing force for all of us, if we allow it to be. We have to open our hearts to it, and let it in. Then it informs us, and perhaps it heals us.

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