Finding Peace for War’s Wandering Souls

Wayne KarlinWayne Karlin 

In honor of Veterans Day, I attended a fascinating talk by novelist Wayne Karlin on his new book Wandering Souls: Journeys with the Dead the Living in Viet Nam (Nation Books, 2009). In addition to being a top-flight writer, Wayne, a neighbor and friend, is a Vietnam vet who regularly journeys to Vietnam to work with writers there and to address the wounds of the war. Wandering Souls is an actual account of an American lieutenant (Homer Steedly) who killed a Vietnamese soldier (Hoang Ndoc Dam) in battle and then, years later, asked Wayne to return the man’s papers to his family. Two years later he himself went over.

What happened next was a remarkable story of forgiveness and healing, both for the lieutenant and for Dam’s family. I can’t begin to do justice to the story here—you must buy the book for yourself—but it involves (among other things) entering a world where the dividing line between the living and the dead is far more porous than most Americans believe. Before the return of Dam’s papers, the family had seen him as one forced to wander restlessly in the afterlife because he had not been buried in home ground. The return of Dam’s papers led to the discovery of his bones (in part through the help of a medium) and a final ritual burying.

This digging up and then reburying of the past worked metaphorically as well. Steedly had killed Dam up close (it was a chance encounter where both men reached for their guns) and had seen the light go out of his eyes. The memory haunted him. By revisiting his family, he was able to find peace for his own restless soul.

Steedly was one of Dam’s pall bearers, leading Karlin to vent the following anger against those responsible for America’s senseless involvement in this war:

“I think of the scenario I had fantasized when we first saw Dam’s altar. How each soldier must forever carry one of the dead he made back to the family. How he must bear the weight of the body and the weight of their grief. But looking at my friend now, the earth of Dam’s grave still on his hands, I know that he is not who should be here, helping to bury the remains of the man he killed. I know who should be here, bearing the weight of this grief all around us, and I know that will never happen.”

Wayne opens the book with the Thomas Hardy poem “The Man He Killed,” a work powerful in its simplicity. It captures fully Steedly’s encounter with Dam:

Had he and I but met
By some old ancient inn,
We should have set us down to wet
Right many a nipperkin!

But ranged as infantry,
And staring face to face,
I shot at him as he at me,
And killed him in his place.

I shot him dead because–
Because he was my foe,
Just so: my foe of course he was;
That’s clear enough; although

He thought he’d ‘list, perhaps,
Off-hand like–just as I–
Was out of work–had sold his traps–
No other reason why.

Yes; quaint and curious war is!
You shoot a fellow down
You’d treat, if met where any bar is,
Or help to half a crown.

Steedly, like Hardy’s narrator, had created a narrative about the man he killed. Wayne mentioned that Vietnam vet/author Tim O’Brien does the same in his story “The Man I Killed.” The narrative Steedly imagined for Dam was inaccurate, but that’s not the point. By refusing to dehumanize the man he killed, he held on to his own humanity.  He was burdened but ultimately saved by that decision.

Wayne noted in his talk that veterans are returning these days from Iraq and Afghanistan carrying the same emotional scars as Steedly. Wandering Souls points to the possibility of healing. The process can take a long time and involves a virtual pilgrimage, but inner peace lies at the end of that road. Wayne, Steedly, and (in absentia)  Dam show us the way.

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  1. Julia Bates
    Posted November 12, 2009 at 4:54 pm | Permalink

    I was so struck by Wayne’s presentation and book. I am even more angry at how we decide to use war to settle MAN”S issues. I capitalize MAN to emphasize that I mean males, not the generic human. If we take the torment of Steedly and Dom and multiply it by the thousands, we can only begin to get a sense of the roiling desperation that the dominant culture suppresses, and through that suppression multiplies horribly the need to vent. A truly vicious downward spiral.

  2. Robin Bates
    Posted November 13, 2009 at 1:57 pm | Permalink

    Reading Julia’s comments make me want to go out and read All Quiet on the Western Front, one of those must read books I’ve never gotten around to. I understand that it captures her fury. The immense waste of war is also captured in Wilfred Owen’s poetic masterpiece “Strange Meeting”:

    t seemed that out of battle I escaped
    Down some profound dull tunnel, long since scooped
    Through granites which titanic wars had groined.
    Yet also there encumbered sleepers groaned,
    Too fast in thought or death to be bestirred.
    Then ,as I probed them, one sprang up, and stared
    With piteous recognition in fixed eyes,
    Lifting distressful hands, as if to bless.
    And by his smile, I knew that sullen hall, –
    By his dead smile I knew we stood in Hell.
    With a thousand pains that vision’s face was grained;
    Yet no blood reached there from the upper ground,
    And no guns thumped, or down the flues made moan.
    ‘Strange friend,’ I said, ‘here is no cause to mourn.’
    ‘None,’ said that other, ‘save the undone years,
    The hopelessness. Whatever hope is yours,
    Was my life also; I went hunting wild
    After the wildest beauty in the world,
    Which lies not calm in eyes, or braided hair,
    But mocks the steady running of the hour,
    And if it grieves, grieves richlier than here.
    For by my glee might many men have laughed,
    And of my weeping something had been left,
    Which must die now. I mean the truth untold,
    The pity of war, the pity war distilled.
    Now men will go content with what we spoiled,
    Or, discontent, boil bloody, and be spilled.
    They will be swift with swiftness of the tigress.
    None will break ranks, though nations trek from progress.
    Courage was mine, and I had mystery,
    Wisdom was mine, and I had mastery:
    To miss the march of this retreating world
    Into vain citadels that are not walled.
    Then, when much blood had clogged their chariot-wheels,
    I would go up and wash them from sweet wells,
    Even with truths that lie too deep for taint.
    I would have poured my spirit without stint
    But not through wounds; not on the cess of war.
    Foreheads of men have bled where no wounds were.
    I am the enemy you killed, my friend.
    I knew you in this dark: for so you frowned
    Yesterday through me as you jabbed and killed.
    I parried; but my hands were loath and cold.
    Let us sleep now…’

    The deep sense of waste pervades this poem–the “undone years, the hopelessness.” We seek beauty, we have such potential, such wisdom and courage–and then blood clogs the chariot wheels.


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