“The Fire” by Humberto Ak’abal (translated by Miguel Rivera)
eases the sadness of the log
by singing to him
his burning song.
And the log
until he forgets
he once was a tree.
* * *
I encountered Humberto Ak’abal’s elegant insight into accepting inevitable transformation, when Miguel Rivera recited it on the closing day of a Soldier’s Heart retreat. Miguel had been at my side, to support and guide, during the retreat’s intensity and the poem triggered immediate, deep recognition. I knew the dilemma of log and flame. I had heard the burning song of valor, the beckoning to forget I once was a civil man. No one wants to be the log. But there must be logs.
Drafted by the political-military Apparatus as a young man, I had crouched on firebases named Gio Linh and Khe Sanh. Trapped in opposing horseshoes of combat against North Vietnamese Army regulars, we two armies crouched together in firefights, swapping roles of flame and log. It was our routine frequently ignited with,
Small caliber rounds sang overhead. Mortar rounds cracked near, and nearer. Artillery and rockets screamed in so close their air pressure washed my face and shoulders. Concussion hit my eardrums. Whirring, fluttering shrapnel vibrated into space or thudded into sandbags, their shredding power reduced to firm punches. Terrified, I hugged earth.
Someone yelled, “They’re in the wire! Blow claymores.”
Someone else, “Medic, medic!”
The fire was coming for me. I knew my once-upon-a-time would end in the next moment of that firepower. I imagined my dead boots sticking out from under a poncho in the rain; my body bag tossed on a dust-off chopper, a bright-zippered smooth black plastic bundle strangely fancy in that violent, ugly place.
Frozen by numbing terror and confusion, I was simultaneously struck with extraordinary clarity that I was expendable. Government Issued personnel war materiel. I was a troop to be used up in service to this awful firepower. The clarity of my knowing was such an “Aha!” moment of bright, penetrating lucidity that it was bizarrely satisfying. I was weirdly pleased with the discovery, even as it meant I was to be wasted. As James Hillman states it baldly, “War turns humans into parts, spare parts.” And I understood deeply my role as spare part. I got it.
During training we were frequently reminded of the percentage of us to be killed and wounded. It was calculated. So, “Listen up,” our drill instructor would shout, “this block of instruction may save your life.” But I received no block of instruction for, “Becoming Expendable.” No one trained to become a spare part. No one trained to become the log.
Understanding my plight is what turned me. Changed me. Baptism by fire had been an ancient metaphor until I was trapped into living the metaphor. It was a defining moment that released my berserker to struggle against the consumption, against the truth of expendability.
My silent howl was, “Aaaaarrrrgh! I did not choose this! I should not be here! I will not be expendable!” I was Ak’abal’s log protesting, “I am a tree. I am a tree!” Struggle against the burning. Do not release into forgetting. Do not release to the burning song.
As calculated by the Apparatus, I defaulted to The Spirit of the Bayonet, “To kill. To kill!” Return fire! Become fire. Make them the logs. Do it now. Fire with full eruption. Sweep the ground with crossing vectors of suppressive fire. Fix enemy coordinates and fire for maximum effect with all guns available. I shed my thin skin of civility armed with flame.
I was not listening to the song of valor for the Corps, for the Screaming Eagles, or for AmeriCal. No! My country ’tis of thee sweet land of lost civility, of my expendability I sing. No! I returned fire to belie the truth of being an expendable spare part. I returned fire with rage at the Apparatus that put me into the fire pit of that ignoble cause.
Resistance was greatest in the moment of burning and exhilaration highest in the moment of returning the flame. But survival was a totally random gift. And my gift of survival came with an ironic twist: Guilt for not having been expended, grief for not having served my purpose. And getting away with it.
Many years after my tour of duty, I was a carpenter on a job and developed a friendship with an electrician. We bullshitted per the routine, established we were both Vietnam veterans, that he had been a 3rd Division Marine who’s tour coincided with mine, and I had been an Army guy attached to the 3rd Marines at Gio Linh and Khe Sanh. Coincidentally, he’d been with a platoon on one of the hills overlooking the Khe Sanh plateau during the siege in January 1968 where I was huddled with everyone else. He said, “Man, we were just up there watching you guys get hammered and being glad we weren’t down there.”
Over time we had many heart to hearts about “The Nam”. But one conversation I recalled recently ties into thoughts about the inescapable need for logs in the burning. We talked about the day General Bruno Hochmuth was killed. He was the commander of the 3rd Marine Division at the time and was killed with other marines when his chopper exploded in mid-air. Theirs were deaths in a place where death arrived randomly and routinely, but not often for general grade officers. We both recalled the day sharply because it had been a big deal for their commander to be wasted.
But my friend said something I have never forgotten. He said, “Yeah, when we heard about it over the radio we all cheered because he could die just like all the rest of us.”
In retrospect, it does not seem as harsh as it did at the moment. It was an appropriate memoriam. An honorific to one of his own, another grunt who became a two-star log. And by example faithful to the law of consumption in combat, linking Lance Corporal to Major General, and another reason only marines say, “Semper Fi”.
Combat trauma is, and is not particular among the men of the Minnesota Men’s Conference. We each carry unique personal trauma on our life’s journey, but shared common grief from that trauma. The MMC brotherhood of open, honest survivors and chroniclers of the journey welcomes all who are led to them. My accumulated grief and guilt became “lingua franca” for bridging our individual degrees of awareness in soul work. I knew intuitively I was in the presence of fellow soul-warriors. I had been groping along for over forty years ashamed and afraid of my grief, but among these men I am “just one of the guys” when it comes to being wounded. Finally admitting this to one another is the beginning of refusal to remain in the hold of what happened and the beginning of hope in what will become.
Fortuitously, I came upon Martín Prechtel’s comforting encouragement for becoming unstuck from our time of wounding: “There are layers of reality before us, behind us, around us, and in us, and we stay in a layer no matter how far we travel until the spirit admires our courage and grace and allows us to sprout into another zone of experience.” Courage and grace for sprouting through are what we ask of the spirit within each other when we gather. And we celebrate the wounding as our gift.
Author: Peter Winnen
- Humberto Ak’abal — Poems I Brought Down From the Mountain, Pg. 53
- Miguel Rivera
- James Hillman — A Terrible Love Of War, Pgs. 6 and 52
- Shelly Rambo — Spirit And Trauma: A Theology Of Remaining
- Soldier’s Heart
- Martín Prechtel — Secrets Of The Talking Jaguar