Winning Hearts and Minds: War Poems by Vietnam Veterans

This essay is reproduced here as it appeared in the print edition of the original Science for the People magazine. These web-formatted archives are preserved complete with typographical errors and available for reference and educational and activist use. Scanned PDFs of the back issues can be browsed by headline at the website for the 2014 SftP conference held at UMass-Amherst. For more information or to support the project, email sftp.publishing@gmail.com

Winning Hearts and Minds: War Poems by Vietnam Veterans

By F.M.

‘Science for the People’ Vol. 4, No. 6, November 1972, p. 14

Winning Hearts and Minds is a collection of poetry about the war and Vietnam, written and edited by Vietnam veterans, compiled and published by Vietnam Veterans Against the War. The book is one of the most powerful and emotionally compelling statements against the war that I have read. The three editor-poets introduce the book by saying:

It is primarily urgency, rather than guilt, that moves these poets to tell others that the war has not ended simply because there are fewer U.S. casualties.

The outrage has been too much, and it still goes on. This poetry is an attempt to grapple with a nightmare, a national madness. It is poetry written out o f fire and under fire.

The war still goes on. We were, and are, a part o f the evil. And the fire still burns.

This preface is not meant to be an exercise in literary criticism, but I want to sum up my gut responses to the poems in the hope that you’ll look for the book. Most of the poems are short, like the three reprinted here. They describe all aspects of Vietnam, each a sort of distillation of intense experiences or emotions. Reading through the collection, over 100 poems, gives you a series of flashes, of images of the human impact of Vietnam that are hard to find anywhere else. The collective impact is much greater than that of any individual poem, because most are only a facet of a larger picture.

F.M.

A Bummer

We were going single file
Through his rice paddies
And the farmer
Started hitting the lead track
With a rake
He wouldn’t stop
The TC went to talk to him
And the farmer
Tried to hit him too
So the tracks went sideways
Side by side
Through the guy’s fields
Instead of single file
Hard On, Proud Mary
Bummer, Wallace, Rosemary’s Baby
The Rutgers Road Runner
And
Go Get Em—Done Got Em
Went side by side
Through the fields

          If you have a farm in Vietnam
And a house in hell
Sell the farm
And go home

— Michael Casey

track: tracked vehicle
TC: track commander

What Kind of War?

Ask what kind of war it is
where you can be pinned down
all day in a muddy rice paddy
while your buddies are being shot
and a close-support Phantom jet
who has been napalming the enemy
wraps itself around a tree and explodes
and you cheer inside?

— Larry Rottman

…In That Age When We Were Young

The old ones were respected in that age when we were young
And the unreal cliches that spewed from their mouths
Somehow had a ring of truth in them,
So we thought.

“Good things come to those who wait.”
That was a favorite of theirs, wasn’t it?
But they had waited all their lives
And the only good thing that ever came to them was a
Quick and quiet death.

But other younger cats began to talk a different talk
And Charlie got uptight when brother Leroi said,
“The magic words are: Up against the wall Motherfucker,
this is a stick up!”

And then I was afraid to come to your house
Funny isn’t it?
You used to joke about coming to my place
About how the red-necks were gonna lynch you.

And now I don’t walk in the black ghettos
No joke.

So I left the city
And I’ve managed to resist the epidemic
I haven’t bought a gun
Too many memories I guess.

No, I’m afraid to hold a gun now
What if I were to run amuck here in suburbia
And rush into the street screaming
“Airborne all the way!”
               And shoot the milkman.

The Army finished me with guns
But started you.
I wish you luck
And hope somehow both of us can end up winners.

— Charles M. Purcell

 

Winning Hearts and Minds, edited by Larry Rottman, Jan Barry and Basil T. Paquet, costs $1.95, and is available in bookstores or from First Casualty Press, P.O. Box 518, Coventry, Connecticut 06238. Proceeds from the sale of the book go to Medical Aid for Indochina. To repeat the words of the editors: “Poetry is a human gift. Use it.”