Black Virgin Mountain: A Return to Vietnam
By Larry Heinemann
Doubleday, 243 pp., illustrated, $22.95
Larry Heinemann, whose war novel ''Paco's Story" won a National Book Award in 1987, spent his combat tour in Vietnam mounted on an armored personnel carrier behind a .50-caliber machine gun. His 25th Infantry Division operated over terrain that concealed a vast and largely undetected Viet Cong tunnel complex near Cu Chi, today one of Vietnam's hottest tourist attractions. Heinemann has returned several times to Vietnam as a visiting writer. Most recently he rode the train south from Hanoi, indulging in the antics at Cu Chi, nursing a rush of anticipation as he neared Nui Ba Den, or Black Virgin Mountain, the immutable landmark of his former battleground, and title for this journal of postwar lamentations.
Certainly, ''Black Virgin Mountain" is no classic of travel literature. By his own admission, the author is an indifferent traveler, not much at ease beyond the streets of his native Chicago. And while Heinemann positions himself squarely in the antiwar camp since his return from war, his rants -- and the book offers many -- are not burdened by the consistency of a political line. The true subjects of ''Black Virgin Mountain" are neither period nor place, but class bias and soul baring. Heinemann's narrative scores a bitter dirge for working stiffs everywhere who feel they were bred for cannon fodder, and maps a soldier's heart for the wounds he carries long after his war has ended.
When draft notices arrived for Heinemann and his brother on the same spring day in 1966, there was no drama about the outcome. ''No one told us we could hightail it to Canada. . . . declare ourselves conscientious objectors." A healthy blue-collar prole with a ''straight-arrow upbringing" like theirs, he writes, either served or went to jail. Three Heinemann brothers would eventually go into the military, two to Vietnam. Among them only Larry remains. One brother was a postwar suicide; the other left his family never to be heard from again. Heinemann mines his text with enough dyspeptic comments to underscore just how upset he remains that working-class families like his were sacrificed in a draft suspiciously skewed toward social privilege (an iniquity that some believe remains unattended in today's all-volunteer force).
That is not to say Heinemann had regrets about leaving home. His old man had a ''fierce and violent temper" inflamed by the stresses of driving an inner-city bus, ''the bedrock," Heinemann now guesses, ''of all those belt-whippings." Being an unwilling conscript on a short track to the front lines did not improve the author's circumstances or his attitude. At Fort Knox Heinemann's mechanized infantry unit ''trained with silly, pointlessly extravagant thoroughness for service in 'Europe.' " And if, on looking back, Heinemann now judges the Army ''a monumental waste of time," well, at least, he says, it wised him up to the world's slippery ways. And in its unexpected bounty, the Army quartered Heinemann outside the town where he would meet his future wife.
But when it comes to Vietnam, Heinemann sloughs the details of his gruesome wartime memories, and simply deadpans that GIs ''were not pleasant people . . . and . . . what happened there is not pleasant to recall." Today those ''unpleasantries" remain permanently bonded to his postwar conscience after nearly 40 years of ''long nights, still; extraordinary nightmares, vivid and precise, still; and otherwise, yet and still, a severe unease." Heinemann unequivocally associates these disturbances with the mayhem GIs routinely dispensed in Vietnam to which he ''was not simply a witness, but an integral, even dedicated, party."
If Heinemann is purposefully evasive about his private war-primed agonies, there's nothing vague in his retrospective explanation for why Vietnam was always ''unwinnable. . . . To say we could have won the war is . . . saying that we didn't fill our hearts with enough hate; didn't shoot enough Vietnamese down like dogs . . . didn't napalm or strafe . . . them hard enough; didn't poison enough . . . of their . . . farmland with Agent Orange."
When Heinemann came home from the warscape he describes, he hoped to seamlessly reclaim his civilian self. He didn't know he would coexist for life with the sorrows of war. Perhaps this is post-traumatic stress disorder, a psychic burden that afflicts a minority of returning veterans who, in a sense, become their wars. ''Black Virgin Mountain," a hard and honest work, reads like the troubled interior monologue of such a veteran who cunningly survives, not despite but because of his wary ambivalence toward the world. It is all the more affecting when Heinemann reveals that he, too, like so many of his vet contemporaries, has dissolved dark demons in sobs before the Wall -- the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington.
Return trips to Vietnam have also been ''important" for Heinemann to see ''the country at peace." He devotes some pages to his conventional touring, mostly in Hanoi, and his prose slouches appropriately in sketches of ceremonial meetings with the ''big potatoes" of Vietnam's governing and cultural elites. He intuitively seeks the company of ordinary Vietnamese, often veterans themselves, in small, unspoken acts of reconciliation. But only when he is drawn south to where he was a soldier and finally glimpses the Black Virgin Mountain straddling its familiar horizon does he realize that he's ''come home," not to revisit the war, but ''to be rid of it." Michael Uhl, a writer living in Maine, served in Vietnam with the 11th Infantry. He will teach a course on the Vietnam War this fall at the University of Maine.