The night after Michael Brelo was acquitted for the 2012 shooting death of unarmed Timothy Russell and Malissa Williams, I started writing. There is a certain burden of clarity and urgency that hangs over the writer, which he or she must ultimately answer to. But the weight of things was especially heavy this night. How ought I to reckon with the taking of another’s life in such brutal fashion? Brelo, an Iraq war veteran, pumped 49 shots into the car of Russell and Williams until they were no more. For that, he received the state’s mercy.
I called my father. We talked for three hours.
I am the only one next to God and the psychiatrist who knows of the atrocities my father committed and witnessed in Vietnam. Up until December 23, 2013 (45 years after his tour), no one knew. On the night of Brelo’s acquittal, my dad recounted to me the hell he has lived for much of his life.
The tragedy of state violence is that it forces the agents who act in its name into religious and righteous innocence. Those who effectively act as the state’s caretakers are not trained to see terror as such. Brelo, and the thousands of lawmen who bear the badge across the country, act at consent of law. My father was acting at the will of the state. And as the logic holds, there can be nothing morally reprehensible about violence so long as the state allows.
My father never forgot Vietnam nor was he ever able to come to terms with the taking and theft of life of those which his homeland had deemed enemies. And if you ask me, one must not simply “come to terms” with violence as a matter of reckoning with its destructive capacities. For at the root of the matter, one has to think more fundamentally about its very necessity. And even more, one has to think about the paradox of exacting violence, for a nation in which he himself had long been disposable.
It now seems strange that for all my curiosities as a young black boy coming of age, I never asked dad about Vietnam. I never prodded or pressed the matter beyond vague references to the commendations he had received. All this, I gathered, was precisely the point of war. That when we, the citizens, send men and women to kill at the state’s beckoning, we do so with a particular kind of reluctance to know the full extent of what we actually charge them to do. I never asked my father about Vietnam partly because I wasn’t thinking critically about the matter. But also because of a more willful ignorance; a subconsciously profound want to not know.
This all changed when I asked him, days after my graduation from college and on the night of Brelo’s acquittal, if he had been proud to serve his country.
He paused. It had gotten so quiet you could hear air sifting in and beyond the microphone. “It was chaos,” he began, finally breaking a silence that seemed to carry on for eternity. “It was a nightmare.”
The seamlessness of terror, I suppose, had brought him intimately closer to time. He combed through dates and intimate details which made it appear as though his memory of the facts were deliberate. “11 months, 28 days,” he recited. This was how long he spent in “hell,” as it were.
Dad used the nightmare metaphor many more times on that night. For 11 months and 28 days, he walked, crawled, foxholed, killed, cried, screamed, and survived his way through literal hell. And in the 45 years since, it has haunted him. It was the realization of his complicity in state terror, the violence he exacted, the rehabilitation he would not receive, his own internalized rage, his return to a nation that hated him.
The war had come home.
Dad told me there were three choices for most black men in 1968: die, go to jail, or head to war. So my father left Clarksdale, Mississippi for basic training in Fort Benning, Georgia, just weeks before Martin Luther King Jr. would be shot dead in Memphis. He had no time to mourn. When you’re preparing to protect the empire, there’s little time to eulogize the dead or fully remember the slain.
He left for Vietnam in September. Two weeks after arriving, members of the platoon to which he had originally been assigned were all dead.
“It wasn’t my time to go,” he said aloud. It was nothing to be on patrol and in light-hearted conversation in one instance and looking over your shoulder to see someone’s head pop off in another, or, as he recalled, “to see a full round go through your battle buddy” as they reflected in the jest of casual conversation.
Horrific does not begin to capture the extent to which he, and his fellow soldiers, had been ravaged and destroyed by war. One of the soldiers on his patrol collected ears as proof of the people he killed. Shrapnel would whisper just above their bodies as they lay prone in the trembling jungle. He watched another soldier drown at night while attempting to cross a river. Two months before coming home, he was a snapshot decision from walking to a base where everyone would be killed in an ambush attack.
He flirted with death and yet, somehow, he refused to be taken. Perhaps it was luck. Or, ironically enough, maybe it was God. Still, what was the necessity of it all? That the nation needed its citizens to die, witness death, and dole it out reveals dishonesty. But it too exposes the after-life that war takes on. There is a particular kind of continuity to state violence that transcends event and vocation. On these grounds, we might be able to connect the horrors of chattel slavery to Vietnam to Palestine to Baltimore. Here we might be able to close distance between the master, the lawman, and the soldier.
How radical must it be to hold terror and all its faces in equal absurdity? That dead black teenagers have more in common with slaughtered Vietnamese children than we would like to acknowledge is frightening enough. But acknowledging that the soldier and the lawman exact the same kinds of terror gets at the heart of the matter. When the war comes home, violence does not remake itself. It does not begin anew at the point in which it steps outside of its particular moment. Violence exacts and re-exacts; emerges and reemerges; moves and sweeps across its subjects until the nation has no soul to lose.
As dad recounted his story, I thought about the limits of the American imagination and the power of radical self-renewal. One can wield force –by the whip, the gun, the purse –and yet have no control over one’s own humanity. But on the grounds where we are deeply honest about our complicity, we will find that renewal and forgiveness are not far behind.
Dad left Vietnam in August of 1969. The army gave him a shower, a uniform, and a steak dinner. There would be no debriefing. There would be no reckoning with the emotional and spiritual destruction caused by incessant violence. There would be no efforts to rehabilitate those, who, just days before their return, had doled out heaps of terror at the state’s command.
“We went from killing to a plane ride home,” he said. Years later, he would attempt to become a Tennessee State Trooper but quit after learning of that state’s “use of force” policy. “I could not bring myself to a position of killing anyone,” he would tell me.
Home would reveal the normalcy and fluidity of it all. What struck me most was the way in which he had moved from the terrors of war to the realities of racialized violence. If the violent and unjust expansion of empire tells us one thing, the fact of 30 percent of black men being incarcerated in 1969, at the advent of the prison boom, says all that needs to be said about the nation’s care and concern.
It is all so deeply traumatizing. And I suspect that, for the state, this move to dismember particular kinds of violence from the larger project of empire is not a coping mechanism. It is the strategy through which violence can always be justified. If violence can be constructed as a normal feature of the state’s existence, the nation doesn’t have to live with its own immoralities. And if the extremes of state violence vis-a-vis Vietnam, or Palestine, or the War on Terror, can be explained, explaining racial terror, and police brutality, and the caging of human beings, would be par for the course.
For 45 years, my father tormented. By the time I was old enough to know something was wrong, it was far too late. Anger and isolation—both features of a condition known as PTSD—were well into effect. Though Vietnam was long over, the war raged in dad’s head and heart for far longer.
He was haunted both by his sins and the sins of the nation he served. Though he never talked about it, I sensed the weight of a deep horror hovering about him—its burden manifesting itself in the nightmares, in the incalculable rage, in his isolation from everything and everyone—including me.
He saw a psychiatrist for the first time two years ago. He was deeply troubled and drained. Dad had been holding on to an inexplicably violent rage that controlled and paralyzed him. He would make his way through a number of marriages only to pack up and head for a new city after it dissolved. He was running from something, though I was never able to discern what it was he was running from.
By the time he finally confronted the horrors of 1968 and 1969, he was confronting, for the first time, his own complicity in a conflict that has had sweeping implications on the nation and the world.
“I felt like I was stepping straight off the battlefield,” he told me. Dad had come face to face with a terror that subsumed a great deal of his life and had forced him, a poor black man from rural Mississippi, to wield violence for a nation which hated him; and which continues to view his children as unremarkably disposable.
One has to reconcile with the invisible wounds that violence leaves behind. And amid the manifestation of racialized violence of the kinds we see in Baltimore and elsewhere, one has to reckon with the ways in which violence traumatizes the victims and the agents who dole it out. For dad, this means wrestling with his own complicity and confrontation with terror. For the nation, this means being honest about it.
[Illustration by Tara Jacoby]